Grabbing the opportunities of change

Glen Manley, Associate Director Local Government, NSL

Change is inevitable. Nothing in life stands still. Change is just something we have to live with and take in our stride as we move through our personal and business lives. But there’s a big difference between change and the prospect of change. As Councils evaluate the impact of service transformation and contemplate the prospect of local government reforms, there’s also no escaping from the political machinations of Brexit and how our extrication from the European Union will impact the funding and delivery of public services.

To some it all constitutes a perfect storm – best to batten down those hatches and ride through those rough seas until calmer waters return! But let’s not fool ourselves. Can we really foresee when those calmer waters might return? And, if we really do expect to ride out the storm, do we really know what position we are likely to find ourselves in further down the line? Of course, the answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘No’! It would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise. Inaction when faced with the prospect of change simply defers the inevitable, compromises the scope to embrace the changes with confidence, compounds risks further down the line and runs against all the principles of effective and efficient service provision.

A far more appropriate stance would be recognise that change is unavoidable and to create an environment within which change is readily accommodated without service disruption and where new opportunities can be exploited to full effect – improving service standards and efficiencies in equal measure. We don’t need to view the prospect of change with trepidation or wait for the detailed outcome of complex and prolonged political debate and negotiation. We just need to ensure we are ready to respond when the time comes, and ensure we are prepared for whatever the future may hold. This clearly points to the need for agility, flexibility and responsiveness.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that forward-thinking authorities are harnessing insight and innovation and looking at service redesign and demand management as well as early intervention and preventative measures. Working with like-minded partners, it’s this pursuit of new forms of service delivery that’s driving one of the most significant changes within local government – the development and adoption of new forms of commissioning that are far removed from traditional procurement practices.

Such initiatives are not a kneejerk reaction to the prospect of change. They represent a considered and deliberate response to the opportunities presented by continued societal and economic change and reflect ever-developing opportunities for community engagement and service improvement in the digital age. Far from being reactive and hesitant, they demonstrate foresight. They also show the confidence that’s needed for any public service provider as it looks to flex and adapt to protect frontline services and meet the changing aspirations, priorities and behaviours of citizens.

Critically, this more refined and relevant approach to the commissioning of services is underpinning a concerted move away from legacy towards new working practices and new processes to help maximise self-service and to improve operational efficiencies. Such progress is helping a growing number of local authorities to adopt more efficient contracted delivery models and to divert demand to more accessible and effective engagement channels – in some cases, changing the behaviours of customers themselves.

It’s important to remember, however, that the citizen is right at the heart of this commissioning revolution, with decisions founded on genuine citizen insight. But that’s not all. It’s also a model that is helping to minimise risks and improve service consistency and integration across all forms of interaction. And it’s an approach that’s helping to create a more dynamic culture and improving operational agility – all of which represent the qualities that really matter as local government prepares (rather than braces itself!) for further change in the coming years.