Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2015 & beyond: back to the future

Looking back over 2014 & ahead to the New Year it's hard not to see a plethora of challenges for the public sector.  Political commentators & pundits seem to be in general agreement that if there's one thing for certain regarding the forthcoming General Election, it's that nobody knows what to expect. Labour or Conservative, alliances with UKIP or the LibDems or the Greens or the Nationalists, the possibilities are complex & confusing.  Factor in the competing & confused policy pronouncements on public spending, the NHS & devolution (see previous posts) amongst other things & the future(s) become even more difficult to comprehend.
Despite this landscape, however, I am approaching 2015 in an unusually optimistic manner. This is unusual for reasons that go beyond the fairly common "meh" feelings towards the forced jamboree of New Year's Eve & the resolutions that go unfulfilled. I think the optimism stems from a feeling of possibility & creativity that is apparent across sectors, organisations & generations in recent months. The Scottish referendum may have been a catalyst for this (regardless of your views on the result, it was a victory for democracy & debate), alongside the developing perception of the revolutionary possibilities for the future. "Digital" is a shorthand catch-all for the possibilities for technological change, but the potential is obvious. Some impacts will be negative & the understanding needed to adapt to change will grow even further. But the potential for innovation, creativity & (re)design of business, public services & lifestyles is enormous. 
This optimism, it is fair to say, is not my natural default setting. The first General Election I was eligible to vote was in 1997, the year of New Labour's landslide victory & subsequent euphoria leading to widespread disillusionment. Any kind of Pollyannaism in politics or public policy raises eyebrows, including mine. But for now at least I see the options open to voters in May as a huge opportunity to influence & inform how we build the futures ahead, together. 

If you want to be part of how we do this please get in touch. 

Wishing you a happy & prosperous New Year.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The ring-fenced sacred cow

Wednesday’s Autumn Statement arrived on a wave of publicity, pre-announced gambits & commentariat predictions.  But for those of us expecting or being encouraged to expect more detail on English devolution proposals the actual statement failed to live up to the hype.  The Chancellor made an early reference to the “Northern powerhouse” that excited some social media speculation, but beyond a summary of proposals for Greater Manchester & a reference to English Votes for English Laws the subject didn’t progress beyond Mr Osbourne’s pledge that “my door is open to other cities who want to follow”  the example of Manchester.  Reform of stamp duty took the limelight, & reform of English democracy retreated to the sidelines.

The coverage following Wednesday has (Stamp Duty excepted) centred around the analysis that the continued long term public sector spending plan detailed in the Autumn Statement will lead to the lowest proportion of state spending since the 1930s.  A further £15billion reduction in Whitehall spending over the first two years of the next Parliament have been promised (subject to voters’ agreement, of course) under the slogan of “Savings and reform”.  This section of the statement is worth quoting in full:

“We’ve shown in this Parliament that we can deliver spending reductions without damaging frontline public services if you’re prepared to undertake reform.

Crime is down.  Satisfaction with local government is up.

Savings and reform.

We will do exactly the same again.”

All of which is perhaps unsurprising.  Data sourced by the IFS and reported by The Economist illustrates the percentage change in Whitehall departmental budgets between 2010-11 and 2014-15, with Local Government reducing by around 25% and Communities by 45%.  And yet protection remains and grows for certain areas, especially the NHS.

If we go along with the old saw about the NHS being the closest thing England has to a religion, then National politicians appear to be devout believers.  The Chancellor announced a further £2billion every year (yes, every year) to frontline NHS services, alongside £1.2billion investment in GP services.  And who could disagree with more acute care, more nurses, more Doctors, more NHS?  Labour, who see the NHS as their trump electoral card, certainly couldn’t & so promptly announced that the extra £2bn announced by the Chancellor would be added to the £2.5bn they had already pledged should Ed Miliband become Prime Minister.

This NHS arms race between the political parties is a key electoral theme, & as such can be seen as an entertaining parlour game.  Instead of tanks & rocket launchers parading across Red Square, perhaps our political leaders dream of columns of ambulances & paramedics marching along The Mall.  But it does obscure and ignore some of the biggest (actual, real) challenges facing our society, our population’s health and future development.

People working within & outside public services know the issues we face: an ageing population that is living longer but enduring more long term illnesses; significant issues with obesity, diabetes & other limiting conditions; longer working lives & the requirement for skills development, re-training & innovation; the shortage of quality affordable housing, & so on.  From the Marmot Review onwards every analysis of current and future demands on the state has identified the importance the wider, or social, determinants of health & wellbeing.  The importance of prevention, of changes upstream to reduce future impacts of these issues is commonly accepted. The problem is the very people & organisations that have the potential to at least assist in meeting these challenges in the future are currently being slowly strangulated & the focus remains on the last port of call, the already overstretched & buckling Health service. 

None of which is to say that reform & savings are not required across the whole of the public sector.  Most of my colleagues & acquaintances understand the need for change, & believe the days of largesse are deservedly over.  The newer generations entering the public sector workforce are bringing with them a greater emphasis on creativity, problem solving & inventive solutions, unburdened by concerns over tradition, hierarchy & political ideology.  What they require is an environment that provides the freedom to innovate, collaborate & genuinely re form how the public sector might operate, unhindered by ring fences & political groupthink.  The sacred cow of NHS funding illustrates the barriers that remain between the present & future forms of the public sector.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Rochester, Devolution and the futures of local government

Today’s the day of the Rochester by-election, with the potential result of a further representative of UKIP entering Parliament.  Ever since the Scottish independence referendum, the political class & media have been focussed on two concerns: what next for devolution in the UK, & what does this mean for England?

The potential devolution of further powers to Scotland & (by assumption) Wales seems to have had more impact on specifically English politics than that of the Celtic nations.  The continuing rise of UKIP &, despite its name, the party’s very Anglo-centric focus has been one outcome.  A second has been the scramble for position from various interested parties seeking to seize the opportunity.  In this respect, Greater Manchester is currently in the vanguard with the “Devo Manc” proposal, although this does come with the caveat of an imposed Elected Mayor model rejected by Mancunians not so long ago.

The major cities &/or “City Regions” are currently leading the way & winning the narrative of devolution.  There is much talk of a “Northern powerhouse” & connected cities pan-Pennines & beyond.

But where does that leave non-city, or non-“Northern” (or both!) areas?

It’s worth noting the political dimension to these positions. Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s early morning paean to the need for “English votes for English Laws” following the Scottish vote; naked political posturing in the guise of the Englishman’s New Clothes.  But the subsequent clamour for devolved powers to cities also has as much to do with their being (broadly speaking) traditional Labour strongholds; without which the Labour party would be in even more difficulty than present.

So, the positioning is clear: devolve to established, traditional & in the most part “Northern” cities in order for the established, traditional Labour controlled authorities to remain & gain greater powers over finance, housing, economic development, & so on.

All of this positioning however, still fails to answer a crucial question: what happens in non-urban, non-“Northern” areas?  The post Scotland Referendum debate has been so focussed on the mythical disillusioned Northern voter that whole areas of England appear to have vanished from the political landscape, at least in terms of the devolution debate.  Does this illustrate a gulf between & within the political parties’ visions for England?  In the “Northern” cities (& Scotland, & possibly Wales) disillusioned voters need devolved budgets, local priority setting, economic regeneration strategies & transport infrastructure investment.

Whereas in the smaller cities, towns, districts, boroughs & villages in the south, west, east, midlands, & non-metropolitan North the focus is on immigration, tradition, “English” values & the scramble to out-UKIP UKIP.  (How much time has been spent debating economic infrastructure, combined transport authorities or similar issues in the Rochester by-election campaign?)  The silence from the main political parties regarding non-Northern metropolitan devolution is complete.  Some cities, such as Nottingham, & regions including the West Midlands are trying their best to ride the devolution wave in the wake of Manchester & the Northern Powerhouse.  But where is the Midlands Future summit? Or the East Anglia Powerhouse propaganda?

Almost all voices, from the Conservative Party to the RSA City Commission to the trailblazing MP Graham Allen agree that English devolution will asymmetrical.  The Manchester model (if or when it becomes a reality) will not be the Maidenhead model, & so on.  This is a logical & progressive approach, & should be applauded.  But that’s not to say that devolution governance should be proscribed according to the political environment & ideological battlegrounds of current political discourse.  The future of all forms of government – national, regional, metro, shire, & district – in the whole of the UK, face enormous challenges.  The benefits of subsidiarity (local involvement, accountability, trust and so on) run counter to the centralising tendency of Central Government, but in advocating localism and devolution the major political parties have acknowledged that 21st Century decision making needs to be guided by local needs, and address local challenges. In order to meet those challenges, our political leaders & centres of power need to put aside their concerns over Rochester & even the General Election of May 2015 & consider how all parts of England & the UK will be best positioned for 2025 & beyond.  By focussing on entrenching their current powerbases, they risk stagnation, greater discontent & obscurity & we, in turn, risk losing a huge opportunity for change.

New blog: welcome to Infinite Futures

This is the new home for the Infinite Futures blog, where I'll be posting thoughts, articles & other things on subjects including foresight, futures & horizon scanning. Local government & how it adapts to futures will be a recurring theme.
Let me know what you think & please join the conversations