Central government: give councils a fighting chance to innovate

by Eddie Copeland

In a recent podcast interview, former No. 10 adviser, Steve Hilton, lamented that David Cameron never delivered a speech laying out to the public the need for experimentation in policy, and to accept that some initiatives might fail.

I agree with Hilton’s sentiment: we need precisely that conversation.

Politics and policymaking cannot and must not be the only spheres of life where testing, improving and refining ideas – and seeing what works and what doesn’t – is deemed unacceptable.

But I would add two points.

Actions speak louder than words

The first is that the former Prime Minister is far from being the only senior politician to have neglected to have a frank conversation about the need for experimentation. Consider the 2017 general election. At a time when many believe that public services are at or near breaking point, little imaginative thinking on the subject of meaningful reform was on display during campaigning. Where public services were discussed, the two largest parties’ positions were largely presented as a binary choice between those who want to reverse austerity and those who believe we must stay the course.

Politicians are failing the public sector and all the people who depend on public services if they confine the conversation merely to how much money we throw at the same ways of doing things. Money is vital, yes. But it is what it is used to enable that counts.

The second point to add is that it is not merely in their rhetoric that politicians have been found wanting. They have largely failed to offer any of the practical means for innovation to happen, either.

This is particularly true in the case of local government.

Since 2010, local authorities have had their government funding cut by 40%. Councils in England alone face a shortfall north of £10 billion by 2019/2020. The fact that councils are still standing when they are responsible for delivering more than 700 services is nothing short of remarkable. Having trimmed off any excess fat, many are now having to take decisions to switch off services that support some of society’s most vulnerable people – heartbreaking for public sector staff who have dedicated their careers to serving their communities.

For years, government ministers responsible for the sector have talked about the need for councils to become more efficient to protect frontline services in this tighter financial climate. Yet they have not offered the tools, resources or ideas that might realistically help them achieve that. One resource they did provide – DCLG’s Local Government Digital programme – was wrapped up in March 2016.

Local government reform is not merely about tweaking or digitising a few services here and there. You only have to spend a single day with a social worker to see how they are dealing daily with some of the most complex and intractable human challenges imaginable. To shift the needle to any meaningful degree we need some radically better, and more efficient ways of working. Yet it is implausible to expect councils to switch to those new ways of working until there are some proven alternatives to move to.

Tools for the job

I am not suggesting that central government must come up with those solutions on behalf of the sector. I argue instead that central government needs to give councils a fighting chance by equipping them with the means to experiment. Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but even the most frugal of invention requires some resources to happen. Bringing new ideas to life – treading the long road from initial idea to proven and scalable method – takes time and investment.

There is good reason to believe that the sector does have ideas for innovation.

For example, the work of pioneering of local authorities in places like Greater Manchester, London, Bath, Bristol and the North East is showing how smarter use of data could play a major role in delivering services that aren’t just cheaper, but better as well.

Their activities are addressing areas as broad as identifying and looking after vulnerable children, to clamping down on the financial hardships caused by betting shops. Nesta has recently been working with a dozen London boroughs and the GLA to pilot a London Office of Data Analytics that can help local authorities spot rental properties that have failed to be correctly licensed. In the North East, local authorities are working to share more data to help them understand and tackle harms caused by alcohol abuse. These initiatives are all still early stage, but many are showing promise and increasing our understanding of what can be achieved.

If we want more experiments like those described above, and for the successful ones to be able to grow to have an impact, the public sector needs resources. That need not cost the earth.

As Nesta has previously recommended, it may be unrealistic for every council to have its own crack team of data experts, but government could help fund a pool of data scientists who could be seconded into local authorities for six months at a time to work with managers and frontline workers to reform services and train up local staff.

Government could also help fund common legal advice to address the current situation where public sector bodies individually commission their own legal expertise to come up with different interpretations of the exactly the same data protection laws. Those differing interpretations mean that genuinely valuable data initiatives that could lead to reform are often forced to move at the pace of the most cautious partner. This will only get worse with the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which places much greater responsibilities on organisations that use personal data. It is imperative that all data protection laws are adhered to. But the implications of those laws should be interpreted once for the benefit of all public sector bodies.

National government could also be inspired by the work of the Welsh Government, whose £5m Innovate to Save programme (run by Nesta, Cardiff University and Wales Council for Voluntary Action) is funding experiments that can tackle pressing social challenges and save money at the same time.

If now is the time to reflect on the UK’s position on austerity – as even the Chancellor Philip Hammond has hinted it might be – then that conversation must move beyond talk of just topping up budgets or cutting back further. Any extra investment needs to be used as a catalyst that can deliver genuinely innovative public sector reform.

Which ideas will succeed and which will fail is uncertain.

But one thing we know for sure: the outlook for local government will certainly be bleak if politicians aren’t even willing to provide the verbal support and practical tools to explore what works.

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