Barnet council are on the front page of the Guardian today because so far their efforts to find new ways to provide public services have cost more than they've saved.
Regardless of what you think of Barnet's methods or motives, trying to do new things in new ways is bound to cost something at the start. It might not be money, but it will be time, effort, imagination, care, committment and courage.
If it doesn't, it would be easy and everyone would be doing it, wouldn't they? And then it wouldn't be innovation, would it?
The Gaurdian story - in that spot across the bottom of the front page that is reserved for stuff that isn't news - is a good example of self-serving "ooh look we made a headline" reporting that makes it harder for other organisations, whose methods and motives that Guardian might be more in sympathy with, to try and do new things in new ways. But then that's The Broadcast Media for you.
But, in the kind ofhappy coincidence that seems to follow my meetings with him around, I happened to hear Sam Markey (@sammarkey), who works for Barnet council, give a very insightful and entertaining talk yesterday about the process they are trying to go through in Barnet and why, and I was going to post my brief notes from it any way, so here they are:
Barnet has 300 000 people, which was a bit of an eye opener for me, it's bigger than Manchester.
A slide about the huge amount of money - it looked like it was into billions, but I may have got that wrong - when all public spending in Barnet is pooled. Surely there must be some space to do things in new ways with all that money that are both better and cheaper.
A slide and some figures about the amount of landfill waste that Barnet produces and how it is growing. How can that be changed?
Asking themselves"how do we change behaviour, save money and increase satisfaction?"
Making clear through web visualisations and so on what the needs in the borough are is the first step to establishing partnerships between the council and citizens to provide solutions.
[I have a nice piece from Alan Williams of United Response about needs and assets in the first issue of Any Plan Will Do, but you'll have to buy a copy for that, 50p, no online edition.]
What savings can be made by pooling all public sector spending and what is the democratic oversight of that?
A very telling observation I thought about "democractic distance" - the distance between council services and the public is one step - you vote for a councillor, they decide. The distance to the local health authority is umpteen steps - you vote for an mp who may then sit on a committee to oversee the authority. This struck me as similar to the Localopolis arguement for one unified structure for local decision making - you vote for a council that is in charge of everything.
Barnet are “prototyping new examples of how to provide services”.
The use of the word prototyping rather than pilots makes a difference because:
*it's better branding - "public sector pilots" have a negative connotations
*they are qualitatively different – prototyping is an iterative process in which the end point isn't known
Local authorities need courage to try new things.
And in the discussion afterwards including the audience and other speakers, it came out that the government's localism drive is being directed from the centre by the Cabinet Office and that a set of shadow targets and are being drawn up which local authorities will be expected to meet. So so much for localism.
This post is one in an ongoing series in which people who used to read this blog for short fun posts about Monsters and invisible sprites who lived in mobile phones wonder what the f**k has happened. But Monsters will be back, probably in March 2011.