Building a new kind of Council – public sector innovation

The wretched consequence of austerity means that for the whole public sector this is a Town Halltime of ever-squeezed budgets and increasingly complex and demanding populations.

Today the values of Attlee and Beveridge’s welfare state are as relevant as ever – that through housing, healthcare, welfare and education every citizen, regardless of income, will be supported when in need – the formation which public services must take is changing.

If these values are to survive, services must transform to meet the challenges of our times. For example, our Council will have half the money to spend in 2020 as it did in 2010. Between 2010 and 2014 the Council tried to respond to the brutal austerity of the Conservatives through traditional cuts, but this was never going to be sufficient and only worsened the services we deliver for residents.

When I became Leader in 2014, we knew we needed a more radical, innovative response.

If we are going to rise to the challenges of the twenty-first century, of increasing demand and diminishing resources – if we are going to do more with less – and if we are going build our vision of the New East, then we have no choice but to fundamentally transform our public services.

We can no longer cling to the siloed, paternalistic, bureaucratic and ineffective services of the twentieth century, which built in frustration, isolation and dependency. Instead we are going to take our rightful place at the cutting-edge of public sector innovation.

We started our journey in 2014, by inviting the Local Government Association to undertake a peer challenge of our Council. They fed back that our new vision was apt and timely, but that major transformation was necessary – away from paternalism and towards a sustainable, enabling future – if we were to weather the storm of austerity. Next, we established an independent Growth Commission led by Mike Emmerich of Northern Powerhouse stock, to assess our vision and potential. They confirmed our belief that we are London’s growth opportunity, and returned 109 recommendations outlining the monumental task we had ahead of us in order to realise this potential, which we are now acting on.

In 2016, we met these challenges with a transformation programme like no other. We are not interested in salami slicing away at our services, reducing provision without any care for its impact on the community, nor are we interested in large-scale outsourcing or privatisation. To improve outcomes and build aspiration, we knew we had to start by fundamentally changing how the council operates and provides services.

Our ‘Ambition 2020’ programme captured the enduring values of the public sector; public sector values combined with community, and a desire to show that the public sector can be better than the private sector. The programme created a new operating model for the Council, moving away from an organisation working around distinct service siloes, to one designed around outcomes for residents.

The Council’s new service delivery blocks (as opposed to departments) can either be directly managed by the Council, commissioned, contracted or supplied externally. It depends on the most effective and efficient means of achieving our shared vision.

Some services will continue to be run in-house, some will be Council-owned trading companies which will have a contract with the Council. Others will be delivered by external suppliers under contract to the Council. This is public sector innovation all the way. 

There is a red line running through everything we do: we want to save jobs and services, and we are having to manage this is in very tricky circumstances with a government hell bent on laying the blame for their utter failure to manage the economy, on local authorities. We have had our fill of salami slicing services which have been cut to the bone. This is our response. 

And by creating our new services, like Be First, Home Services, My Place and Community Solutions, we are saving jobs and – compared to the awful alternatives we would face – maintaining good terms and conditions.

We should not forget that we continue to pay above the London Living Wage and have found significant savings of more than £1million in senior management in the last two years alone. The principle of fairness to all on pay and conditions and valuing the work our staff do, is very important to me. There is no question of there being a race to the bottom.

At a time when other Labour authorities up and down the country are having to make terrible cuts, we are safeguarding jobs. I am pleased that under my leadership, we haven’t privatised a single thing. We have created council-owned companies. And unlike some other authorities, we remain resolutely part of the National Agreement on pay and conditions. The only exception to this is that we have placed our leisure services in a not-for-profit charitable trust.

Some people might think this sounds a little dry – and I cannot blame them – but it is revolutionising the way we deliver public services. No longer are we restricted by hierarchical siloes and structures. Our Borough’s pragmatic attitude has fuelled this transformation, and now we can focus on one thing and one thing only; doing what is best for the residents of Barking and Dagenham. Furthermore, our approach will allow the Council and our partners to meet increasing demand in a new age of reduced resource and self-dependence.

Central to our people-focused services will be our new Community Solutions service, which went live in October 2017. This will work closely with the voluntary sector and integrate currently siloed services – including housing, community safety, employment and aspects of social care – into one seamless service which wraps around the resident, transforming the experience of public services and tackling the root cause of the problem.

Until now public services have bounced residents and families from team to team, service to service, paperwork to paperwork, fueling anger and desperation while treating the symptoms, but never the cause, of the problem.

The preventative action of Community Solutions will break the cycle of dependency and frustration our welfare system and local services have inadvertently created, offering support to those who need it, but also empowering residents by listening to and working with them. We will offer residents input and responsibility, and as such fundamentally shift our relationship with the community from one of a parent and child, to one of equal partners. By identifying early-on the core problem in each case, Community Solutions will prevent harm rather than reacting to it, and as such fuel more substantial improvements to the life chances and quality of our residents.

Our working-class pragmatism has fuelled the design of a new kind of Council and a new way of working. Our reformed services will enable residents to aspire without fostering dependence. We will adopt a personal, holistic approach to tackle the root cause of a resident or family’s problems, rather than bouncing people from department to department, organisation to organisation, superficially treating the symptom while ignoring the cause.

We know we cannot act alone. Collaboration is crucial. We are working towards a truly place-based approach, in which we work together with our partners, pool resources, and take targeted, cross-sector action to achieve shared goals. Through partnership we can utilise each other’s strengths while not being limited by our own capacity. As democratically elected, accountable representatives of our residents, the Council will act as the gate-keeper to all devolved services and funding, ensuring we make the most of every partner and sector across the Borough.

Our first step was to establish the Barking and Dagenham Delivery Partnership, which we did in November 2016. Made up of all key local stakeholders – including the Met, the Fire Brigade, local NHS Trusts, the Chamber of Commerce, schools, community and voluntary organisations, and two local universities. The Partnership has collective responsibility for leadership of the Borough. It is cross-sector, cross-cutting and shares the whole Borough’s vision, rather than that of any single organisation.

The next step has been to develop the Borough Manifesto, a shared, resident-led twenty-year vision for Barking and Dagenham. We spoke to nearly 3,000 residents during the summer of 2016, who told us what they like and dislike about the Borough, and how they hope it will change over the next twenty years. These conversations formed the basis of our vision, made up of a set of themes, aspirations and targets. The Delivery Partnership is jointly responsible for this vision, and they meet each quarter to assess progress made and plan future collaboration. In our efforts to secure for Barking and Dagenham our fair share of London’s growth, and to build a community which works for everyone, we must cast aside our organisational identities and work together.   

It is equally important that we collaborate with partners in our neighbouring boroughs. Our vision for the New East is widely applicable firstly for East London, and then across the country. However, we also have much to learn from our friends and neighbours. This is a challenging and thrilling time for local government, and we need to observe and learn from the innovative work being undertaken across many authorities in response. Most of all, we are stronger united than we are divided. In areas such as health and social care integration, skills and devolution, we have greater capacity through collaboration than we do by working alone.

Our approach to innovation will not only address the challenges we face as a council, but will also support our partners to deliver the services residents deserve despite the increasing demand and budgetary pressure faced across the public sector. For example, in the last thirty years we have seen the costs of funding our precious NHS double. Yet we still see services struggling to match demand and pay staff a fair wage for their work. Our new kind of council will do more to relieve the pressure on the NHS than merely increases to funding can ever achieve alone. Our preventative, targeted services will allow residents to stay healthy for longer, lessening the need for NHS services in the first instance, and identifying the core need when it occurs. Simply put, when a person has a job that pays, a decent home and a strong support network, they are far less likely to require health services. Our new kind of council will help to free the NHS to focus resources on the critically ill, and pay every member of staff the wage they deserve, ensuring the NHS remains the great Labour invention it is.

As we build a new kind of council we will ensure that equalities, diversity and inclusion are at the centre of the organisation and our values. In 2016 we became the first local authority to adopt a Gender Equality Charter, and are working to deliver its vision. 40% of our councillors are women (a figure I am committed to increase again), as are 60% of the Cabinet. We have recently established women’s and LGBT+ networks for council employees, and are in the process of establishing disability and BAME networks. We have made significant progress since we came into office in 2014, but we still have far to go. Across the country people face discrimination in the workplace for a variety of unjust and unacceptable reasons, and we will work tirelessly to ensure Barking and Dagenham council is an inclusive and welcoming place to work.

Business as usual is no longer a viable option. Austerity and our changing population have made sure of that. Barking and Dagenham is instead working at the cutting edge of public sector innovation to build a new, sustainable and effective Council which empowers and enables residents. We are taking a pragmatic but bold approach to local services, working towards outcomes rather than processes, and handing power and responsibility to those best placed to use it.

We spoke a great deal about the state of our public services during the 2017 general election campaign. As well as making sure they are properly funded, it is through innovation and transformation such as this that we can ensure our public services are fit for purpose and built to last in the 21st century. The Labour Party should acknowledge the value of the approach we have taken in Barking and Dagenham, and unite around public sector innovation as a means of building a fairer and more empowered society.

Further questions 

As the council changes so fundamentally, how do we keep its purpose and values at the centre of the organisation?

How can we ensure our collaborations with partners across the region are properly resourced and funded, so that we can deliver real change?

This is the first iteration of a new model for local authorities up and down the country. How can we build on our experiences to hone and improve this new model?

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