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Last month, Alpine achieved 11 years of supporting public services and leaving its clients ‘better equipped’ through intelligent resourcing. To celebrate we have put together a series of opinion pieces – ‘Workforce and Leadership Elevenses’. In our latest offering Ruby Dixon of Alpine shares the experience and mood of the West Midlands regional Improvement and Efficiency Conference.

Local Government Resurrected

Coming hot on the heels of news of further cuts to local government by the Chancellor in his last Autumn Statement before the General Election, the mood of West Midland Improvement and Efficiency annual conference last week was unexpectedly upbeat. After year-on-year cuts, local government is battered, bruised but not beaten.

Carolyn Downs, CEX Local Government Association, believes the gloomy fiscal outlook only makes the rallying cry for change even strong. As a sector, there is a perception that local government is seen slow to innovate. Yet the new brave world of digital technology has created more demanding and ‘innovation-hungry’ customers, and tests the ability of councils to be more responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable citizens.

Not surprisingly the role of digital technology came into sharp focus but from bitter experience councils know its not a panacea. Innovation is more than just monitors and mobile apps. Differences in service process can result in evolutionary change, but innovation is required for revolutionary change – and that demands a differences in thought process.

Even when developing a new service, a typical yearly launch cycle means that it is already obsolete by time a council rolls it out. So new start-up methods are required to ensure rapid, practical application of a creative idea that brings value to citizens, partners and stakeholders.

Mark Rogers (CEX of Birmingham) was charismatically persuasive in his argument that leadership is the glue that binds values, purpose, people, and partner consensus together in the big picture context of ‘place’. For him it is not only about the ability to lead in the present – but to influence now and for the future.

This reminds us of the speech earlier this year by Sir Barry Quirk (Elected Mayor of Lewisham Council), who threw the gauntlet down to public sector leaders, asking them to address the three key challenges of: injecting kindness into the public realm; making a positive contribution to public services; and increasing participation in democracy. So achieving change is not easy, it requires both passion and tenacity.

The Green Dreams project is an example of innovative thinking. (http://www.greendreamsproject.co.uk/index.html). In Burnley GPs have refused to do more of the same and been brave enough to tackle their own ways of working. They no longer prescribe endless anti depressants to patients, but write a ‘social prescription’ of community connection and activity that will address the route source of isolation, loneliness and depression. This can result prevention/avoidance costs of nearly £4000 per adult social care patient per day.

Such clarity of thought is hard when the local government punch-drunk from cuts. The abolition of the Audit Commission and its £6.2bn inspection regime allows councils to self-monitor through sector-led improvement and voluntary peer review. Yet recent revelations of child sexual exploitation scandals have put service failure – not only of councils but also inspectorates such as Ofsted – under the spotlight. There was a recognition that when services are failing, they can be defensive and are less likely to seek external help. In this context innovation may appear to be a luxury – rather than a necessity.

One delegate asked if the sector-led improvement has the teeth to tackle failure? The panel’s responses were uncertain. Ye there is still an imperative to drive change to tackle failings and long term risks, by exploiting the space that currently exists between improvement and inspection.

For a council that is consolidating cuts – but has an appetite to confront a changing society with changing citizen needs, in a context of changing finance, demography, politics, technology and open data – that space is innovation. And it is more important than ever.

The conclusion is that the sector needs to innovate (to meet changing citizen needs) or die. Councillor Paul Middleborough (Leader of Wychaven District Council) urged delegates not to become the pall bearers of local government. They did not. The focus of the conference was not on death of local government – but its resurrection.

Ruby Dixon is Head of Local Government for Alpine. Contact her at: rdixon@alpine.eu.com or phone 02034 781 345/07428 018369.

For more information on the West Midlands Improvement and Efficiency 2014 annual conference and presentations see: http://www.iewm.net/iewm-4th-annual-conference-presentations


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