what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rethinking local services

For someone who dedicated 22 years of his life to local government - in senior political positions in local government and running, in parallel in academia, a Local Government Unit which ran workshops and published papers about issues about local government management, I write very little now about the subject. True, there are some papers on my website - about the lessons I drew from social inclusion work which took up a lot of my time and commitment between 1970 and 1990 ; about the experience of European local government in transferring functions; and a Roadmap which
I enjoyed writing in 2003-05 for those running the Kyrgyzstan system

I have, however, watched with despair as the british system has become even more centralised in the past 2 decades – the Scottish less than the English. They seem impervious to the lessons that lie on their (European) doorstep – that decentralised systems are healthier and more able to deal with issues. The British political parties are full of the rhetoric of people power – but when in power continue to centralise. An astonishing 70% of local government spending in the UK is controlled by central government - compared with 19% in Germany and 32% in France.
I therefore stopped watching developments on that front some time ago – but seem, as a result, to have missed an interesting initiative which took place in the Brown years – something called Total place. This encouraged municipalities and local state bodies to come together; identify how much was being spent on particular problems eg drug treatment; and to rethink the services with a smaller budget. 13 pilots were selected and helped by some universities. The results seemed to be promising and give a new legitimacy and role for local government – as is seen in this final report; and handbook . The focus on clients – rather than departments – is radical and clearly could be taken seriously only because of economic and budgetary crisis. Part of its thinking can be traced back to the zero-budgeting ideas of the 1960s and 1970s and indeed I came across a comment from an interesting guy, Des McConaghy, I had contact with in those days -
it is intolerably frustrating – almost 40 years later and at 80 years of age! – seeing so many “total approach” initiatives come and go – decade after decade; each inevitably failing for much the same reasons as each new generation “starts from square one”. The landscape is strewn with their wreckage. So it’s now up to the Cabinet Office to really get to grips with the actual policy implications of localism. They must see that while this does indeed mean massively devolving all that can be safely left to the localities it also means a better grip on Whitehall’s own strategic role – plus the management and political validation of that vital constituency dimension!
However, the Handbook is a very rare celebration of systems thinking - it is very well-presented and shows how the concept and its operation draws on different strands of thinking (eg group-grid theory which I referred to recently; styles of learning; dialogue etc). It is very rare for an official document to refer to such theoretical grounding. My only beef is that there are few hard examples of the results in the Handbook. For that you have to go to the individual Final Report eg from Birmingham.
My internet search, however, suggests that the Total Place initiative seems, despite (because of?)its hype, to have disappeared without a trace with the arrival of the Coalition Government - being replaced by another pilot (this time in 2 places only) called Community Budgets. The "Prospectus" (typical business language) about the concept fails to mention the "total place" work even once. Instead, the phrase "whole-place" is used. Why do politicians need to behave so childishly?
Just what local government can offer particularly in this part of the world is nicely shown in this Local Government and Public Services book
The painting is a new acquisition - from last night's auction, It's by Grigor Naidenov who was born in Sofia in 1895 and focussed on urban life and scenes
Breaking news; The UK Deputy PM announced at the weekend that the English cities would get the chance to be free of a lot of central regulations - if, that is, he succeeded in his ongoing battle with the civil servants.

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