The evolving council

Imagine this...the evolving council

This imagining, from Andy Johnston, of an evolving council is one of the scenarios that we are exploring as part of the new municipalism pillar of our Post-Covid Councils project looking at the future of local government.

There has been no shortage of innovation in the delivery of local services in the last ten years. The drivers of that change have been squeezed funding, government efficiency programmes, technology or a leadership focused on change. In some cases that means change was effected reluctantly or under stress, in others an enthusiastic workforce embraced new work practices. In all cases a new normal is established, but further change has then become difficult without a further round of strategic reviews. The chance to give a new system the opportunity to deliver in the long term and provide a stable secure workplace could be seen as desirable. However, the lessons of the past decades indicate that such stability never happens and events always intervene.

The pandemic has been one such event on a truly massive scale. We are told to expect more pandemics, we are told they are easy to deal with compared to climate change and we are told that technological innovation has accelerated by 10 years during the lockdowns. Given such a background it does seem difficult to identify where any long-term stability or predictability could reside in a large complex organisation like a local authority.

These circumstances will confirm to some leaders that constant evolution is a better option than a cycle of radical change – stability – radical change and so on. How that could be achieved is difficult for a public sector organisation whose communities like a bit of certainty about the local authority’s role and capacity. Try closing a library or changing a bin round. Nevertheless, some ideas and recent trends can be adopted to imagine what a council in a constant state of evolution would be like.

Scenario: Midshire Council

The senior management team of Midshire Council are in a meeting to discuss performance and direction. These meetings are now regular fixtures every quarter and are timed to allow a report to go to the cabinet and then full council. The chief executive has repurposed the performance management team so that it now focuses on institutional learning. The Institutional Learning Team are constantly striving to understand the activities and impact of the local authority but also using their time to seek out new ways of doing things. In this latest meeting they will be presenting new data on the relationship between council car parks and local economic activity then proposing an interesting idea from a middle manager in the car parks team.

At the meeting it’s clear that the council views car parks as a relatively straightforward service that provides capacity for shoppers and workers and a steady revenue stream. It’s argued that the relationship could be more sophisticated. The member of the parking team proposes an e-voucher system that links car park charges to discounts at local businesses. She’s clear that she can’t take full credit for the idea as it was developed at one of the other councils she works for and not even in the car park team, she was working on economic development at the time.

In fact, a lot of good ideas come from the council staff that have roles within other councils in the region. The system of sharing staff between local authorities isn’t for everyone but has been welcomed by some as a chance to broaden their horizons, develop skills and build professional networks. For the local authority its like shared services on steroids, there are efficiencies to be had but the most valuable bit is the sharing of good practice and the opportunities for innovation. New staff are employed on the understanding that they will actually work across many authorities in the region, so over time this portfolio model will become the norm.

The SMT view is that the e-vouchers are worth exploring and so the idea is put to Cabinet. Midshire is an authority that never changes politically. This has the advantage of stability and predictability of political direction but it does mean that pet projects can be given too long to prove themselves and perfectly good ideas ‘owned’ by other parties never see the light of day. The leader and cabinet are aware that having established the idea of the evolving council, they need to ensure that the democratic process supports that.

The cabinet has already approved participatory budgeting for a proportion of the local authority spend and is now considering the use of a citizen’s assembly to debate the regeneration of a large plot of brownfield land close to the centre of the main town. This decision has caused a rift in the cabinet. Some members asserting that the development of a cinema and restaurants was in the manifesto, they won the election and therefore that’s what the council will do. Others point out that they would have won anyway regardless of the plan in the manifesto and that policy was agreed four years ago and things have changed – an evolving council should by default question every policy position more than two years old.

The leader decides the citizen’s assembly should go ahead but has grave doubts about how this form of participative democracy can be managed and what happens if the assembly comes up with an idea unpopular in her group, or just unaffordable. The leader figures that if sharing ideas across local authorities is good for staff then it should be good for politicians as well, she weighs up her learning options: visiting assemblies in action; interviewing fellow leaders; organising an online workshop with some experienced leaders. She views commissioning a consultant to advise, the last resort.

In the end a workshop is agreed. It goes well up until the last ten minutes. The participants are asked what changes resulted from using more participative processes. All of them said they wished they had used the opportunity to remove the discretionary pots of cash given to local councillors. As more deliberative forms of democracy were explored it looked out of step. This surprised the leader, the discretionary funds were very popular with members and seemed to represent a responsive hyper-local approach. Nevertheless, an evolving council can’t just keep adding more and more innovative ideas without also deciding what should stop.

At the time the evolving council strategy was agreed, mechanisms were put in place to help end services or functions no longer fit for purpose (grimly nicknamed the graveyard process). The existing mechanism at Midshires was put together with service delivery in mind and included representatives from management, HR and the unions. The reality of the process was rarely a dead stop but, unsurprisingly, it was usually an evolution. It was decided that this should be the approach with elected members’ discretionary funds but to have a different structure that included cross-party representation and key local stakeholders.

It soon emerged that the elected members’ concern was less about the pot of cash, which was small anyway, but the ability to help the community. The institutional learning team completed a survey that showed that residents who knew their local councillor liked the grants, while the greater number who didn’t know their councillor didn’t like or trust them. In the end a new process was put in place that allowed the councillor to chair local fora. This was seen as a way to direct funds, which was more transparent and inclusive. The institutional learning team will do a follow up survey in a year’s time.

Meanwhile, the team looking at e-vouchers has just had a presentation about the use of sensors that might mean the scheme can expand into on street parking. Nothing stands still. During the presentation a few things became clear to the team. Sensors weren’t completely new; it was just that they were now affordable. The use of sensors would probably be time limited, what would follow was not clear. Away from the detail, new models of transport were being developed that might make parking redundant, electrification of vehicles needed new infrastructure and if an e-voucher is used to buy from local businesses how important is the link to parking as more purchases go online. Lots of uncertainty – almost paralysing.

Midshires Council has spent time and money to build the capacity of its staff, recognising that someone who can safely implement government policy is useful but not as useful as someone who can anticipate that policy and turn it to the council’s advantage. Most strategic teams have been trained up in Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathway (DAPP) thinking. It’s a way of thinking that was initially developed in the health sector and has been adopted by climate change modellers and is now finding its way into mainstream policy making. Its great strength is that it accepts uncertainty and has mechanisms to aid decision-making when the future becomes clearer.

At the heart of DAPP is a recognisable improvement cycle of – plan, do, monitor, review. The big difference is that the planning stage is more sophisticated and doesn’t result in a single ‘plan’ but instead ‘pathways’. The point being that there may be many ways to achieve a goal and if circumstances change then you need to switch paths. So, the policy graphic isn’t a straight line, its many lines with nodes at which choices are made.

DAPP thinking doesn’t suit all, but luckily there is a network of enthusiasts across the local authorities near Midshire who call themselves the ‘weak signals’. They meet up regularly and discuss new trends, scientific discoveries and policy innovations from around the world. If they see that any one of these could affect a policy or project (positively or negatively) they bring their thoughts to the attention of the relevant team. It’s then up to the team to assess the strength of the signal and if necessary analyse how they can avoid the pitfall or take advantage of the opportunity. There is a prize for the most significant signal discovered and it usually goes to the idea that causes a team to completely reframe their policy objectives.

Conclusions

Midshire Council shares some characteristics with councils that promote community co-creation of policy or those that involve the community through participatory processes. It also shares features of councils that have adopted innovation strategies or more flexible work practices and it has similarities with councils in shared services partnerships. It is all of those and a bit more.

The more comes from a willingness to be flexible, embrace uncertainty and change direction if that’s the best way of delivering for communities. It’s a style that is as challenging for elected members as it is for officers and requires them to marry up the manifesto-led representative democratic model with a world that changes a great deal in between elections.