Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Future Shape

Last night the Chief Executive Nick Walkley briefed the Lib Dem group on the Councils’ ‘Future shape’ project. Future Shape has probably suffered from two major problems. Definition of exactly what it is and some very poor examples of what it might be ie the whole budget airline comparison.

Dealing with the issue of what future shape is, is still not easy, even after a briefing. It seems to have started as a bit of ‘blue sky’ / ‘out of the box’ thinking (add your favourite management cliché here). It’s probably easier to look at what problems were trying to be addressed.

The first problem is that many of Councils’ activities fail to make a real difference to the people they interact with. The best example of this is probably social services. Why do they fail? Well the answer that future shape comes up with is that often the Councils’ activities are about meeting targets and not actually meeting real needs. I’m sure this is the case but getting away from that culture will not be easy. The problem is not unique to local authorities. The same issues apply to the NHS and the Police. The solution future shape envisages is giving people control over their services, so that they decide what they need. This is where the example of person choosing a carer or a holiday. Of course the choice may not, as in this case be a real one. If the carer is required then there are no funds for the holiday.

Another example is street cleaning. Traders in High Barnet have told the Council that they often clean the streets outside their shops and therefore don’t need the street cleaning service to clean as frequently but do need the parking restrictions sorted out in order to boost their trade. Future shape might therefore imagine a situation where a contract exists between the Council and the traders to clean the High Street and the money saved doing that would allow cheaper parking.

The second problem that future shape seeks to address is the fact that Councils will undoubtedly receive lower settlements from central government as it seeks to battle with the massive debts it has run up. Councils will have to try and do the same with less. The mantra of future shape is that Councils need to do things differently with less. This in reality will mean looking at outsourcing or competitive tendering of services rather than Barnet’s current in-house model.

So what are the problems with future shape? Well the sense I have is that this is an officer led initiative. They know that the council cannot continue to function as it is and are looking for solutions. The job of the politicians seems to be to do the marketing for it and put the spin on it and hopefully (as far as the administration is concerned), take the credit.

In my opinion future shape is born out of a political vacuum. The Tories on Barnet Council have no real idea what they want the Council to do or to be, other than it should not be costing lots of money to their supporters, many of whom use very few of the services the Council provides and would happily opt out of the rest if they could.

If you look at what Councils such as Sheffield and Newcastle are doing then you can see much of the same thought processes going on but driven from a political leadership that believes in giving power away to the people and is driven by a the philosophy that elected representative are there to empower people not simply to act as a short cut to getting the Council to provide the service they should be getting in the first place. If we are ever to get civic society back then there has to be political leadership. Council officers on their own cannot and indeed should not be placed in a position where they are the ones leading the engagement with residents. Barnet’s political masters are already marginalising themselves with their behaviour and lack of vision. Future shape cannot actually make a real difference until that problem is addressed.