How can local authorities turn uncertainty into positive change?

17th May 2024

Earlier this year, our leadership forum event invited local government leaders to share their thoughts on key issues confronting the sector

This article summarises their views on “big picture” questions of uncertainty and change in local government, and some perspectives on solutions and ways forward.

Time for transformation

The need for major change in local government was a consistent refrain from council leaders across both the roundtables that discussed this topic. It was pointed out that while the structure and model of local authorities has seen little change since the 1974 Maude Report, today’s operating environment is radically different.

Changes in citizen expectations plus the fact that today, over 70% of county and unitary authorities’ budgets is spent on adult and social care, make the current system both unaffordable and unsustainable. As one delegate said: “sooner or later, we need as a country to have a grown-up conversation about the quality of services we want and how much tax we’re willing to pay for them”.

Leaders were united in their view that transformational change is needed, should happen fast and should be focused on delivery. Yet they also recognised that there is no “perfect” model for a local authority. And given the current demands of the NHS and other services such as the police, leaders saw little likelihood of any funding for transformation from central government.

Government disconnect

Funding apart, central government was also currently seen in our two roundtables as more of a hindrance than a help to positive change. Partly this is due to its silo-based structure – today, for example, it has no strategic ownership of local government – no single department that has overall responsibility for it.

Local authorities often must engage with separate departments on a single topic (for example DHE and DLUHC on children’s services) but there is often little engagement between the departments themselves, which complicates matters. One example cited was the fact that “you can have a conversation about construction products with one department, but not a general conversation on regulatory services.”

Opportunities for positive change

Leaders at the roundtables nonetheless found solutions that recognise how hard it is to make major change happen in large, complex organisations like local authorities. “Bite-sized”, small-step approaches were seen as the most effective way to start. Achievable changes that could make a tangible difference included:

  • Closer collaboration and clear messaging: Local authorities need to work together to show and promote the positive (and often overlooked) role they play in areas such as wealth creation, promoting economic growth and protecting the environment. This coordinated message – that local authorities are unique institutions that touch people’s lives in different ways – should be heard by all stakeholders, including central government. There’s also opportunity for intertwined services such as healthcare and housing to work more cost-effectively and efficiently together: leaders noted that good data is a prerequisite for this level of collaboration.

  • Preventive services: Seen as one of the biggest untapped opportunities by local authority leaders, preventive services could reduce costs in local government as well as healthcare. With an intimate knowledge of local communities that is not available to central government, local authorities should be recognised for their potential to shape and drive preventive services.

  • New skills: Leaders questioned whether local authorities currently have people with the right skills to deliver positive change. They highlighted a need to attract young, highly skilled recruits by positioning local government as a positive and impactful career choice. (See our related feature from the Leadership Forum on Attracting talent and nurturing change in the modern workforce.

  • Agility: Finally, if they are to deliver change at the pace that’s needed, leaders expressed the need for local authorities to be “light on their feet”. This agility depends on technology and data, as we explored in the Leadership Forum feature A data-driven future – navigating digital transformation.

To explore more topics covered in our leadership events, visit the Civica Leadership Forum homepage.