Under the microscope – The future of public services

THE CO-OPERATIVE DEAL: Discussing the new RSA report on Oldham Council's progess with (L-R) co-authors Atif Shafique, Ben Lucas, and Jon Cruddas MP.
THE CO-OPERATIVE DEAL: Discussing the new RSA report on Oldham Council’s progess with (L-R) co-authors Atif Shafique, Henry Kippin, and Ben Lucas.

WHAT is the future of public services?

That is the question that is vexing Council Leaders, Chief Executives, senior officers and commentators up and down the country – and keeping them awake at night. 

To manage expectations I should start by saying that I and Oldham Council certainly don’t have all the answers – but we do have a clear programme to address this agenda.

We are keen to move Oldham Council forward and to do that we’re focussing on making ourselves more accountable, more relevant and less self-focused.

The Council is, of course, here to serve all the residents of the Borough, not for self interest – although I’ll await the inevitable cries of “You must be joking…”

As part of Local Democracy Week we held an event at Oldham College with students to debate ‘the future of public service’.

This was a source of inspiration for a political geek like myself – great contributions and an insight into the issues facing young people growing up in Oldham.

Balancing competing interests is the constant struggle here.

With almost any decision or policy you may well get majority support but it is unfortunate that the majority are usually silent about it – and the minority of those disgruntled all too vocal.

Keeping your head up so that you retain focus on the task ahead can be difficult when a tiny few won’t accept that councillors have the right to an opinion that differs from their own.

We also have to balance competing interests – the individual versus the collective; the long term versus the short term; and, of course, all this against what is:  publicly acceptable, affordable and actually possible.

One thing which is clearer than ever before is that we need to redefine the relationship so that the public service is owned by the public.

That is especially true in the same week as Ben Gummer, the Conservative MP for Ipswich says that many local councils are “self-governing oligarchies of mediocre”. Pot, kettle and black perhaps coming from a Westminster politico, but unfortunately most residents think the same.

In the same week we also received our long awaited report from the RSA on our progress towards Oldham becoming a Cooperative Council – working with the community, being firmly part of the community and having an equal relationship.

This report – see http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2012/10/oldham-shows-how-co-op-councils-can-work-says-think-tank/– was an honest assessment of where Oldham Council is up to right now.

We have great ambition but we do need to move quicker to devolve services, to empower ward councillors to be the community leaders they have been elected to be, and to adapt our approach in the way we deliver council services.

It is clear we have set the foundations for a new approach and I am pleased that has been recognised, but as a Council we also accept the challenges moving forward.

By sheer coincidence I attended the first module of the Local Leaders course last week.

This is a programme of training and support for local councillors designed to give them the skills, knowledge and information to help them to help their constituents.

The world is changing and councillors need to change too.

We need to keep them fully up to date on changes, for instance, to benefits, Council Tax localisation, and debt advice. These are all areas where they need to know the facts before they can properly serve the public and understand their difficulties.

So as we try to change Oldham the challenge is on all of us – residents and Oldham Council – to pull together.

If we have any chance of emerging from this recession in a decent state of health we must focus our energy on the things that matter.

Equally we need to listen more and act on what we hear.

We also need to accept that at times the noise is loud simply because we’ve got it wrong – and it does seem like politicians saying sorry is all the rage nowadays.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

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