Call to rethink councils’ approach to failure

11 Dec 18

There needs to be a “thorough rethink” about how to approach failure in local government, think-tanks have warned.

Methods of addressing failure in local government are “no longer fit for purpose” according to a briefing paper published on 10 December by the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Localis.

They identified four main types of failure including: a failure of culture, a failure of service, a failure of function and a failure of duty.

CfPS and Localis said councils experiencing these types of failure often become less outward looking, more introspective and more defensive. The warning was timely, they said, because of the recent high-profile failures at Northamptonshire County Council, and increasing pressures on the sector more widely.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, said: “Our recent experience of working with local authorities shows that it is time for a thorough rethink about local government failure.

“Failure in local government is not something that is going to go away – in fact, a range of looming pressures mean that the problem is likely to become more prevalent in the years ahead.”

McKinlay urged local government needs to prepare for increasing instances of failure in the years ahead.

She added: “We are clear that improved scrutiny processes at the local level will be crucial in this effort.”

CfPS said in the paper: “Part of our rationale in pursuing this work lies in trying to understand how local scrutiny might be strengthened in order to be more effective when this cultural failure happens.”

The paper clarified that CfPS is not calling for a return to the days of the Audit Commission, which was formally dissolved in 2015.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive of Localis, said: “The circumstances leading to failure – in councils as well as in the public sector more generally – are poorly understood.

“The impact of corporate collapse is always most acute for people whose lives depend upon vital local services, so it is crucial that we gain a more informed understanding of what causes failure, the better to detect the warning signs and bolster local intervention and improvement measures at the earliest opportunity.”

In October, PF revealed that CfPS had been working alongside Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier to look at new methods of local government spending scrutiny.

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