Nine things national government can learn from local government

July 11, 2024  

As a new government takes over Westminster, Catriona Maclay from our practice team puts forward nine lessons that can be learnt from local government.

New MPs have arrived for their first day on the job, the Cabinet is in post, and the wheels of government are turning once more. There is a full in-tray to tackle. We’ve heard about the renewed focus on devolution and the early commitment to taking power out of Westminster, and are looking forward to more on that – hopefully building on our own suggested priorities. But during this brief moment-in-between, it’s worth turning the direction of attention on its head – what can national government learn from local? Through our network, New Local has witnessed and supported some of the major shifts in thinking and practice across local government, building on collective years of hard-won learning about what works and what doesn’t in delivering and renewing public services in challenging times. Here are our quickfire lessons:

1. To tackle crises in public services, community-led solutions are the best solutions

Government doesn’t need to invent new ways of working – this work is already taking place in communities. Local government has increasingly recognised that preventative, asset-based approaches are essential to cutting both suffering and cost. This is critical if we are to shift from just “managing demand” from inside the walls of an institutions, to building a different relationship with communities where the preventative work needs to happen. Whether shrinking waiting lists or building community health, empowering community-led approaches means working with the talent and capacity that is already in communities. Our public services are creaking, so we can’t afford not to.

2. Trust is an aim in itself

It’s not all about policy. In fact, without a stronger basis of trust in officials and institutions, policies will fail to have the impact they could. We know that trust and confidence in Britain’s system of government is at a record low – something we’ve heard that Prime Minister Keir Starmer sees as “the battle that defines our age”.  

People don’t learn to trust policy documents – they trust people.

Local authorities have already been grappling with this. Sometimes driven by chronic breakdowns in relationships with local communities, many local councils have made re-building trust an essential pillar of their work – beyond the boundaries of any specific service, silo or project. To do this,  local authorities like Adur and Worthing have explored using appreciative enquiry approaches to better listen to residents’ concerns on their own terms, or like Wealden District Council are opening up their self-evaluation processes to invite honest, transparent perspectives on what is and isn’t working. Local councils will tell you that there aren’t any quick fixes when repairing years of negative experiences, but that the only way to start is to be proactive, deliberate and open-minded about what it will take.

3. To build trust, build relationships 

People don’t learn to trust policy documents – they trust people. Along with listening comes the necessity to put relationships at the heart of public services. Years of focusing on efficiency metrics has ironed out the ability to be effective. Councils like Barking and Dagenham have explored instead what it would take to put relationships at the centre of all services.

From maternity services to debt collection, services work better when rooted in positive relationships. Councils have increasingly recognised this and worked to design services around effective relationships as a core principle. The government’s ambition to reform public services cannot rest on new structures designed at the centre – it has to proactively and explicitly create the space for relationship-centred approaches to thrive. We know there are many in government who understand this – see Josh MacAlister’s work on children’s social care. Councils are key partners in making this work in practice.

4. People live in communities and not departmental budget-lines

Some of the hardest graft currently going on in local government is around silo-busting – recognising that a family’s needs simply aren’t going to be met by 18 different services competing for bandwidth. Public service silos – where efforts are duplicated by different professionals, or different approaches in different departments lead to inconsistent experiences – get in the way of meeting citizens’ needs and aspirations. Tackling this can involve changing service structures, but even more importantly involves giving frontline staff the confidence, skills and backing to respond directly and creatively to what citizens need.

The silos in Whitehall perhaps have the steepest walls of all.

The silos in Whitehall perhaps have the steepest walls of all, so there is much to do to silo-bust at the national level and support ongoing local collaboration. The new government’s mission-led strategy can be a powerful element of the approach, and there are great local government examples of mission-led working already in motion. Beyond that, national government has a critical role to play in creating the structures that support collaboration across a place rather squeezing out false efficiencies within silos. We are calling for place-based service budgets drawing on the lessons of the Total place policy – a huge opportunity to enable rather than stifle local services’ ability to work together.

5. Communities can handle complexity – what they can’t handle is being excluded

The challenges facing us are immense. Climate change, economic stagnation and instability, and the needs of an ageing population all require tough trade-offs and complicated decision-making. There can be a temptation to think that citizens just want solutions – that they can’t handle the complexity. However local government has learned that when given the right support and information, citizens handle this complexity admirably – nurturing both productive democratic debate and good solutions.

There is less resilience and trust in a tough decision that someone else has made.

What is dangerous is when citizens don’t have a stake in the process of making those tough decisions – there is less resilience and trust in a tough decision that someone else has made. Local authorities have been at the forefront of using participatory decision-making processes for their most challenging issues, from development to policing. National government would do well to implement a range of participatory approaches to get citizen wisdom and buy-in where it’s needed most.

6. If not “more” funding, then definitely “different”

We’ve written elsewhere about the urgent need to review local government funding settlements. But as councils have long needed to find a different way of working amidst shrinking budgets, there are plenty of examples where innovation in funding models has supported more effective working. Whether Essex County Council’s decision to hand over control of its Drug and Alcohol treatment services to the community-led Essex Recovery Foundation or Durham County Council’s use of participatory budgeting to make tough decisions about council cuts, local authorities have shown that amidst tight finances, sharing decision-making power with communities is both popular and effective.

7. Keeping public servants serving

Many areas of frontline service delivery face recruitment crises – from midwifery, to teaching, to local government itself. Addressing this is going to be central to delivering on the promise of reform. Councils implementing community powered approaches tell us that community power isn’t just good for communities – it’s a core part of their staff retention approach.

We have heard much of the need to move from a chaotic and theatrical government culture to one of service and competence.

Rather than exposing public servants to the constant “moral injury” of gate-keeping services and managing decline, giving staff the freedom to respond creatively and flexibly to communities has given them more purpose and satisfaction, meaning happier staff teams, less turnover, and more consistency for communities themselves – a virtuous circle to support. Especially when performance pressures on public servants are only going to increase, learning about what keeps people in the job is critical.

8. Culture is key

Perhaps the biggest lesson we hear from local authorities who have worked to embed community power is this – it’s no good developing new policies and strategies if organisational culture is pulling in the opposite direction. Councils serious about community power have made a commitment to deep cultural change to put communities at the heart of everything they do. This involves leadership from the top, changes to HR and organisational development processes, and the chance for everyone in the organisation to explore what this means for them. It means being ready to relinquish power and not always being the expert.

Councils have put this into practice by working with staff and elected officials to develop the skills that are required for community powered work, as well as increasing the profile and recognition of the underlying attitudes and behaviours that might need to change. As council’s like Test Valley have found, this can shift relationships with communities on contentious issues like development – by building community influence from the start, schemes are more likely to succeed and decisions don’t need to feel like zero-sum trade-offs.

We have heard much of the need to move from a chaotic and theatrical government culture to one of service and competence. Local governments would say that alongside these, there must be a deep commitment to putting communities at the heart of decisions.

9. Sometimes your main job is to bring the tea

There will always be a vital and irreplaceable role for government both locally and nationally – despite the flippant heading. But a key lesson that community-powered local authorities have learned is that sometimes it’s more powerful to convene key partners and provide them with support than try and do everything yourself.

Handing over power – from national to local government, and then from local government to communities directly – involves a willingness to step away from decisions and instead consider the supportive conditions that will allow good decisions to be made by others. This involves policy-change, culture-change, but also a willingness to attend to what matters in creating the right conditions for collaboration – we hear often about the importance of making sure that there’s tea.

As ministers and civil servants get to work in delivering on the new government’s ambitions, they should consider afresh where particular problems should best be solved, and which combinations of officials and communities should be working this out together. Potentially over a cup of tea.

You can read more about our proposals for the way forward here.

Photo credit: ‘Keir Starmer visits Worthing, UK – 22 Aug 2023’ by Keir Starmer on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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