Councils are facing uncertainty and change, with Local Government Association research showing local authorities face a £5.8bn funding gap by the end of the decade. Against this backdrop Zurich Municipal partnered with the Social Market Foundation (SMF) to produce their Local Public Services 2040 report to help guide the way.
The report identified demographic shifts likely to affect the way public services are delivered. These include ageing population, changing lifestyles, national economic performance and climate change, as well as new technologies such as robotics and automation. In earlier articles we’ve examined two scenarios in which councils of tomorrow can seize the opportunities these changes pose – ‘Industrial councils’ and ‘Ofcouncils’. Today we’ll look at two further scenarios – technology and commissioning councils.
The report foresees the rise of technology as huge for the future of councils in the UK. This impacts several areas of service provision. For example, in social care, ‘carebots’ which are robots that can perform certain care functions, such as dispensing medicine – could ease some of the pressures that social care services face. Some local councils – such as Enfield LBC – are already embracing this. But while robots can substantially increase productivity, concerns have mounted around the extent to which automation could see swathes of the workforce made redundant. Local government would not be immune from these changes so they must tread carefully.
While there are associated risks that will need to be managed, technology presents opportunities for innovation in public services, better quality and more convenient provisions and productivity improvements. Technology must be used as an inflection point to progress the economic and social prospects of those in lower skilled occupations rather than leaving them behind. As always, councils will have to think imaginatively about how they raise the capital necessary to make tech investments.
The report also envisages some local councils developing the ‘commissioning council’ model to drive competition and innovation in their local public services. This includes greater attention to community and SME providers, financing services and projects through crowdfunding ventures.
Last month Zurich Municipal released the 2017 Senior Managers’ Risk Report which gave a snapshot from the frontline on these and other themes. The report illustrates the way the conversation is shifting in terms of the fundamental role of councils, and affirmed that whether pursing commercialisation, or combating austerity through alternative means, councils are changing. To function effectively, individual authorities need to establish what kind of organisations they could be before they choose which to pursue. The scenarios set out in Local 2040 provide a helpful guide for councils navigating the challenges of tomorrow.