Hello PPMA members and friends

Paul Medd, Chief Executive at Fenland District Council looks at what we can learn from this prolonged period of austerity and how renewed skill sets are vital to ensure devolution can be successful.

“For what seems like an eternity now, local government and its public sector partners have been subject to unprecedented financial challenges. Based upon the latest economic forecasts and number crunching by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it’s a safe bet that austerity will continue to focus our minds for several more years to come. It’s hard to believe that by the time the UK’s deficit arrives at a balanced position, it will be over a decade since this journey started. So what have we learnt as a sector and what state are we in now?

It’s very clear that local government continues to show a real strength of leadership, which is fuelling the innovation to ensure local services respond to the challenges. Within my own council and local partners, I’m continually staggered by the level of resilience and innovation I see from across our organisations. Services have been redesigned; employees have been restructured, not once but in some cases on several occasions. Yet despite this and the significant reduction in revenue budgets, most service outcomes to local people remain as strong and effective as ever.

There are still significant unresolved issues such as redesigning an integrated model of social care and health, the need to further embrace growth as a means of becoming financially self-sufficient, seeking to exploit the potential opportunities of devolution and not to mention adapting to Brexit following the recent referendum. However, if the spirit of resilience and innovation that I have witnessed in the sector is anything to base a firm judgement on, then all may not be as gloomy as it appears.

Local councils and their partners must continue to try and protect frontline services and adequate officer capacity to deliver them, as part of ongoing efficiency plans. Unilateral top sliced budgets across the board need resisting, with intelligent and innovative redesign being at the heart of transformation programmes. Modernising staff working arrangements, harnessing technologies across services, commercialisation, better procurement, are all key areas that need to be fully reassessed.

So what of our workforce? To less enlightened folk, your typical council officer might be seen as an inflexible, traditional jobsworth, who has done the same thing for many years, or perhaps a suspicious, cynical individual who seeks to resist change, at the expense of new and more innovative ways of working!

Most such local government employees have long since departed, as council officer roles have evolved into diverse and multi-skilled jobs. A modern council employee accepts the need to transform and deliver services in conjunction with a range of external partners.

Today’s council officer embraces change and contributes towards innovative transformation solutions for delivering quality services on a tighter budget.  Working with partners is seen as the norm, not the exception, so relationship building skills are a must. There is no place for preciousness and protectionism in the pursuit of sustainable service delivery solutions. Do the public really care who is delivering for them? We all know the answer to that.

Further opportunities will abound for those who are brave enough to seize the reality for the future of local public service delivery. A change in career direction is awaiting those lasting few who can’t, or don’t want to, evolve with the times.

As the role of local councils and their officers continues to change, so will the need to develop a renewed skill set. Those competency frameworks that have existed for the past decade will require a dusting down and thorough review to ensure they align the organisations’ people and its culture, with the future direction of travel and key priorities. A continued commitment to the most cost-effective staff learning and development is essential. A smash and grab raid on training budgets, in the face of continued financial challenges, should be seen as a retrograde step, and as such resisted.

The sector has lobbied Government for greater autonomy and recognition, in meeting the future needs of our communities and local people. Devolution deals provide this opportunity. I’ve always tried to maintain a positive outlook despite the most difficult of challenges. To those who become drawn into a glass half empty way of thinking, it’s worth bearing in mind the esteemed Albert Einstein ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’. A pretty good mantra by which to approach the future for local government, growth challenges and the public service reform agenda.”

Paul Medd

Chief Executive, Fenland District Council