14.08.17

Getting the most from the public sector in a time of adversity

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 17

In the tumultuous age of Brexit, devolution, diversity and localism, there was plenty on the Public Sector Show 2017 agenda to talk about. PSE’s Josh Mines reports from a busy day at ExCel London. 

While topics ranging from Brexit to digital resilience and diversity were all discussed at the Public Sector Show 2017, a number of important subjects repeatedly came up in discussions and speeches as key focuses for the industry. 

Devolution and localism were both seen as absolutely vital to local government’s approach to tackling a wide spread of issues in communities. What lies at the heart of both ideas is putting decision-making back into local areas and handing power to residents to influence the direction of reform. 

Economic expert Bev Hurley CBE, chair of the Institute of Economic Development, kicked off the conference by making this crucial point – that with Britain’s exit from the EU looming over central government, now was the time for local government to take the initiative and use it as a unique opportunity to change local areas for the better. 

“The key opportunity presented by Brexit is around localism and devolution agendas, particularly with combined authorities, the new mayors and Local Enterprise Partnerships,” said Hurley. 

However, this does not mean that there aren’t significant obstacles to be overcome. “The challenge of the localism agenda is around skills deficits and leadership deficits at a local level, and so I think there is a great deal more to do to improve the capacity and capability of leadership and particularly around how we collaborate and overcome political differences,” she added. 

Public Sector Show 2017 (423)

Devolved decision-making 

From within the public sector similar noises were also made, with calls for decision-making and responsibility for budgets to be moved away from Whitehall. County councils had particularly choice words for the government when it came to how this process had slowed down over the last year. 

Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network (CCN), explained that despite promises to give local government a seat around the Brexit table, little had been done so far to involve communities in this conversation. 

Having heard messages like this from local government, it would be easy to think that central government was not fully embracing the localism agenda. But a speech from Jo Farrar, director general for local government and public services at the DCLG, seemed to give the exact opposite message to the audience of public sector officials. 

“When I talk about localism and coming together it’s really in that spirit, and how we engage and help out communities to work with local government, central government and third sector deliver better outcomes for people,” she explained. 

Farrar also focused on how government expected the third sector to get involved in communities, and what charities could do to help partners in local government. 

She talked in particular about the ways in which third sector organisations across the country were able to be “proactive” in assisting to deliver services, and in particular for continuing the work done through initiatives such as the Troubled Families Programme. 

But anyone hoping for much more than light words of encouragement from the government would have been left disappointed by Farrar’s speech. 

“Thank you from me for all the work you’ve been doing, as we know you’re under intense pressure,” she stated. “We know that government is busy exiting the EU and that is taking up a lot of time. And we know that we can’t rely on legislation to change services, which means we need to continue to work together and really look at how we do things differently and make lives better for those who live in the UK. 

“Together we are learning from recent months. We are stronger, and we can help to build communities and we can help to build other people’s lives.” 

Workforce 

If Brexit, and how the public sector deals with its ramifications, is the key question for the public sector in 2017, then a vital component of the answer is the workforce. This was an important value that Rupert McNeil, chief people officer at the Cabinet Office, said that the Civil Service was working hard to address. 

Whilst working on difficult projects with shoestring budgets, McNeil stated that the secret to keeping staff straying to the private sector was in keeping their roles relevant to their skill base, embedding a worker’s purpose into their job. 

“People have an identity and profession, whether its digital, finances, HR, commercial or operations, and what we’re doing is making sure that people can move around within this area and between their passions,” he stated. 

The Civil Service boss used the word “agile” to describe the ideal public sector workforce in the modern day. This certainly is a term that will be familiar to many in the public sector, in a number of different areas. 

In such difficult times, with Brexit on the horizon and unclear messages being sent out by central government around the future direction of devolution across the country, often it seems that staff are expected to juggle a number of different priorities. 

But, as McNeil said, it’s the fact that the public sector performs better in times of adversity that makes it unique and something the UK can be proud of: “Civil servants take change in their stride and financial constraints, whereas in a commercial environment there’s an assumption that you can buy your way out of problems.” 

Though the future is wildly unpredictable and looks difficult to navigate, it seems that the general consensus is that with a secure, stable and hardworking workforce, local government should be, and needs to be, at the forefront of change to deliver for local communities.

Image: © Public Sector Show

 

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W: www.psshow.co.uk

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