Why community budgets must fail – and why they might succeed

Deep breath now… Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs), Local public service agreements (LPSAs), LPSA2, Single Regeneration Budgets (SRB), the Community Care Act, joint finance/pool finance, Health Action Zones (HAZ), Neighbourhood Renewal Budgets (NRB), Better Government for Older People (BGOP), Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs), Children’s Centres, New Deal for Communities (NDC), Health Improvement Partnerships (HIPs), Health Improvement and Modernisation Plans (HIMPs), Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs), the National Service Framework for Older People (NSF), the Rough Sleepers Unit, Section 31 pooled budgets, Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), Local Area Assessment (LAA), the Primary Care Support Service (PCSS), Children’s Trusts, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Social Exclusion Taskforce (SETF) report, Neighbourhood Renewal Strategies, Community Strategies, the Data Protection Act, Health People, Healthy Lives, the Innovations Forum, the Social Investment Bond feasibility study, the review of the local performance management framework, Local Economic Partnerships, Partnerships for Older People (POPPs), ThinkFamily, Project SEARCH, Commissioning, More Commissioning , and indeed the Commissioning Support Programme (and Excellence in Commissioning) – and now, community budgets (and neighbourhood community budgets)…

So, apart from Being Very Important (and having obligatory TLAs) – what do all these have in common? (Well, apart from the one I made up and the one I definitely got wrong)…. They are all things that have ‘happened’ to local government and partners over the last fifteen years or so. They are almost all central government-directed, they are all designed to encourage ‘partnership working’. And very few of them really changed the world in the way they aspired to do!

Don’t get me wrong. A number of them moved forward the agenda significantly (if you’ll excuse the form of words). I got the pleasure of quoting Yes, Minister to the ODPM officials when I was part of ‘evaluating the burden of the local authority performance reporting landscape’…

Sir Humphrey: If local authorities don’t send us the statistics that we ask for, then government figures will be a nonsense.
Jim: Why?
Sir Humphrey: They’ll be incomplete.
Jim: But government figures are a nonsense anyway.
Bernard: I think Sir Humphrey wants to ensure they’re a complete nonsense.
Cartwright       I’m saying, nevertheless, South Derbyshire is the most efficient local authority in  the UK.
Minister           Most efficient?  I’m supposed to be ticking them off for being the least efficient.
Cartwright       Look at the figures.  
Minister           I thought they didn’t send us any?
Cartwright       No, but they keep their own records perfectly well.  I’m going on those.  (He opens a file and shows the Minister.)  They’ve got the lowest truancy record in the Midlands, the lowest administrative cost per council house, lowest ratio in Britain of council workers to rate income, clean bill of public health, with the lowest number of environmental health officers

But there was something somewhat irritating in the way these ‘brand new ideas’ were repeatedly launched by the government with the patronising promise of ‘enabling’ and inspiring the ‘best of the sector’ with promises of freedoms and flexibilities. All too often, the new performance indicators were applied, the ‘partnership working’ was agonisingly worked through, and some results were achieved – but the freedoms and flexibilities seldom lived up to their promises.

So, what about community budgets? (And their little sibling, the neighbourhood community budget). On the face of it, it doesn’t look promising. First of all, get out of your mind anything about the community being involved with budgets or budget setting (participatory budgeting barely made a blip, and that was only because Ben Page made it part of his after-dinner circuit for a few months).

The department for communities and local government (never notably influential in corralling or negotiating amongst the big girls like Treasury and the DWP in the past), has very kindly and generously offered local government additional freedoms and flexibilities. Oh, and a whole bunch of civil servants from across government departments on secondment. I can hear you struggling to contain your enthusiasm. In their eagerness to win this great accolade, local authorities have produced a kind of smörgåsbord menu – a whole agglomeration of all the big things local government has always wanted to achieve, plus the latest dishes du jour. Results based payments? Check. Infrastructure for economic development? Check (and not just York stone paving this time – see my forthcoming article on The York Stone Paving and Junction Treament Revolution of the late 1990s). Integration of public health, social care, and primary health? Check. Community investment bonds? Check. Reducing gang violence? Yes, it’s all there.

So – it’s doomed to fail (or, in the usual way of political initiatives, Doomed To Succeed, whatever happens in reality). Or… perhaps not. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something seems subtly different this time. Perhaps the way that the central government secondees – as well as being intelligent and well-educated, as we’d expect – are actually pragmatic and delivery-focused. Perhaps the way that everyone seems very open and aware about the limitations of their own organisations – and prepared to work their way around them. Perhaps the way – although the community budget manifestos contain the usual jumble of problem statements, assertions, and unproven hypothesis about pre-determined solutions – the people actually on the ground are drawing from a real evidence base! Perhaps because everyone’s had a dose of financial and political reality and is working out what it takes to sell new ideas and new ways of working to politicians, stakeholders and the like. Perhaps because there promises to be real networking and sharing of ideas between the councils involved.

And perhaps, in an odd sort of way, because of the one thing that central government omitted from the usual recipe this time around – the cash. That’s right – all these expectations, all these challenges, and  not even the tiniest ‘success percentage’. Sure, the Treasury might (though no one knows how it will be evaluated) make money available if there’s an invest-to-save or results-based payment or similar business model (but even the Treasury won’t look a gift horse in the mouth). So apart from some mild fanfare, a bunch of eager secondees, and some communications linkages, we’re all in this together. We have a bunch of bright people, some ideas worth testing, and a desire to change results for the better. So… just maybe… this time will be different.

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