I was speaking at an APSE seminar at Hampden today entitled Financial Armageddon or Managed Transition. There were two thoughtful overview presentations from The Improvement Service and APSE, followed by three case studies from Scottish local authorities. There was a common understanding that increasing demands on services were as big a threat to council finances as the cuts in funding allocations.
After setting out our different starting point over the cuts, I then dealt with some of the main strategies councils are using to address the financial crisis. In particular a plea to examine much more carefully the claims made by management consultants about savings from outsourcing. We have a new generation of senior council officials who weren't around when we had CCT and I have seen a number of reports to councils that are fantastically naive. There is a real need to make better use of the APSE network data and understand contracting models.
My main pitch was to consider a new approach to service delivery. At a strategic level this should be based on local integrated services within councils; strengthening local democracy through real user involvement. Services should be designed from the bottom up, rejecting the public service factory approach of top down shared services and artificial front office/back office splits. This approach gives staff the freedom to design the service around the principle that most user demand is dealt with locally, first time.
This needs to be underpinned by an effective change process. Forget heroic leadership; what we need are co-operative models of leadership that recognises the complexity of public service provision. This needs a new approach to staff development and training that puts a premium on the public service ethos, rather than attempting to copy business models devised for the market realm. I set out examples of partnership models that actually work and deliver sustainable change. However, most importantly this approach has to be underpinned by an organisational change agreement that provides job security. This gives staff the space and confidence to innovate.
I ended by urging councillors and chief officials to shout for local government. There is a real risk that if many of the current reorganisation proposals are implemented, very few services could be left under local democratic control. There are alternative models of integrated local service delivery, but all of us who care about local democratic accountability need to speak up for them with a common vision and a coherent voice.