Ditch the crystal ball and pick up the phone in 2023

22 Dec 22

PF editor Chris Smith looks ahead at how the public sector can make the most of 2023.

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Not even the best plan survives the first engagement. So said military strategist Von Moltke.

Mike Tyson’s take on what happens to people with a plan is more blunt.

Bear this in mind for 2023.

How the next year plays out depends on the choices made outside of budget setting. 

You either do what ministers want, despite their dismal efforts in 2022, or work together to solve your problems.

But you can’t be a servant of two masters.

Let’s recap. The chancellor (there have been a few this year so we’re going with Jeremy Hunt) has set a budget of crumbs and expects council tax to bear the brunt of the costs.

Spoiler alert: Carl Emmerson of the IFS explores this in the January edition of PF. The sector’s view is that Hunt’s spending plan is pain delayed.

So there are two options.

You can go it alone with the equivalent of Mr Burns’s mystery box. In January, ditch services, spend reserves or both. And then sit tight, hoping for the best.

Then there’s the alternative. Set the budget and then partner up to build local resilience. That requires leadership, practicality and hard work that won’t garner any media. You’ve done it before, especially amid Covid-19.

Most of the public sector’s challenges are political not financial.

We have a budget in March. The forecasts will change – not least to rebuild the relationship with the Bank of England. There’s plenty of warnings about the impact of Brexit on the economy. The government needs to show where the ‘sunlit uplands’ are or face an increasingly angry public.

Don’t forget, there are local elections not long after.

To be fair, there are two known unknowns. A critical factor is the war in Ukraine, which is a global problem. The other is the public sector pay battle – and that’s as much about the stubbornness of ministers.

The results in May and the shape of the economy will decide the government’s next moves.

We’ve heard from a significant number of sector leaders that they are factoring in an October general election.

It’s not a completely wild idea.

The decision by the Sunak team to shelve housing targets and other compromises made already don’t bode well. 

The challenges in resolving the Northern Ireland protocol involve internal Conservative party politics, cross-border agreements, the EU and the US president as well as constitutional red lines.

At some point, something’s got to give. And remember, it was devolution in Scotland that brought down a government in 1979 with a vote of no confidence.

But this is political theory. And also a presumption that things will improve. And if there’s another Black Swan event, things will get very much worse.

What’s needed is certainty. 

Working with local partners on the critical services that enable the rest of the system to work is the surest option.

Housing has been the crisis everyone has been warning about for over a decade. It’s not just those already homeless.

Many older people are stuck in family homes with nothing else available and no incentive to downsize. People in private rented accommodation are dealing with landlords who want to exit.

But we’re now on housing minister number… who’s even still counting? And the central focus will be on keeping the housebuilders going over the next few months.

So, pick three other priorities.

If you have people who understand tech, then utilising data is a smart move to identify real need and how you can make what you’ve got work better. 

But the centre is still working off Excel datasheets and census data that are woeful. And the political leadership at local level are largely web migrants.

CIPFA’s performance tracker pointed out that hospitals and the criminal justice system are the two biggest areas where the issues are critical.

Our pick of crunch issues are: social care, anti-social behaviour and supporting small businesses.

Social care: getting people quickly out of the NHS system and into re-enablement is crucial to getting waiting lists down. Preventative programmes ensuring they don’t need to access hospitals in the first place is the gold standard.

That reduces pressure across public services as well as the invisible army of carers and inflation. It will be one of the conclusions of the taskforce ordered by the government to find the people who have disappeared from the workforce.

Anti-social behaviour is the low-level scourge that destroys neighbourhoods. If you want to attract or keep talented people in your community, this is the deal-breaker.

Behind the offending are a raft of problems like low esteem, problem families and a lack of skills. Deal with this one and you can divert people away from more serious offending, get intel on organised crime gangs and help small businesses. 

And small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is our third pick. They employ most people in the UK – and they pay their taxes into the UK system. 

There are lots of ways to help them get through the next 12 months. Use your procurement to get contracts into local businesses. Networking with local business forums if nothing else will show you’re serious about them. And then there’s your estate management. If you have a mothballed building that could be used for short-term storage, temporary office space or a pop-up, then bring it back online. 

That gives you more options for 2024.

A year down the line, with inflation ‘tamed’ do you want to be left with a community that is more battered than it needed to have been? Let’s face it, any recovery funds will be in a small pot that will attract stiff competition.

So, partnering up now at local and regional levels with organisations that aren’t the usual suspects will be key.

To borrow the advertising catchline, it’s good to talk.

If you need a grander affirmation: be the change you want to see. 

Or there’s always the option of the mystery box.

Either way, good luck in 2023.

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