This week, we are featuring three specially commissioned blogs from leading figures in local government that discuss the financial challenges facing councils in England and Wales.
In the first of our series, Cllr David Simmonds (Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Improvement and Innovation Board) outlines how councils in England are responding to the cuts through the sharing of good practice in service innovation and transformation.
Growing up in Wales in the 1990s with both parents employed as local government officers, the last reorganisation that created the current unitary council structure loomed large. Now, Wales’ unitary councils are looking for solutions to issues that are sometimes mirrored in other parts of the UK, albeit within a different context.
Reductions in spending have been a necessity for all English councils over the past few years with each one having to look at how they can continue to run their services to the same high quality standards but on much smaller budgets. They quickly recognised that efficiency savings alone wouldn’t solve the problem as large parts of council spend are on purchasing services for residents rather than staffing and administration, in contrast with many organisations in the private sector. If they were to deliver the full scale of savings required, transformation and a complete redesign of some services was the only way forward.
Above all, councils have tried to protect the services their residents rely on. Money has been saved but so far most residents say they have not noticed much difference and some say services have actually improved.
Whether we can continue in this vein in the face of further cuts remains to be seen and it is certainly fair to say that it hasn’t been easy, which is why it is heartening that councils from every corner of the country have been coming forward, wanting to share their ideas and results. If somebody has tried it and it works, then why not help others learn? With councils delivering over 800 different services, we needed a one stop shop where people could visit, ask questions or showcase their new approach. Our Innovative Councils Database is now available online and pulls together a wealth of knowledge and expertise for the sector to use.
To illustrate just a couple of ideas, users are able to research how the London Borough of Croydon’s smartphone app “My Croydon” – which includes new features to monitor and report noise levels in a different more customer friendly way – has helped increase residents’ understanding of what they can do to help themselves. This has contributed to significant cost and time savings for the council.
And further north, the Cheshire Care Record has integrated health and social care data to support direct care across the county allowing for a single shared view to become accessible from each partners local system. Ensuring this data is available in the right place, to the right person at the right time has been fundamental to improving safety, quality and efficiency.
The sharing of services also continues to grow. Whether it has meant joining up with a neighbouring council or one at the other end of the country, it has allowed us to keep services running. As well as our database, we have also produced a Shared Services Map that proudly illustrates that there are now 416 shared service arrangements between councils across the country that have already resulted in over £462 million of efficiency savings.
By pulling such intelligence together, we now know that almost all councils are involved in some form of sharing services with the majority having focussed their efforts over the last couple of years on back office functions such as ICT, procurement and legal services. Sharing front line services is also becoming increasingly popular as budgets get smaller and an increasing number of councils are looking more widely than the immediate council community and wanting to share buildings and join up services with other public service providers such as the police, NHS and the fire service.
Local government proudly remains the most efficient part of the public sector. As we all strive to continue providing value for money for our council taxpayers, we must all champion councils’ efforts so far and ensure that our forward thinking and innovations continue to inspire the sector as a whole.
About the author: Cllr David Simmonds is the deputy leader of Hillingdon Council and the deputy chairman of the Local Government Association. He was awarded a CBE in 2015 for his work in the children and young people’s sector.
Image source: Budget Cuts – Coventry Telegraph