As part of the Innovation Catalyst’s remit to support – you guessed it – innovation in local government, we occassionally host dinners for local authority chief execs and leaders. The idea is that they come together, have a workshop on a hot topic, and then settle down to a swanky dinner that Odgers kindly pay for. They’re invariably more intesresting events than they should be, and last week’s was the best yet. The theme was the credit crunch.
I guess if I’m honest I was expecting people to be very focused on the short-term and the small ‘Kerry Katona’ problem (that counts as a joke in local government. seriously). Instead there was a very upbeat mood, with the majority of people there saying that this was a chance for us to do away with an unsustainble growth model, which was creating terrible approaches to regeneration, skills, housing and unemployment.
I was also struck by the fact that most councils claimed, at any rate, to be on board with the view that in times of incredibly tight budgets, dwindling tax income, and rising demand, simply searching out efficiencies in existing services won’t be enough: something bolder is needed. So rather than shaving little bits and pieces off budgets – meeting biscuits here, car allowances there – the strategy has to be to search out much more radical and game-changing innovations.
Of course, there’s a big difference between saying all this and doing something about it, but I do think it’s very interesting to contrast this appetite for recasting what government does amongst local councils, with the dominant mood in Whitehall. In the offices of central government, the recession seems to have led (in my view anyway) to a retrenchment in their position: we’re back to the bad old days of efficiency savings and productivity, with no room to question whether we’re doing the right thing in the first place. Of course I want my money to be well spent, but that for me must include some space for more serious exploration of whether there are fundamentally new ways of organising public services.