Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 89: How to overcome the challenges facing County Councils

With special guest Simon Edwards, CEO, County Council Network

✔ What are the big priorities for county councils?

✔ What approaches can help county councils achieve them?

✔ What does the workforce of the future look like?


Welcome to episode 89 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

And I’m your host, Michael Lonnon.

What does it take for councils, that may be growing in size, to still deliver at a local level? How can they continue to make decisions that make a difference for local people that build on local opportunities, local challenges, and local priorities?

One answer is to create a workforce flexible enough to deal with the different pressures they face. But there are others.

And Simon Edwards, CEO of County Council Network, reveals a number of other ways councils can deliver citizen value within the constraints each face.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon
Thanks for joining me, Simon. I wanted to chat with you about some of the challenges that that county councils are facing today. You know, there's a perfect storm of things that are going on at the moment. Potential recession, inflationary problems, economic recovery after COVID, etc. We've got so many different things happening at the moment. But I want to ask you, out of those or if there's something else, what are the main challenges that are keeping council leaders up at night?

Simon Edwards
Yeah, there's a lot to unpack. Let’s think of it in the prism of the overarching political landscape, and then what for our counties are the key issues related for them.

Clearly, we are in a period of great uncertainty. I think you're absolutely right, we're expecting some form of recession, interest rate rises, and a whole set of issues around that, and we need more clarity from the current government on the direction of travel.

I think in terms of austerity, we had 12 to 15 years of austerity. If I'm very generous to the government, I'll say that the first five years of those may have been fair in cutting some of the fat, but many councils are now in a very precarious position offering minimal levels of service, maximum levels of council tax, and that's because funding has, in essence, decreased significantly. What we're now not doing is funding a lot of the really important preventative work that would reduce costs in the long term, which has a knock-on effect for all the services we deliver.

But in terms of counties, we're just released a five-point plan for government. Those look at supporting families and local services through this financial crisis, the inflationary pressures. We're doing lots of work that recognize that some of our councils, 10% of their budget will go, only on covering inflationary pressures. That’s wage increases, capital and revenue in inflationary costs. So if you're going to lose 10% of your budget in an already difficult position, just to stand still to cover inflation, we're in a difficult position. Never mind if there are further cuts.

Michael Lonnon
That’s mind boggling if you think about just 10% to cover the budgetary increase in inflation. So how are councils dealing with that, and how are they trying to overcome and address it?

Simon Edwards
Well, I think that links to some work that we've done with you, and it's one of the overarching themes. We've got two overarching themes to our five main priority areas, and that's climate and net zero. How do we grow a green economy? What are the opportunities and the challenges to deliver net zero? But what are the opportunities to drive green growth and make the country international experts leading in this field.

But the other big thing is transformation. I think through the pandemic, as the report that we did with you shows that councils did transformation using digital technologies faster, quicker and deeper than they've ever done before. Because they had no alternative. We had to invest, we had to get on and do things very differently.

How do we not lose that momentum? How do we build on the examples of that by using digital technology to transform the way in which we engage with residents, and we deliver services and make people themselves more reliant and able to find the answers for themselves.

At the same time we concentrate and focus on areas where people need our help most. Those are things like social care. We've got a major issues around the funding of social care and health and the reforms that government are planning. There's huge issues around children's services, special educational needs, home to school transport, these are budgets that are rocketing up in millions and millions additional.

How do we make sure that we deliver the right housing and the infrastructure that our places need to build sustainable communities, and not a set of housing that's disconnected from everything else. All those things require us to think about how we engage digitally and use digital infrastructure support that wider transformation.

Michael Lonnon
Do you think then that to solve some of the challenges that are in place, they’re going to be growing exasperating in the future, more councils need to be looking at how they are taking investments in technology they've done previous or during COVID? And making better use of those to address some of the things that are coming through? Do you think that's one of the solutions they’re looking at?

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Simon Edwards
I think it has to be a solution, we saw that we did things really quickly, as I've said, and made some changes that would have possibly taken years because of the essential need to deliver this really quickly, the same time as maintaining service levels.

What I think all councils are now grappling with is what is the workforce of the future? How do we make people more resilient, more reliant? How do we make sure our workforce is flexible to deal with the different pressures we face?

Other ways that councils are looking at it, there are some councils who have some reserves left, but they've been using that to plug the gaps in ever decreasing amounts of funding and using it. But once they're gone, they're gone, and no business works with no reserves. You have to have some that are earmarked for the investment side. So again, people are looking at how they do that transformation has to be a major part of that answer. But government understanding the ever-increasing funding requirements of capsules is another aspect.

Michael Lonnon
You mentioned this, I like the phrase workforce of the future, creating the workforce of the future using digital technology. Is there also not just an argument but a statement to say that it is not just a workforce of the future, you're trying to build a sort of community of the future. Trying to build an understanding of how they can also interact with the different things that you're putting in place as a council.

Simon Edwards
I think absolutely, and again, through COVID, demonstrated in a number of areas about how we can change the way in which we engage and inform people about the services that they need and get, and that is more effective and efficient. But it's not just our workforce. It's not just our residents, it's our businesses. There's work that we're doing at the moment, looking at our leadership role in both climate change with small business and big business to say is what support can we do to help you to make the transformations you need around net zero.

So all of those things, we have an important leadership role, and this comes back to one of our other big priorities that I did mention, which is around devolution. Counties being larger scale, but still local, can make decisions that make a difference for local people that build on local opportunities, local challenges, and local priorities. I think actually that leadership role in bringing people along and saying, actually, it's not just about us, it's about our whole community, business, individuals, and everybody. How do we come together to deliver the things in a most efficient and effective way for our place?

Michael Lonnon
I love that idea. I was speaking with a chief executive recently from one council, and their motto is that there's no one bigger than anyone in an organization, all people come together. She was the chief executive and realized that none of the services they can deliver will work without them all coming together. Everyone is important as each other, and that's the only way they're going to deliver efficiencies, deliver the services that the residents need and those sorts of things. So I love that idea.

Simon Edwards
Yeah, it's a leadership role, isn't it? It's a facilitation role. Actually, for those that people who don't understand local government think it's about delivering a handful of services. But those handful of services depend on a whole range of individuals, you can't deliver social care without working with the health service, which is a command-and-control structure from Whitehall.

You actually need to be a brilliant facilitator to bring all the players in an area together - police, fire, health, business, residents, and other bits of local government. Whether they are parish councils or district councils, if you have them, and regional government and regional organizations. How do we work at the right level? You can only do transport and a big business investment on a much bigger scale than even some of our large councils.

But some of the stuff, how do we make sure that it’s applicable to a local village and a local parish area? So it's about bringing people together at the right level to make the right decisions, but cascading some power down to lower levels where you say actually, these decisions can be made much, much closer to people. But big investment stuff about how we're going to build our society needs to be made at that level.

How do they work together? How does that cascade down that power imbalance? So facilitation and leadership are the big skills not just management of delivery of ever decreasing amounts of money on smaller and smaller amounts of service.

Councils are grappling with how to create what Simon refers to as the workforce of the future.

A workforce where the people within are more resilient to change, and more capable of overcoming adversity. A workforce that is flexible and able to deal with the different pressures faced.

Simon believes leaders that provide more of a facilitation role will help. Bringing people together at the right level to make the right decisions, but cascading power down to lower levels where decisions can be made closer to where the impact is most readily felt.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, until next time, take care of yourselves.

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