A question of balance

It is no secret that local authorities have always faced pressures from ever increasing demand on services like social care, schooling and housing, as well as the requirement to become more environmentally friendly by offering increased recycling options to reduce waste, to name a few of the many challenges they face.

And somehow, local authorities, to some degree or other, are able to walk this tightrope and manage these challenges; reducing services and pushing more responsibility onto families and community, outsourcing or insourcing services, combining service delivery with other local authorities or organisations and investing to improve services to generate revenue.

But the scary thing is, whilst this tightrope existed before the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears now that the tightrope is narrower, longer and above a 50 foot drop. Not only has the pandemic, and the changes it has brought to all of our lives, led to increased demand on services due to things such as an increase in cases of domestic abuse/violence and reduced opportunities for education, it has also increased the difficulties the workforce faces in delivering these services because of higher rates of illness, childcare demands, and the pressures of working from home on the kitchen table. Many services which were deemed non-essential are now faced with the challenge of reopening, and ramping back up to pre pandemic levels of demand with completely new ways of working.

So what does this mean for local authorities?

In a sentence, they have to do more, with less, and in a way they’ve never done before.

And what can they do to survive?

At this point most people usually point to funding constraints and budget cuts but, in this instance, there has been additional  financial support from central government, well into the £billions. Of course, people will always say it’s not enough and more is needed, and that may be true in some cases. But more funding only takes you so far and it’s limited and eventually we must turn our focus to how it’s used. Often the systems and management in place become the limiting factor in how much progress can be made. Having more builders will only reduce your build time by so much, eventually you’ll have to invest in planning what those builders are doing, what skills they have and the quality of their work.

We have to ensure the system is able to cope with this new landscape and levels of demand long after the emergency funding has dried up.

Local authorities will need to rethink how they’re going to continue to deliver high quality services for their communities in a new way – and it’s not just about procuring new laptops and Microsoft Teams subscriptions for the organisation. They will require a fundamental change in the way services are delivered and, with the largest areas of spend being in education and social care, services that are almost entirely delivered by people, effective management is more important than ever to ensure workforces are supported and enabled to be as effective as possible.

More than ever local authorities must focus on how they manage resources, deliver effective services and create an environment where walking the tightrope becomes second nature at all levels of the organisation.