It was always unlikely that last week’s Budget was going to deliver any significant new initiatives. The perceived wisdom across the political divide had long since recognised that the Chancellor’s speech was, more than ever, the equivalent of walking an electoral tightrope. In the end, apart from raising the ire of cider drinkers, those elements of the Budget that dealt with public services mainly sought to reiterate the messages and targets from earlier policy announcements including the Operational Efficiency Programme and Smarter Government initiatives.
However, for local government and its wider public sector partners, the publication of the Total Place report, just 24 hours later, was always likely to be the more significant announcement. The final report, drawing conclusions from the initial 13 pilots, has attracted significant attention and cross party support and is widely recognised as setting “a new direction for local public services and local authorities”. As such, the Total Place initiative is almost certain to remain unchanged regardless of political developments over the coming weeks and months.
The Total Place report and recommendations are based on the 13 pilots undertaken in the last year involving 63 local authorities, 34 primary care trusts, 13 police authorities and other partners, with more than 70 other local areas engaged in similar work. These pilots covered a population of more than 11 million people, accounting for more than £82 billion of public spending in their areas. The work undertaken by the pilots included a diverse range of multi-stakeholder service areas including children’s services & early years, drug & alcohol misuse, mental health & learning disability, access to benefits, housing regeneration and asset management.
The picture drawn from the 13 pilot reports was one of a dedicated and ambitious public sector hampered by a disjointed and inefficient system for delivery of local public services. Problems included:
- investment focused on costly intervention rather than timely, effective and efficient prevention;
- service delivery focused on organisational boundaries rather than the citizen outcome and viewpoint;
- chronic duplication of activity leading to excessive and costly data collection, administration and management;
- burdensome, duplicated and disproportionately costly inspection requirements;
- poor asset utilisation with limited sharing of facilities and resources and a costly, but potentially valuable, excess of property and assets.
The Total Place report is an ambitious proposal and clearly sets out to deliver the step change in local public services that is both desirable to improve citizen outcomes and, in the current economic climate, a financial necessity. Initial headlines have highlighted three major policy developments to achieve this:
- the Single Offer – will offer high performing local authorities and partners a range of freedoms from central performance and financial control, along with greater incentives for local collaboration to design and deliver arrangements for improved service delivery that offers greater efficiency and value for the citizen. It will also allow for retention of any savings made by the authority that go beyond agreed targets;
- the Innovative Policy Offer – will enable a wider group of local authorities and partners to benefit from the freedoms similar to the single offer in a single policy area, again with a similar expectation of designing and delivering improved service delivery with greater efficiency and value for the citizen; and
- reduced ringfencing and inspection – building on recommendations from the Smarter Government report, £1.3 billion of local authority grant will benefit from removed ringfencing (so called “de-ringfencing”) and the removal of 18 indicators from the National Indicator Set (NIS) from 2010.
The legal challenges
The report, perhaps inevitably for such a complex issue, also details a wide range of proposals that affect a considerable number of policies, organisations and initiatives. These proposals will throw up a number of organisational and cultural issues; they will also present a number of legal challenges, including:
- an array of property related challenges, including establishing local property vehicles and joint venture vehicles to drive greater savings and identify incentives for disposal (and the establishment of 11 Total Capital and Asset Pathfinders to further explore and improve the value of all capital investment);
- enhanced and increased scrutiny powers to enable local authorities to “flag up” where another delivery partner is not delivering to agreed commitments. This will include a review of the Duty to Co-operate provision in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007;
- standardised agreements to enable local partnerships to pool
a significant increase in formal collaboration and integration between partners to create “multi-agency” teams (including shared management) to support the Single Offer and the Innovative Offer;
- collaborative procurement to deliver step changes in efficiency and service delivery in areas such as targeted Section 106 agreements;
- steps to reduce the burden of data including the sharing of data between organisations and single gateways for customer data requests;
- organisational change to ensure leaders and individuals move beyond an organisational view to a system wide, customer focused view.
At a time when all local authority departments are under intense pressure to save costs and, in some areas, reduce headcount, it’s clear that legal teams will come under greater pressure to deliver the legal solutions to facilitate this new direction for public services. Legislative change will be required in some areas but even with a proposed Power of General Competence, interpretation and application of a wide range of existing legislation will be needed. The combined requirements of Total Place and the Operational Efficiency Programme will require new formal partnerships between organisations, changing working conditions and contracts of employment, widescale asset transfer and disposal, innovate procurement and robust contracting that delivers efficiency whilst all the time minimising risk and protecting the public sector.
We are clearly entering a new and challenging era for local public services.