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And if you really wanted to transform local government?

More thoughts inspired by the #futurelocalgov session at Reboot Britain

I dropped in a throwaway (aren’t they all?) tweet during the session:

#rebootbritain the big breakthrough for local gov? STOP thinking in terms of a service portfolio. START thinking about role in community.

What on earth did I mean? Well, one of the creative thinking techniques I’m fond of says, roughly: if you really want to innovate, look at the most basic parameters of a situation, then subvert them.

In English, that means take a very basic answer to the question “What’s Local Government there for?” – for which let’s use: “to deliver a defined set of services according to priorities set (in part) by locally-elected representatives” – and break some of the principles straight away. ['in part' reflects the fact that discretion can be applied to the delivery of some services more than others]

What if the primary function isn’t to deliver services (or ‘a service portfolio’ as I grandly tweeted)? What if it’s something else? How might that unlock new ways to reinvent, or even ‘reboot’, local government?

Imagine instead that the services are the secondary consideration. And that the primary function becomes “to serve the needs of the local community”. Suddenly we’ve opened up a wealth of new possibilities. Yes, this can mean alternative delivery models, through partnerships and so on, which is hardly radical thinking. But we’re getting away from just focusing on services here, remember?

It can also mean adopting new methods of listening, engaging, shaping… whatever you want to call it. “Serving the needs” must begin with “understanding the needs”. The local authority now has to do far more than just run through the motions of making sure there’s a refuse service, a social care service, a highways service and so on… Instead, through listening and engagement, it can actually find out what’s really needed to serve a community. It might not involve the services as they’ve traditionally been delivered. It might not involve some of the services at all. It’s very likely to involve some that haven’t even been designed yet…

And assessing need involves more than sending council officers out with questionnaires, or turning to online polls. It can mean redefining the whole concept of ‘government’ at the local level. Instead of the mysterious council figures mentioned in FutureGov’s sobering video introduction, the service need is expressed directly from the youth worker, the street sweeper, the cab-driver, the teacher, and the child. From everyone, in fact: not just what’s always been seen as the ‘public sector’ domain. There would be a relevance and a reality to community services: they would actually pervade the communities they serve (and not just be a name on a door down one of the Town Hall corridors).

Idealistic, woolly tosh? Perhaps. There are, of course, constraints in this real world of ours. Serious financial ones head the list. And there’s an enormous amount of established practice and ‘habit’ to address. It’s not easy to throw everything in the air and start from the beginning. It takes a seriously sensitive hand to guide and shape services without reverting them to pale, top-down reflections of what was really needed.

But as a guiding vision for what local government should really be about if we’re serious about rebooting things, a statement “we’re not here just to run the services; we, with you, are here to serve this community as best we possibly can” might at least be a step in the right direction.

Aim to deliver a set of services, and you’ll do just that. Perhaps a little better each year, perhaps with a few innovations, but by and large you’ll always do what you’ve always done.

Aim to serve a community, and things really could change…

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8 Responses

  1. [...] Here are some of the articles that have attracted my attention. And if you really wanted to transform local Government [...]

  2. Refreshing and thought-provoking, Paul. Thanks for posting this train of thought, it’s posts like this that really do trigger po derings in my head. And I like pondering.

  3. Ignore space/spelling – the iPhone strikes back

  4. [...] – Honestlyreal Posted on July 7, 2009 by Carl Haggerty An excellent post via Paul Clarke at Honestlyreal about how local government could be transformed based on going back to basics. I think that Paul [...]

  5. Gordon Rae says:

    This seems like a question designed to make more work for the public sector rather than do anything constructive. Most of the services listed on my council tax bill are not even managed by the council. I don’t see how I can improve them by the way I vote. Local government doesn’t need rebooting so much as a wipe of the hard drive and a complete reinstallation.

  6. [...] recent post by Paul Clarke over at HonestlyReal talks about changing focus and understanding the real purpose of local [...]

  7. rachaelwest says:

    Excellent. We’re usually so focused on solving a problem that we forget to think about whether we asked the right question in the first place.

  8. megov says:

    Idealistic, woolly tosh? Definitely.
    But its also pointedly accurate woolly tosh. It’s exactly what needs doing/fixing in LG.

    Who is going to step up to the plate though?
    Are there LGs out there with the foresight and insight to make it work?

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