Consider the best relationship you have ever had. Maybe it’s one you’re in now; maybe it’s in the past; maybe it’s in the future. When you think about the characteristics of that relationship you would probably include some or all of the following:
- Shared goals
- Regular and consistent communication
- No surprises
- Shared responsibilities
When those things are in place, 2+2 definitely equals 5 – and maybe more. Both parties benefit; both help the other out; problems are solved together; and resources are used efficiently – each party contributes what they do best. Most importantly – when something unexpected happens, you cope – and you cope together.
Now consider your relationship with your local authority. It may well be non-existent. But even if you do have regular contact with your local council – maybe you’re looking after a child with special needs, or an elderly parent; maybe you’re a shopkeeper or run a café – ask yourself honestly whether any of the characteristics above are true.
In a desperation to be efficient, local government has forgotten to be productive. It has focused too much on reducing the costs of supply – whilst ignoring the causes of demand. It has made processes much leaner without leaving time to explain to the customer what is expected of them in return. It has, in short, not given itself a fighting chance of building effective and productive relationships with the people with whom it is working.
Money and time gets wasted in huge amounts when the two parties involved – local authorities and citizens – experience distrust, poor and inconsistent communication, and unbalanced responsibilities. People fight over decisions; they fight over services, there are legal appeals and tribunals. There is nervousness about change, and political rigidity as a result. Better democratic engagement is an essential (but not the only) type of relationship that can produce those positive benefits.
Sustainable (by which I mean cheaper and more productive) local government requires a total turnaround in its relationship with citizens. This starts with a better understanding of the values, goals and objectives of the other person in the relationship. At its best, local government does build these positive relationships. But this tends to be either in one specific service, or in a pilot scheme, and it can be fleeting. Relationships need to be consistent – and need to be worked at. This means taking the best approaches, and spreading them across all services – and doing it all the time.
If this feels like too big a task, or too expensive – think again. We can’t afford not to. And it can be done.
At the SOLACE event we hope to contribute some early examples of how we’ve done this with our clients, and very much look forward to learning from others about their experiences too.