Word on the street scene

29 May 09
CHRIS LESLIE l Joined-up working is crucial if councils are to improve services. This is particularly true for the local environment, where better use of technology and improved management can produce wide benefits.

Joined-up working is crucial if councils are to improve services. This is particularly true for the local environment, where better use of technology and improved management can produce wide benefits.

The words of Rahm Emanuel, US president Barack Obama’s chief of staff, have been regularly quoted lately: ‘A crisis is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.’ This thought might occur to many local authorities currently contemplating how to maintain service standards and keep their workforce intact in the face of deeply challenging financial budgets.

While much debate has centred on potential efficiency savings, might this also be an opportunity to redefine how local authority staff interact and so improve services without making cuts?

The New Local Government Network has set up a project exploring local environment — or ‘street scene’ — issues, including litter collection, parks and roads, streetlighting, local amenities, graffiti, vandalism, fly-tipping and abandoned vehicles. It will highlight the major role that frontline workers can play in redesigning services.

With diverging needs, rising public expectations and challenging economic times ahead, the way local authorities run and manage services must change. The idea that public services that work together rather than in silos will achieve better results and cost less to run might not be new, but it is one that has not yet been fully explored.

NLGN’s research team, in tandem with Kent County Council and service company Serco, aims to develop a ‘total place’ approach to such street scene policies. This is neither a blueprint for cost-cutting nor an attempt to burden public servants with a heavier workload, but an exploration of how a more efficient use of technology and better people management can produce council-wide benefits.

The local environment shapes the public perception of an area’s ‘liveability’. Its different parts are also interconnected. For example, badly lit areas can encourage antisocial behaviour. Too often, however, service on the ground has been compartmentalised into isolated tasks, so that park wardens might not always communicate with street cleaners, social workers don’t communicate with environmental health officers and refuse collectors don’t communicate with neighbourhood wardens.

What incentive is there for different local environment workers to share information? If a road sweeper notices a faulty streetlight or a broken window at a bus stop, do they have the means to ensure that swift action is taken? If a refuse collector notices a pothole in the road, do they have the incentive to report it? If a meals on wheels provider notices an elderly patient has untreated health problems, shouldn’t they be obliged to report it to social services?

Thankfully, the public service ethic of frontline council staff ensures they pick up on many issues beyond their strict job specification — but this relies on altruism rather than recognising the wider value to the community that individual workers can bring to a neighbourhood.

Some councils are already establishing innovative practices. In Blackpool, for example, officers are using handheld devices loaded with specially developed software and maps. Officers out on the street can report incidents or defects, complete inspection reports and issue standard communications in real time without returning to the office.

Elsewhere, the London Borough of Lewisham’s ‘Love Lewisham’ campaign shows how bringing residents and council workers together in posting real-time images of environmental problems to the internet can speed up the resolution of such problems. Council workers are publicly challenged to resolve these problems, which has significantly reduced the time taken to remove graffiti and fly-tipping, improving both efficiency and resident satisfaction.

There will be accusations that this type of approach will only blur the lines of accountability between different professionals and even demean the standing of some council officers. Others will say that it will inevitably lead to more lurid headlines in the tabloids about council officers ‘snooping’ on residents.

But I believe it will reclaim collective ownership within local public services and move away from the notion that frontline staff should only concentrate on their strict, structured area of concern. More importantly, it shows residents that the local authority takes responsibility as a whole for ensuring clean and safe neighbourhoods, rather than leaving it to an anonymous department.

With Comprehensive Area Assessments introducing new measures for public satisfaction with services, it is vital that councils offer new ways of improving their ability to respond to problems and deliver swift and effective solutions. This should be the priority for all council workers from front line to back room, and the beginning of a radical new approach to providing major services.

Chris Leslie is director of the New Local Government Network

Did you enjoy this article?