Council of the future

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I’ve been thinking for some time about what the council of the future will look like – we gave that as a strapline to our new brochure earlier in the year, and it is the focus of the series of briefings we have been issuing each month.

I’m sure that councils in the not too distant future will look very different from what they are now – a point emphasised on a recent visit to one council which claimed that it expected to be just one fifth of the size it is now in terms of staff and office space.

Socitm Consulting took an exhibition stand at GC Live (as we do each year) and also took the opportunity for me to present a session on the Council of the Future. I must admit to some trepidation about standing up in front of seasoned council staff (as well as others of course) and talking to them about what their own councils might look like in a few years time. As the time approached for the session, I must admit I was rather hoping that nobody would turn up!

But turn up they did – the organisers told us that this was the best attended of the sessions, and people were standing at the back of the room! Well I said what I had to say – I painted the picture of councils in future being much leaner (in all senses of the word), and recognising that information, rather than staff or premises, would be their key asset. I talked about how e-government had come and gone with relatively little impact on how councils fundamentally delivered their services, but it had been useful in providing funding for many of the technical components that would be needed for the new vision.

Even t-government seemed to have passed us by – with the clear message from government that “OK you’ve had the e-government money, now you really have to change how you work”. While some councils really have embraced the principles of becoming transformational, most have simply paid lip service. Now the recession is upon us, and the budgetary constraints on councils are going to be sufficiently severe that councils will have no option but to look at other options for their service delivery.

In the GC Live presentation I put forward the idea of a jigsaw – all the components that a council needs to have in place before it can reap the full benefits that both e-government and t-government promised – the joined-up working, efficiency through self-serve, better quality services at lower cost. The idea seemed to go down well, with lots of nods from the audience, and several people popped round to the stand later to say how much they liked the message I gave.

Since then, I’ve been working further on the idea, developing the jigsaw and its components – and last week I was visiting a couple of councils and took the opportunity of using the concept of the jigsaw to work through how well advanced they were in achieving their visions for the future.

I was well pleased that the councils I spoke to seemed to find it useful, and even asked for copies of the jigsaw diagram – but I was shy of giving out material at such an early stage of development so offered to let them have copies later when it was more complete.

The Council of the Future is going to be our key theme on the Socitm Consulting stand at the Annual Conference in Edinburgh – because I’m absolutely convinced that unless councils embrace the level of change that the budgetary constraints will impose on them they are going to find themselves having to reduce services drastically just to keep within their budgets.

The problem that some councils are having – and I’ve visited two of them in the past few weeks – is that they know the level of change they need to implement, but they haven’t the budget to do it, so what can they do?

For them, the answer has to be to have a clear roadmap of how they plan to achieve their changes, and to take an approach which yields savings in a staged manner – so that the savings from each stage fund the investment for the next. This is difficult, but it can be done; what it needs is a clear vision and a clear plan, backed by a real commitment to making the changes happen and to reaping the benefits at each stage.

Just thinking about the Council of the Future, I guess that Consulting already does much of what we preach – we don’t have any significant investment in office space, we have minimal staff, we work smartly and use mobile working as the norm. Our information is held entirely electronically - hence when those few remaining councils who insist on issuing tenders for work on paper (yes, they do exist!), we really struggle!

But of course, what we do is very narrow compared with the breadth of services offered by councils and with their legal obligations to their citizens, so it is naïve to think that our model can apply quite as simply to councils. But the principle is right, and we know how to make it work for councils.

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