Earlier this year, Berwick Partners and Odgers Interim were pleased to bring together Local Authority Chief Executives from across the Country to table and debate their thoughts on the latest set of challenges and budgetary constraints facing them and their organisations. This diverse group, comprising representatives from inner and outer London Boroughs, shire counties, unitaries and joint districts, were aided in their consideration by our two guest speakers – Professor Tony Travers in his capacity as Director of British Government at the London School of Economics and Ben Lucas, Managing Director of Metro Dynamics and former Chair of Public Services at the RSA. Tony and Bens’s wealth of knowledge, breadth of understanding and boundless good humour helped steer the debate and maintain good-natured sparring that stopped short of fisticuffs!
The inevitable reductions in grant funding are requiring councils to bolster revenues from alternative sources. Some authorities have seized or even created the opportunity to be more creative, commercial and cooperative in outlook. The growing range of different delivery and trading models, commissioning and partnership arrangements, community interest companies and arm’s-length bodies stand testament to that. Others seem more content to be fast followers rather than early adopters. Whichever camp organisations find themselves in or feel most comfortable in, it is clear, as our speakers pointed out, that whilst a degree of financial pressure on Public Service is not a new phenomenon, the order of magnitude and duration of that pressure is significantly different. Whilst devolution, economic development and housing are key areas for action, they are overshadowed by the pressing immediacy of addressing increasing demand on Health & Care services. Shaping sustainable solutions which will be both fit for purpose and fit for the future won’t wait for devolution – a more fundamental shift from doing things differently to doing different things would appear to be more in keeping with the current mood and financial envelope.
Devolution remained a recurrent theme and the effect it will have on the kinds of roles we will see emerging across Public Service. With no blueprint or template offered up by Central Government there is much to go for, but there will need to be some finessing of structures along the way – remembering that form follows function. Tolerance with ambiguity and the confidence to lead through it will not always be met with the same political support and given the vagaries of local democracy there will be further changes to manage.
Whilst there were no silver bullets handed out and, if he has one, Tony Travers kept his magic wand firmly hidden, the debate proved one thing conclusively: the day job of a Local Authority Chief Executive remains as relevant and challenging as ever.
Jonathan Clark is the Managing Partner of the Public Practice at Berwick Partners