When it comes to improving public services, what’s good for local government should be good for central government. Piali Das Gupta looks at why the latter can benefit from adopting the principles of the former
I spend a fair amount of my time as head of policy for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) attending meetings with government departments wanting to know how they can feel assured that local government leaders are up to the myriad challenges facing them today, from emergency response and recovery to promoting social mobility. How do we monitor performance, they want to know, and how do we react when we detect that performance may be slipping? Those are valid and valuable questions to ask, which is why SOLACE works with the Local Government Association and others on a number of sector-led improvement programmes.
What strikes me is central government never seems to turn that same lens on itself. If you talk to SOLACE members about the characteristics of effective modern leadership, they will put humility and self-awareness near the top. Sadly, humility and self-awareness were glaringly absent from the Government’s response to the National Audit Office report on the roll-out of Universal Credit. What we had instead was denial and bluster, which is unbecoming at the best of times, but unacceptable when you think about the human misery at stake here.
Is it time then for us to propose an improvement and intervention regime for central government? With all due respect, how can ministers and officials be trusted to make a service better when in the face of empirical evidence and analysis by a highly-respected independent body they deny that there are serious issues? Nor is Universal Credit an isolated incident; it is not long since Windrush was hitting the headlines. In the case of Windrush, central government has acknowledged it let people down, but it’s not really clear what they are now doing to understand what went wrong and why. None of that discussion about central government performance and improvement happens openly and transparently, as councils are expected to be.
Think about what might be possible if we applied some of the expectations embedded in local government improvement (both sector-led and regulator-driven) to central government:
1) Honest self-assessment. Having worked at a council on a long improvement path, I can vouch for what a powerful tool this can be both to understand in a nuanced way the challenges your organisation is facing and develop realistic plans for change that are meaningful and sustainable. Sharing the story openly sometimes pushes leaders out of their comfort zones until they realise it is an invaluable part of the process of building public and staff confidence.
2) Peer review and challenge. It cannot be overstated how helpful it is to draw on the lens and experience of people who have been in your shoes and understand that real improvement is a long haul journey that requires resilience and patience. In local government, we increasingly recognise we can also draw on a wider network of public servant peers beyond councils alone. I am confident that same network would be genuinely pleased, in the spirit of public service, to support central government departments.
3) Learning and development. The expectation local public service leaders may need support to know how to perform their jobs effectively is accepted. Central government even funds a variety of learning and development programmes across public services, including the civil service. But I have searched in vain for any similar offer for national politicians, ministers or MPs. Any conversation I have with officials about training for national politicians is usually greeted with pained silence.
Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves – and central government – why there is such a double standard when it comes to driving improvement in public services? Or maybe that is not the right question to ask. We know why: in our centralised system, central government holds all the cards and sets the rules. So perhaps as a collective public sector we should be asking whether we can afford the continuation of this double standard.
The risk to value for money, outcomes for people and public confidence are just as great, if not greater, when a department gets things wrong as when an individual council, hospital or school does.
Piali Das Gupta is head of policy at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives