Friday 12 November 2010

Why someone might say 'bring on the cuts!'

I’ve had a fascinating day in Wales yesterday, talking about co-production to the voluntary sector in Pembrokeshire – meeting some amazing people, and getting what was, to me, a new take on the spending review and the cuts.

I was taken aback by how frustrated so many of the people there seemed to be with the county council, and with local government in general. For its slowness, its risk averse caution, its silo-based bureaucracy, its lumbering lack of imagination.

There was a great deal of fear about the cutbacks, but that was only half the story. I don’t come across the other half of the story so much, until I go outside London, and this was no exception. There was a feeling that only extreme austerity had any chance of re-creating the public sector in a way that was genuinely flexible, bottom up and – most important this one – able to use the resources effectively that people represent.

“Bring on the cuts,” said one of those at the conference I spoke at. I’m sure that isn’t the attitude of everyone; the surprising thing was that it could be said at all.

The theorists of ‘co-production’ argue that, at neighbourhood level, some social problems may actually be solutions to others (for example, lonely older people and children who need reading help – you could tackle them separately, but it might be most cost-effective to link them together).

But being in Pembrokeshire reminded me of the gulf that may now open out between the imaginative local authorities – using their newfound powers – and the unimaginative ones.

The director of one local organisation told me that they had re-organised their various programmes for older people so they could feed off each other. No more separate silos for fire prevention, befriending, visiting and other services.

The response of the local authority? As soon as they heard that the member of staff did not have ‘fire prevention’ in their job title, they cancelled their contract for fire prevention advice.

Don’t waste a good crisis, says Richard Kemp. And maybe, just maybe, the financial crisis is so huge that we can carve out a public service system that not just works, but works on a far more local, responsive and humane level.

But that requires a little imagination from the statutory sector, and in some places – thanks to two generations of recruitment for bone-headed obedience – that is in very short supply. The danger is that we will keep all the bureaucracy and hopelessness, and lose a great deal of valuable, civilised institutions as well.

What we need, politically at least, is a discussion about how we can make sure – given all the constraints of localism – that what we actually get is the other way round.

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