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Service Options for Local Government

When to Change; How to Change

Time for a change?

For most of the time local government continues to provide its services in much the same way year on year. They are reviewed either internally or externally at least annually under one or more headings but unless there is a significant political or financial problem the changes which result will be marginal. And quite right. Constantly pulling things up by the roots to see if they are still growing, and dismantling the machinery to see if it is still working is expensive, disruptive and demoralising and a greatly overrated activity.

But once in a while something happens to force a major reappraisal.

  • A Government policy initiative or a legal change forces a substantial change in the service to be provided.
  • A political crisis, local or national, brings service quality or cost into sharp focus.
  • A sudden demographic or environmental change takes place.
  • A rapid downward change in the level of resources available for the service results from a general downturn or a realignment. (An upward change usually produces a "more of the same" response).

At such times, when more of the same is not an option, a systematic review of the service and how is marketed and delivered makes eminent sense.

Systematic review

When a service can't go on as before for external reasons or because it is manifestly unacceptable for some reason, that is the moment for an appraisal of the options for change. The basis questions are -

  • What have we been doing up to now?
  • What does the law and the secondary powers demand of us?
  • What do the consumers of the service want from it?
  • What are the local taxpayers prepared to pay for it?
  • What is the best way to provide it?

The questions are not in order of importance but they are in the right sequence and it is important to follow the sequence.

External evaluation

An analysis like this is something which cannot be delivered effectively from within. Only an outsider, who doesn't know the unspoken answers and can ask the "stupid" questions, is able to challenge the assumptions which every organisation adopts as its means of identity and survival. I am almost certain to know a lot less about the service under review than you do; but that frees me to ask the "why", "what" and "how" questions the answers to which may once have been rational but have now become institutional.

Why choose SSSP

Two things in combination put me personally in a unique position to deliver this and give me access to a network of colleagues who can supplement my own range of skills when that is needed (as for example in IT, HR and PS Accounting). The first is that I have a long and successful track record in just this kind of analysis; it's simply what I do best. I think my profile bears that out. Secondly I have recently been involved in an extensive research programme under the aegis of the Centre for Local and Regional Government Research at Cardiff University to understand best practice options across a range of local government services in many local authoirities. As a result I know that doctrinaire "this is how it should be done" solutions seldom work very well. By all means study what others have done in similar circumstances (and with what result) but don't assume that you can simply import the method wholesale without considering the detail of your own circumstances.

What to do next

If you have a reason to think that one or more of your services is not "fit for purpose" (to use the current buzz phrase) give me a call or send me an email, fax or letter. If I think we can help I'll tell you, and tell you how. If I think we can't help I'll tell you that too; no miracles delivered here! I look forward to hearing from you.

Keith Fletcher, November 2008