Blog post from Paul Martin, Chief Executive, LB Wandsworth. Monday 8 August 2011.

I am writing this on the Monday morning after Tottenham and other parts of London experienced a serious breakdown in law and order. Coming into work, I listened to a radio interview with a distraught manager of the Brixton branch of H & M who was surveying her looted premises. During the interview, she was asked if the shop would be opening today and she replied that she didn’t know, she was waiting for Head Office to come down.

It’s sometime useful to define what we want to achieve by contrasting it with what we want to get away from. We want public services to get away from “waiting for Head Office”.

In the example I have given, criminals can react immediately. They can swap intelligence – tweet, text, use social media. We cannot allow public services to “wait for Head Office”, whether that is the Town Hall, County Hall orWhitehall.

In some services, I have a high level of confidence that managers can get on with their job without waiting for Head Office. As you would hope, the Police scores highly on this measure, as (I believe) does the local Council. The health service isn’t at all bad –  specially if we really can push commissioning down to the local level, and keep the regional  controllers at bay. In any terms, Job Centre Plus is at the far end of the spectrum of centralised control with minimum local discretion.

Local managerial control is a prerequisite to putting the democracy back into localism.  Because – in the absence of local managerial control, there is no productive basis for elected councillors to hold managers to account. I would expect to see an absolute correlation between those services where elected councillors feel a measure of democratic localism and those services where managerial freedom exists. And a corresponding correlation between those services where elected councillors feel powerless and where managerial freedom is controlled and prescribed by Head Office.

No Scrutiny Committee will feel satisfied if the response to their enquiries is – “Sorry, that decision is above my pay grade”.

If you agree, SOLACE should be pushing not only for the maximum possible managerial freedom within our own organisations, but within the rest of the public services.

The Community Budget in Wandsworth for our Family Recovery Project is a numeric calibration of the extent of managerial freedom that is exercised locally. Where local management has the freedom, we find we can bring the agency and its resources to the table.

And, of course, that challenge is all the more real within the local authority. For any of us, if  “waiting for Head Office” is the response to urgent community need, we will have been seen to have failed.

We must ensure that Head Office is in your neighbourhood, in the local library and sitting at your kitchen table.

Paul Martin, Chief Executive, LB Wandsworth


About kathrynrossiter

Co-Managing Director of SOLACE
This entry was posted in Proposition 3: Put democracy back into localism. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Anthony Zacharzewski says:

    Excellent post, and very true. If localism is going to mean anything, it means not waiting for Head Office (and perhaps acknowledging that in some areas there is no Head Office to wait for at all).

    Getting past the Head Office syndrome is challenge enough within local government – but many people assume that there is going to be less risk-aversion and more immediate responsiveness in local voluntary or private sector organisations. I don’t think that’s true – concerns about health and safety at village fetes don’t often come from council staff, as we know.

    If we aren’t putting the right support for localism in place, and ensuring that people are confident to take risks and empowered to take decisions, localism might replace a risk-averse bureaucracy with an equally risk-averse group of local charities and voluntary organisations. At least nervous bureaucracies can be ordered to act by senior management.

  2. terry huggins says:

    Seems to me that when localism worked for good and via twitter and other social media communities swiftly organised themselves to clean up the mess we still got in the way and wouldn’t let them get on with it without “Head Office” approval. People with brooms demanding the right to clean up – how good is that.

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