Challenging the State – Involving the citizen

Article for the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors

Being a top manager in local government has never been easy. Unlike the private sector and most of the public sector local councils, their members and their officers provide a service to every member of the community every day – whether they want or know about it or not! We meet in public, take decisions in public and everyone thinks that they can do the job cheaper and better than us.

But times have never been more challenging than they are today. The words from our new Government are good for local government. Call it ‘Big Society’ or call it community politics and there can be no doubt that this Government talks localism, means localism and intends to deliver localism (unless of course it wants to dictate to councils and partners what they should do such as introduced Academies or keep Council Tax rises to zero!)

Managers have to respond to this call for more involvement at a time of shrinking budgets. Probably the most significant document that the LGA has ever presented to the Government is our call for ‘Place Based Budgeting’. This call has been accepted by the Government and by the time the conference meets we shall know what the response has been to this in the CSR. But the very act of agreeing place based budgeting turns existing structures on their heads. Senior politicians and managers will not wait to hear from on high detailed decisions from Whitehall Warriors about how spending will be undertaken. Local councillors and their staff will be able to provide real targets based on real needs and opportunities. That will mean that we can and very definitely should be more responsive to what people in our communities say to us; it gives us greater opportunity to devise delivery mechanisms for a wide range of services that have their input with advice, with joint projects, with volunteers delivering and shaping activity.

Clearly, the Government has a view that much more could and should be done to empower people to take responsibility for their own lives, areas, families. We should not underestimate the amount that is already done. I ‘guesstimate’ that 5% are prepared to actually do something for their neighbourhood, school or community. If correct this means a mighty army of 3,500,000 people who spend at least some of their time volunteering and actually doing things. On top of this will come people who only work within their Church or their Trades Union but whose effect is felt outside that institution.

On top of that we have an even greater group of people who don’t think of themselves as volunteers but who willingly and gladly give time to care for those in their own family who have greater need than others. These are the carers in our society who, if they broke the ties of family, would leave the state with an impossible task of caring through institutions. Go to an event for carers and see the wide variety. The teenagers responsible for giving medicines and keeping hey house clean for a parent; the child who has, for whatever reason to care for a younger child; the Tweenies who just as soon as they have turned their children out into the world now accept responsibility for ageing parents and then grand children as well. Millions of these people ‘volunteer’ willingly and happily and we should never under estimate their value to our society as a whole.

If we want more people to volunteer we must recognise and try to accommodate the things that currently stop them:

  • Social security rules limit how much voluntary productive work people can do
  • Changing shift systems with people working around the clock making continuity difficult
  • The complexity of the way we do our business with an over professionalisation of large parts of the public sector who interact with the public.
  • The physical separation of families caused by poor planning or the mobility needed for employment.

What we do about these complex issues is beyond the scope of this article but unless we accept that there are complex reasons for changes in our society we will not accept that the answers to the problems will be complex also. Within the Council there are many things that we can do to increase the sense of citizenship – a common bonding with our neighbours. These include:

1. Explaining the cause and effect of our actions better than we do by bringing programmes and projects down to a level where we can all understand the consequences. Too often the way that all branches of the public sector have tried to inform and consult with people has been appalling. We describe in a preceding section how the public sector could do things better but there are some simple rules that we could all take to heart:

2. Consulting only if you are going to take notice of the results. Describe the parameters within which the consultation can be applied. i.e. don’t consult on a new tram system if you only have money for a new bus lane! Consultation can mean different things to different people. It can mean, ‘We have not made a decision yet and want to know what you want’. Or it can mean, ‘We have made the decision and need to know what you object to so we can tailor some of the work to mitigate the problems you may have’.

3. Don’t blind people with long words and glossy strategies. Talk to people about the things that they want to talk about not the things you think should be talked about. Give people good and relevant information before consulting. You won’t get much out if you don’t put much in! Take time. Rushed consultation is bad consultation

4. If there is a ‘political’ message that needs to be driven over then councillors should take the lead in the consultation. Only use officers who can consult face to face and on a level basis with the people who pay their wages

5. Wherever possible do not do things for people but do things with people. Some people cannot cope. Some people can’t be bothered. We need to break the dependency of people on their councillors and council.

6. Tell people how to do things for themselves such as where to report a problem and how to report a problem. Make sure the contact system is genuinely accessible for people in terms of time, location, disability, language etc

6. Help people organise themselves to sort out solutions Help establish residents, tenants and amenity groups. Work with them so they so you as the ‘council’ side of their work and the eyes and ears for you about how the system is performing.

7. Ensure an officer takes responsibility as the entrance point into the system so that hard pressed people do not have to turn to many people to deal with complex problems. Simplify service delivery and access points so that people know where to turn. Simplify information systems so that people get the information and advice they need in a coherent and understandable form

8. We cannot do everything that people want us to do. If there is no money – say so. If the law won’t let you – say so and say what you have done or will try and do to change the law. If you think people should do more for themselves – say so. If there are better people or organisations that can help – say so. It’s better to be brutally honest than to frustrate people with false hope.

An excellent service is one that delivers the service that people need or want with staff who are trained, supported and paid to deliver it. The magic that can make that work even better than at present is the involvement of the community, the user, the resident in defining the outputs and outcomes which are most relevant to them.

Cllr Richard Kemp is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats at the Local Government Association

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