Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Real Localism Agenda?

A series of unfortunate events? Possibly more revealing than unfortunate, but three things have recently caught my eye re Localism:
1. Nottingham City Council's refusal to comply with the directive to reveal all spending over £500 (apparently it's not mandatory but "measures will be taken" against authorities that do not do so!)
2. The code of practice on local authority publicity published last week, which seeks to restrain local government spending in this area
3. the latest proposal from Eric Pickles that all local authority salaries above £100,000 should be subject to a vote of full Council

None of this seems to me consistent with government's declared intention to "get out of the way" and give local authorities greater freedom address local priorities. The message seems to be that Localism applies provided:
• local authorities pursue broadly the kind of agenda that central government expects them to; and
• they don't do anything silly for which central government could get blamed

The first of these features should come as no surprise. Someone (can't remember who) once said "empowerment means everyone doing what I want to without my having to tell them". And even if Henry Ford never actually said that his customers could have their Model T's "any colour you like as long as it's black", then the point was still made. In this case the message seems to be that councils can have any colour they like as long as it's a shade of blue.

The second feature has always been with us, because the limited powers of local government mean that local elections are treated much more as a barometer of opinion on the present central government than a true expression of local wishes. (I plead guilty to this – my vote in one local election was a protest against the Iraq war, simply because I had no other way of democratically expressing that view.) If you doubt this, find out how many of the electorate do not know the political complexion of their local authority, still less who their local councillors are.

The worry is that this situation will be exacerbated if there is a hidden agenda that advocates Localism whilst at the same time constraining local authorities in an array of new and confusing ways. The single data list, which promises to define everything local authorities must report to central government, is still in draft form and looks ominously complex (see CLG website). Now I appreciate that some of this is inherited, but it still puzzles me to see that 'Fly Tipping' and 'Stray Dogs' must be reported "To protect the national interest, where local accountability is insufficient"!

I will be interested to see whether "Whatever Eric Pickles' latest idea is" makes it as a separate item on later drafts.

So what has this to do with managing performance, supposedly the theme of this blog? It's actually very relevant, because understanding the balance between local priorities and central government requirements has always been a critical part of managing performance in this arena. Many local government balanced scorecards do this explicitly, and have previously captured community priorities in the former category and CAA, NIS and other required indicators in the latter.

There was a lot wrong with the previous targets driven regime: top-down, top-heavy, bureaucratic and in many cases inappropriate. But at least the agenda was clear and the indicators themselves were transparent. The danger now is that we may be moving to a situation not just of moving goalposts, but where the goals themselves are hidden.

And if Localism is just empty rhetoric, what does that mean for Big Society?



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