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Making the most of devolution to join up public services around local, citizen needs

The Government’s commitment to a ‘devolution revolution’ provides a significant opportunity.

The Government’s commitment to a ‘devolution revolution’ provides a significant opportunity to accelerate public service reform and join up around local, citizen needs. Nehal Davison shares some insights from a new Institute for Government paper on the perennial barriers to joining up services, and ways to tackle them.

In September 2015 various cities, towns and counties across the country submitted proposals for a significant transfer of powers from central to local government. A month later, a £900 million devolution deal with Sheffield City Region was announced, with the North East Combined Authority deal following soon after. Although the focus on boosting local economic growth and infrastructure features strongly in all 38 bids, many areas are also asking for more control over key public services such as skills, health, welfare and employment.

The potential benefits are clear – closer integration of areas like health and social care, leading to services that are better aligned to the needs of a local population. Indeed, political momentum behind the need to reform and join up public services around citizens is ramping up considerably. In September, the Prime Minister outlined his vision for a ‘smarter state’ and called on local authorities, government departments and charities to work more closely together to deliver ‘a whole-government approach rather than a series of piecemeal and inconsistent interventions’. At a recent Institute for Government event Matt Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, emphasised the need to be more ‘empathetic about the needs of the citizen’. The upcoming Spending Review could provide an opportunity to realise this, as organisations consider how they might work more effectively to redesign services.

However, this agenda is not new. Countless attempts to join up public services have ultimately failed to translate into system-wide change and collaboration between organisations remains rare. From the New Deal for Communities (1998), Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (2000) and Local Areas Agreements (2005), to Total Place (2009), Community Budgets (2010) and Troubled Families (2011), we are still grappling with the challenge of how to effectively join up and integrate local services. Today, the Institute for Government has published a map of how local public services feel from a citizen perspective, a timeline of national attempts to join up public services at a local level from 1997 to 2015, and a short paper which outlines the five barriers that repeatedly get in the way of more joint working between organisations:

  1. Short-term policy and funding cycles can restrict the ability of those delivering local services to invest in the long-term partnerships needed to meet local, citizen needs.
  2. Inconsistent commissioning, funding and regulatory processes can make it difficult for local services to be designed around a ‘whole person’, as opposed to simply catering for individual needs or specific ‘life events’.
  3. Cultural differences between different professions and organisations can discourage collaboration on the ground.
  4. Barriers to data sharing can make joint working between distinct teams or organisations practically difficult.
  5. Limited sharing of ‘what works’ in different circumstances can mean that lessons from effective models and practices are rarely built upon.

These challenges won’t be news to those who have spent years trying to tackle them. So what needs to change to ensure success this time round? The paper offers 10 insights on how to practically overcome these obstacles, including: using evidence to help draw resources from a range of organisations; building on existing programmes and structures to enhance good practice; and physically bringing organisations together to ease data sharing.

These insights provide a starting point for thinking about how to translate political rhetoric into real changes on the ground, but some thorny issues remain to be tackled. For instance, it will be important to understand which models of joining up are most effective in improving service quality for citizens (not just in generating savings) and how to share learning from these approaches. It will be just as important to examine what powers and flexibilities local areas need to join up services around citizens, who should receive these (for example, a combined authority, local authority or community) and whether prevailing geographical boundaries help or hinder the ability of local partners to join up services around citizen needs. Most important of all, local and central leaders will need to work through confused accountabilities and governance arrangements, in cases where outcomes are shared and leadership distributed across many organisations.

The Institute for Government will continue to look at how public services can be reformed to better meet the needs of local people. This will include providing practical support and challenge to local partners aiming to deliver more joined up outcomes for citizens, and finding effective ways to share ideas and practices between them. For more updates keep an eye on our project page.

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