How fundamental will change really be?

By Michael Burton, editor of The MJ

I have been covering the local government sector for a quarter of a century and while I have seen immense change I have also encountered much that has not changed, not least at middle management level. As many leaders and chief executives have grumbled to me: ‘The frontline gets it and so does the top tier. It’s the middle which doesn.’t.’

Often local government likes to believe it is unique in having to deal with a fast-changing environment. Try telling that to our printers, some of whom were around in the days of hot metal and are now entirely digitised or to a retail store manager or to a music company executive. Local government, just like all sectors, has undergone change, but it is certainly not alone in this experience. One might even argue that the past decade of above average grant settlements has made it less exposed until last year to the need to make radical changes to survive.

That is not to say it has not undergone culture change in the past 15 years. Customer focus is now generally at the heart of delivery. Across the public sector local government is without question the most pluralist in the way it delivers services. The Prime Minister’s July White Paper on Opening up public services held no surprises for local authorities. Its delay was certainly little to do with any controversy about public v private, which was confined to the NHS. Irrespective of political control, councils are often quite pragmatic in their regard to who delivers – recently the Conservative leader of a major unitary told me proudly how the council had taken back in-house an outsourced back-office contract because it was failing to deliver. It is difficult to see how any government could ‘modernise’ local government much further.

The question now is whether the current dramatic cut in local government funding will propel the sector into a different level of change and if so what this means in practice. We hear much of transformation, burning platforms and gear shifts and there have indeed been some pretty drastic changes, especially to management teams. But in five years time do we believe local government will look vastly different to what we see today? If so, what models should councils be following now or have they yet to be invented? I am sure the SOLACE summit will be grappling with these questions among others.

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