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The future of local government

By Drew Aspinwall
14 September 2021

By Drew Aspinwall, Account Director

For as long as I can remember the narrative around local authorities and the future operating models and funding streams for councils has been a topic of much discussion.

Having worked for and with local authorities for the past two decades, I have witnessed the constant and forever changing fortunes of local government. Whether it be funding mechanisms, innovation, collaboration, improvement or transformation, the agenda does not settle for long. These topics twinned with the cycle of changing political leadership and on the officer side, new management teams, operational structures and organisational priorities.

In the past, events like the LGA Conference would allow elected members and mostly senior council officers to compare notes, learn from each other and spot trends which could be taken back to the council offices to gauge what and how that kind of innovation could be implemented in practice.

Apart from a few councils who find a formula successfully implementing change and drive it through, then of course share it under the banner of ‘best practice’, the rest are often faced with implementing a kind ‘innovation-lite’ version, which is achievable, identifiable but ultimately makes little difference to the operation of the council itself.

During 2020, the operational focus of Councils was predictably focused on COVID-19, which internally including the switch to remote working, something that many councils liked the idea of, but many could not let go of the old idea that in order to know your staff were working, you needed to be able to see them at their desk.

Some local authorities had already moved into more modern, space and energy efficient premises, where there was not a desk for everyone, every day. So remote working was already gaining traction at these councils, the last year and half has cemented these ideas and also allowed managers to understand that by making the right hires, will get results wherever people work.

I read an interesting paper published by the LGIU (Local Government Information Unit) which looks in depth at the future priorities for councils, and highlights that much of the change going on was in the pipeline already but COVID-19 merely speed it up and gave it a reason to happen.

In my experience this rapid change is something the private sector would usually lead on, driven by profit and results rather than duties, split across statutory or non-statutory responsibilities.
LGIU report identifies a number of future scenarios for the personality of council and how they operate. According to the report, the LGIU is set to vision some more and is looking for patterns, and may even be so bold as to suggest which changes are likely to come about and how soon.

Having gone through the tremendous change of the recent past, I’m sure every council in the country is now focused on what their future looks like and this time round I'm more confident that it will actually happen.