PERMANENTLY CAST in the long shadow of Whitehall, local government has long been the poor relation of politics - the purveyor of bins, parking tickets and Asbos as opposed to high strategy. But, as yet unreflected in dismal voting totals, things are stirring in some town halls, which are the scene of an 'untold story' of change and new thinking about what a local authority should be doing, according to a defiant Moira Gibb, chief executive of London's Camden council.
Camden is a good test case. Including the airy heights of Hampstead and Primrose Hill, as well as the less salubrious areas around King's Cross station, the borough is ethnically, linguistically and socially diverse, populous and challenging. Labour-controlled for nearly four decades until last year's local elections, it has always been an unrepentantly 'big-government', high-spending council. Yet although it was highly rated, financial pressures (for example, staff costs had soared by 37 per cent since 2002) were forcing the council to scrutinise every aspect of its organisation, cost structure and ways of providing service.
Caught in the jaws of a cost squeeze, and facing rising expectations and inflex ible government targets, many local authorities are tempted by a big-bang, 'solutions-driven' approach, usually involving partnership with an IT supplier to install large-scale contact centres and computer systems, with applications and services back-fitted into them. Camden considered and rejected this option, choosing to 'solve problems' rather than 'apply solutions', with the aim of transforming itself one step at a time.
The first fruits are a council-wide efficiency programme with the avowed aim to do things better as well as cheaper. 'It's a job convincing people that the two things go together,' admits Gibb most, including a vociferous local press, believe that the only way of doing more is by increasing resources. But the better (and cheaper) way of increasing capacity is to stop doing things that add no value, such as bureaucratic processes, and do more valuable things instead.
Unlike the 'solutions' approach, this in turn involves spending time first to understand the problems that need to be fixed and what residents actually want, which usually has more to do with how the council interacts with residents.
A good example is the council's work on housing. Faced with demand for housing that vastly outstrips supply, Camden had created a bureaucratic industry to defend itself. The penny dropped, says Michael Scorer, deputy director for customer service, when the council began looking at the issues through the lens of the resident with a problem, rather than that of a landlord.
Instead of obsessing about its own scarce accommodation, Camden now offers people options, including moving out of London, or into the private sector, which it undertakes to help them achieve. Some residents have been helped on to the first rung of the property ladder none, claims Camden, is left in B&Bs or hostels. As the emphasis shifts from doing what's legally compliant to addressing real needs, results improve. The critical moment is the first, says Scorer: asking people what they want. 'That puts them in the driving seat - they make the decisions. And the whole bureaucratic industry is gone.'
Even better is Camden's treatment of the homeless and rough sleepers: new arrivals are quickly identified, assessed and plugged into a well-honed procedure for getting them back into a more settled, independent life. Clearly better, it is also cheaper to tackle the issue directly and early. Scorer claims some 'inspiring stories' - not a phrase that is often associated with local government.
'Better and Cheaper', announced last October, has a distance to run before it becomes a way of life. One component - 'workforce remodelling', including cutting staff costs - has aroused suspicion among some of Camden's 4,200 non-teaching staff, but Gibb believes that in the main they are responding positively to the 'simple, friendly, fair and enabling' values that the borough's services need to embody - and to residents' reactions to the improvements in visible services, such as housing and parking. Not to mention the budget: this year Camden froze its council-tax take and increased spending on services by 4.3 per cent.
As confidence grows, many councils like Camden, high-performing in government terms, are chafing at what they feel are obsessive controls exerted by Whitehall. If the idea of 'place-shaping' - jargon for moving the emphasis from providing services to a broader role of advancing the wellbeing of a community and its citizens - is to mean anything, councils must be free to exploit their great asset: being close to the ground. Gibb says: 'The government isn't taking advantage by moving to the next step.'
'Place-shaping', for once, is about purpose, not process. Having imagined the end, government needs to will the means.
The Observer, 22 April 2007