Sunday, 9 February 2014

So what are local councils for? A thought on objective-setting


I'm reading the agenda for Bradford Council's Regeneration and Culture Overview and Scrutiny committee (like you do). And I'm struck by the problem with local government - perhaps the problem with government everywhere - the problem of, for want of a better term, 'mission creep'.

Except it's not quite mission creep. The problem is that most of the time, in most places, government is really uncertain about its objectives. It's not that extraneous or new 'objectives' are added to an activity but that government doesn't actually know what its there to do.

Government is something we rather take for granted. We can see the things it does - everything from invading Iraq to emptying out rubbish bins once a week. At the front end, we tend to see the job being done more or less well. Satisfaction rates for waste collection in England are generally pretty high -  certainly over 80% and, in many cases, over 90%. And we don't need reminding how good our front-line troops are at their job.

However (and I'll stick with local government here), sit down with a big local council and ask them what their objectives are. What you'll get is everything from the stupidly banal - "to be a world class city" - to the utterly meaningless. Here by way of example is Manchester Council's 'objective':

As a Council our objective is to support the delivery of Manchester’s Community Strategy through the Manchester Partnership. The Community Strategy was refreshed during 2012/13, reaffirming our vision of Manchester as a world class city as competitive as the best international cities;
  • that stands out as enterprising, creative and industrious
  • with highly skilled and motivated people
  • living in successful neighbourhoods whose prosperity is environmentally sustainable  
  • where all our residents can meet their full potential, are valued and secure 
Who could disagree with any of this - as a mission statement it's wonderful, capturing the idea of a thriving, dynamic, international city. But is it actually an objective? Does it tell me anything about what I should be doing right now? Can it help Councillors and officers know what decisions they should be taking today? And is it a guide to developing a strategy?

Sadly the answer to all those questions is 'no' (I'm not picking on Manchester here - Bradford's will be just as anodyne, just as purposeless, I just couldn't find them).

Local councils are complicated beasts running a lot of different services that, other than being delivered locally, don't really have a great deal in common. Some are related to place - roads, paths, parks, trees and so on - while others such as home help services relate to individual people. Councils respond to emergency situations ranging from flooding through to taking abused children into care. And councils provide (although this is a little moot these days) services such as education across the whole population.

Go on then. Set a clear, understandable and quantified objective for all that activity. Pretty challenging! And this is the problem that results in terms like "world class city" cropping up. It seems to me that, in the absence of a clear external incentive (such as that coming from customers switching to another supplier or from the profit motive) Councils are forced to look within themselves for that incentive.

As a result Councils create visions, missions and objectives that aren't within their capacity to deliver - those four bullet points of Manchester's aren't really within the City Council's gift. The council can influence every one of them but doesn't control them. Nor for that matter are those bullets under the control of government (or 'the wider public sector' as we like to call it) making them almost entirely useless as an 'objective'.

I'm a 'soft loo-paper' Tory. Local government is not some sort of ideological mission to change the world but a fairly prosaic set of services that we think need providing - schools, waste collection and disposal, looking after the roads, helping old and disabled people who need support, protecting vulnerable people especially children and things like parks, swimming pools and libraries that provide for our leisure. Plus a set of statutory roles and functions including planning, licensing and environmental protection.

Our job as a council is to do these things well. Both to the satisfaction of local residents and to agreed objective standards of service quality. For sure we can add a little bit of vision and future planning into our mix of activities but our purpose isn't to change people's behaviour but to provide a place - safe, cared for and open - that allows people to make the most of their individual, personal lives.

The problem is that councils can't leave well alone. We have to poke about at the 'let's change people's behaviour', 'let's save the planet', 'we will transform lives in the borough' sort of stuff with the result being (as Bradford demonstrates) a host of essentially interfering strategies - a 'play strategy', a 'food strategy', a 'cycling strategy', an 'alcohol strategy'. The public hasn't asked for any of this expensive activity and wouldn't even notice if it wasn't there. Yet because the producers of these strategies can provide a tenuous link to the 'objective' or 'vision' they are claimed as vital and essential to the council's purpose.

We fuss and worry about the grandiose - indeed there's nothing us councillors like more than a bit of grandstanding (sorry, 'looking at the big picture'). It makes us sound good, the papers like it and we can pretend we're actually changing something when all we've really got is another wasteful strategy.

What really matters is whether the council has its finances straight, satisfies residents, and meets its own targets on service quality improvement. Making it so the highways engineer, the social worker and the bloke digging the spring beds in the park are all delivering to the objective of the organisation (and even better, can explain how).

Right now council leaderships - political and professional - spend too much time on grand words, strategies and visions but far too little time on making sure children and the old are protected, the roads are swept, the potholes filled, parks tidied and that the loos have soft loo-paper.


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