Reinventing local government

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

The time has come for councils to adopt a ‘changemaking’ culture in order to drive a radical reinvention in local government, argues Adam Lent, director at the New Local Government Network (NLGN).

Local government is a strange place these days. Council chief executives and leaders seem to oscillate permanently between near despair at the pressures created by seven years of deep cuts and genuine excitement at the potential presented by modern workforce strategies, new technologies and early intervention. 

These pessimistic and optimistic mindsets are, of course, linked. As painful as austerity has been for councils and the communities they serve, it has undoubtedly spurred local government to become the most innovative and open-minded part of the public sector. And the intensity of this shift is only growing. 

The leadership teams of the most forward-looking authorities are now openly talking about the complete reinvention of the council. The awareness is increasingly widespread that the degree of financial pressure faced by local government is so great that councils now have no choice but to find entirely new ways to deliver services and impact rather than simply scale back existing ways of working. 

As a result, a new transformational agenda has emerged for councils. There are five elements: 

  • Commercialisation: An increasing number of authorities are looking at entrepreneurial ways to generate new revenue streams to fund public services. These range from property investment to purchasing local enterprises and from providing business consultancy to opening retail outlets
  • Demand management: Long discussed and trialled, councils are now increasingly open to shifting funds and working practices towards early intervention to stem the constant rise in demand for crisis support in the areas of children’s services and adult social care
  • Local growth: With the recognition that more vibrant job markets offer a long-term route to reduce pressure on public services, while also expanding the tax base, councils have a renewed interest in using their convening power and their capacity to shape infrastructure as a route to greater economic growth in their areas
  • Digital and data: From the use of new technologies such as robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to sharing, analysing and using data far more widely, councils are getting much bolder in exploring and deploying IT solutions to save money and deliver services more accurately and effectively
  • Reorganisation: The debate about our rather Byzantine system of local government has been reignited, with a number of councils exploring mergers at district level or even being absorbed into upper-tier authorities. The goal is to expand capacity and make the savings arising from economics of scale 

While this agenda offers the prospect of significant change, it needs to move beyond what appears as a relatively random selection of discrete innovations to genuinely constitute a reinvention of the council. This list is largely driven by the pressures of austerity rather than a clear understanding of how organisations need to shift to adapt to a fast-moving world of complex user expectations.

A changemaker approach 

Drawing on academic organisational theory and insights from the commercial and social sector, the NLGN is taking this agenda a step further by developing an approach which emphasises culture change as the key driver of radical reinvention for local government. 

The evidence is growing that the most impactful organisations of the last decade or so have been those that nurture positive behavioural norms amongst their employees, and sometimes wider stakeholder groups, rather than focusing too heavily on institutional structure and formal processes. Indeed, when such organisations reform structure and processes it is usually with the creation of a particular culture and set of norms in mind. 

The importance of culture in part emerges from the recognition that unspoken ways of behaving can exert a very strong and often resilient influence over organisational outcomes. When those norms are positive that is all to the good, but when they are negative, norms can undo any benefits that might be expected from changing the more formal structures and processes of a body. 

In addition, the enormous complexity and fast pace of today’s societies and economies means that organisations must respond far more rapidly and regularly to challenges than previously. 

Under such conditions, formal corporate decision-making processes are simply too slow and rely too heavily on the insight of a narrow group of senior managers. Instead, organisations must rely on the judgement of more junior and frontline staff, making the values and norms that influence those staff all the more important. 

These insights are as true in local government as anywhere else. Indeed, one only needs to have worked in a council for a decent period of time to know how difficult and yet how transformational it can be to shift negative cultures to positive ones.

Of course, this raises the question of what type of culture and what norms should be created within local government. We have called it a ‘changemaking’ culture and it has four key characteristics: 

  • A fierce clarity of mission with a relentless focus on outcomes: The tendency of councils to be little more than a conglomeration of different service delivery units is no longer viable. Reduced funds and rising demand mean that councils need a shared sense of mission focused on making the areas they serve much better places to live by delivering clear long-term outcomes that will ultimately reduce demand, save money and effect social change 
  • Creativity as a norm: Innovation is everything in a world where councils must operate very differently from the past, and where rapid external change and being able to respond to that change is a fundamental feature of high-impact organisations. That means creativity being embedded across the whole organisation, not just amongst a leadership team but also on the frontline of service delivery. In a negative sense, it means challenging the inertia and conservatism that is a feature of all large organisations, but which can be particularly prevalent in the public sector 
  • Self-determination as a norm: There is little point in a council embedding creativity if it does not also allow that creativity to flourish. The hierarchy, back-covering and obsession with status and process that many of the most innovative individuals find so frustrating in local government and the wider public sector must be challenged to be replaced by a spirit of autonomy and entrepreneurialism 
  • Collaboration as a norm: Embedding collaboration and dialogue as norms within councils serves two purposes: it not only reduces the risk of fragmentation which might arise from an emphasis on creativity and self-determination but, more importantly, it secures the improvements in social impact that arise from departments working together that are too often lost when self-interest and territorialism takeover 

The task ahead for councils already embracing this changemaking vision, either in whole or part, is two-fold. The first is to develop a very practical and well-evidenced toolkit to shift organisational cultures and embed the norms outlined above. This is work the NLGN will be focused on over the coming year, drawing on the most advanced academic analysis and empirical studies of changemaking in local government but also in the private, social and wider public sector. 

The second is to start considering the much more radical and even more challenging implication of the changemaking vision: extending it beyond the walls of the town hall. 

Seeing councils as leaders of culture change throughout their communities embedding those three norms of creativity, collaboration and self-determination would place local government at the heart of the type of fundamental shift required to make public service and social impact a genuine partnership between state and citizen. The benefits of such a shift could be enormous, even if the methods to achieve it are in their earliest stages of consideration.


A longer reflection on NLGN’s ‘A changemaking vision for local government’ can be found at:



Cllr Steve Lugg   07/08/2017 at 11:54

Much of the issue in transformation is having councillors with the capacity to deliver innovation, having the genuine ear of the community, and simply being capable of thinking in that way. We swim in a very shallow pond of talent, and the Cabinet system encourages cronyism and cliques.

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