Pro-social consultations are a symptom of successful public bodies (Part 1)

The economic climate is bleak, perhaps, as some say, the worst fiscal crisis in decades. A new politician in her first meaningful ministerial position takes a tough decision to reduce spending, as a result she is caricatured as a villain. Not 2014 but the early 1970’s, enter ‘Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher’.

Fast forward to today and local government officers and elected officials up and down the country face similarly tough and unpopular decisions. Some may recoil at the comparison to Thatcher (some may relish it) but the pressures are similar. Discussions are happening right now on prickly and unpopular subjects such as ‘reconfiguring’; children’s centres, leisure services, libraries, disability living allowances, and much more right across England. Enough to offend the well to do, the struggling and the muddling all in one swipe.

In such instances the truism that life is lived forward then understood looking back is never more prescient. How will we interpret the inevitable cuts in years to come? Was there ideology or cold expediency? Was there a vision of making it work another way and enough dynamism to embrace it?

As we head into an inevitable round of consultations on statutory services anxious Heads, Directors and Elected Officials will be demanding that we get the process right. Those same anxious Heads, Directors and Elected Officials may wake in the night with palpitations at the thought of angry mobs at public meetings and journalists needling to unearth the scent of blood. Those bears will be there whether the process is right or not, whether you sleep is down to what lies behind your consultation.

In this respect it is a little like a penalty shootout (it would be this month wouldn’t it), walking up to the spot knowing that you want to score but without a clear view on where you are going to hit it leaves you open to a messy and undignified result. Much better to approach the spot knowing why you  are hitting it and where it is going;  low to the corner with your full commitment behind it is my suggestion but my colleague says statistically it’s full power high in the centre (keeper moves more often than not).

Saving money is taken for granted but it can’t be first and last, if it is it represents the former penalty, a wayward swipe with unknowable consequences.  Successful authorities will be the ones that have taken a view on what and where public services need to be in the future. That view, whatever it is, should permeate from the politicians through the officers, and represent the true face of the authority’s ambition for their locality. Consultations are the articulation of leadership (or lack of it), they are a public demonstration that you are moving the place forward tough decisions and all.

The consultations that are delivered now will illustrate which authorities are getting through it and which authorities know where they are going. Next week we’ll look at what the vision for the future might be and how you can understand what motivates your residents (take our values test). In the meantime look at Nick’s blog on ideas for communicating cuts, authorities that have grasped the issue and are seriously facing up to it will already be employing the same principles.

This is the first of two blogs on consultations and the future of local authority provided services.

Graeme Wilson is Chief Executive of The Campaign Company. You can read more about TCC’s consultation work here.