01 April 2011

Community Budget pilots present an opportunity to demonstrate the much heralded decentralisation agenda in action. To do so, pilot areas and central government will need to be brave and truly experiment with new ways of working.

Today marks the launch of 16 Community Budget pilots that promise to pool local budgets around families with complex needs. Eric Pickles has said: "My message to local areas is: don’t be afraid to think big - to be as bold and as innovative as you can. This is the future for public services."

The issue Community Budgets is seeking to address is well documented (not least by Total Place.) Families with complex needs often depend on many different public services. But separate chains of command can mean these services are not joined-up in a way that best addresses their needs.

The result is significant cost to the taxpayer and poor quality services for the families concerned. Community Budgets aim to address this by giving local areas the freedom to pool money across budget lines and design services to reflect local needs.

Some may ask whether this is some kind of April fool. How can something as technocratic as reallocating funds across budget lines really lead to big innovations in public services?

If you can get past the management speak you may be surprised. At the very least, Community Budgets offer an opportunity to tease out some of the thorniest issues that continue to challenge the government’s decentralisation and public service reform agendas. Specifically, how can government both devolve power and join-up at the same time?

Local accountability

A key concern within Whitehall and local government circles at the moment is how to make public services more accountable to local populations. Currently public debate about local accountability either resorts to fluffy rhetoric such as 'empowerment' and 'engagement' or focuses on ways in which contracts should be designed.

Investing time in contract design is undoubtedly worthwhile. Whether welfare to work contracts, to be launched soon, deliver the desired outcomes will be largely dependent on how the contracts are written and managed.

But the debate is removed from the populations to whom these services are ultimately accountable. Community Budget pilots present an opportunity for local population to be part of the debate and to demonstrate real devolution in action.

To do so, pilot areas need to experiment with different ways citizens can contribute to the way their services are designed. Examples include participatory budgeting exercises and offering more choice over service providers. These are both key themes in the government’s wider public service reform agenda.

Community Budgets provide the opportunity to run practical experiments to find out what works for a particular area. It will also provide insight into what makes accountability feel real for local citizens:

  • is it clear who should be held to account (especially tricky when working in partnership?)
  • how can citizens seek redress if they are not satisfied with the services they receive?

By truly experimenting with these issues the pilots will be able to offer a practical insight into what needs to be done to make local accountability a reality.

The role of the centre

Central government also has a role to play. Historically, the direct line of accountability back to parliament for nationally raised revenues has made it difficult for secretaries of state to loosen the purse strings.

The backdrop to Community Budgets is largely the same, and has left some asking what will be different this time. To answer those with concerns the departments involved in the pilots need to test to what extent they are willing to ‘let go’ and what triggers, if any, will lead to central government intervention.

These accountability questions are likely to be asked of other public service reforms. If the pilots manage to bring some clarity and answers to local accountability debate, then Community Budgets could shine an invaluable light on the government’s public service reform agenda.

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