easyCouncil in Barnet: Amazon.com-style Government

10 11 2009

The following article appeared on The Times website, and is quoted in full:

“In the unlikely event of a film being made about the experience of the public sector over the next four years, we can pretty much assume it will be called There Will Be Cuts.

All parties pretty much concur on the need to reduce spending; only the savagery of the reduction is up for debate. But if this next round of public sector reform is simply to be about cutting spending, we will have failed. The need for reform runs much deeper than that.

The quality of most public services has improved over the past ten years, though this has largely been achieved by squeezing out incremental improvements in efficiency. But the growth in demand means we have reached a point were the current “Henry Ford model” of local government services (any colour you want as long as it’s black) cannot be sustained. What is more, it has failed in some key areas, such as ending deprivation or dependency on the State. Strikingly, even as the quality of local government services has risen over the past decade, citizen satisfaction has drifted downwards.

In large part this is down to the private sector changing dramatically the way it treats its customers. I may not know my bank manager but I can now monitor my account 24 hours a day. I can order my groceries with an app on my mobile while sitting on a train, specifying a delivery time. Do you honestly feel that any branch of government understands your personal interests and needs as well as an online bookshop?

So this round of reform shouldn’t just be about bigger or smaller government. It has to be about smarter government and about moving from “Henry Ford government” to “Amazon government”.

At Barnet Council we have just agreed a Future Shape programme to reform our services. It aims to preserve high quality, but assumes that citizens have to accept more responsibility. The council leadership has had to endure snide comments because of our admiration for the budget airline business model — Barnet aims to be easyCouncil, if you will.

EasyJet limits its costs by not providing you with a free meal or making passengers print out their boarding cards. But it also gives you the choice of buying extras, such as priority boarding. At Barnet we are keen to see what we can learn from easyJet about customer choice.

We are examining how we can let residents prioritise how money is spent on maintaining their street. If they want the street cleaned less, but the pavement cleaned more often, that should be their choice. If they want to take over the running of some of the green spaces themselves and have savings returned to them, that might be another option.

Another example is how we might move from a waste disposal service to a waste minimisation service. Rising landfill tax will mean the cost of this service rise by 75 per cent over the coming five years. We could recycle more than twice what we do if residents sorted out more of their waste. But the rewards of doing so seem just too distant for busy people.

We could follow the lead of San Francisco. Waste disposal costs there are separate from other city taxes: residents who generate less waste get a rebate. Equally, if someone wants to pay the council to spend time sorting out their individual recycling items, they could pay us to do so.

We have found that once residents are given more control over their own budgets they tend to produce solutions that do not require such a large public sector infrastructure. We recently stopped supporting a respite care home for people with depression when it became clear that most residents preferred to choose other options: by the time we shut down the service, a night at the Ritz was cheaper than providing a bed for an in-patient.

In Barnet we investigated how often needy families had to provide information to the State. One family had to provide information on 37 different occasions; usually this was presenting the same information to different people. Only five of those visits actually represented value to the family. In other words 32 of these visits were for the administrative convenience of the public sector.

This is a waste of more than money. Diffusion of effort in information gathering is reflected in diffusion of effort on the ground. We are failing to tackle family problems despite spending substantial sums of money on some individual families. We often provide them with multiple services but fail to have a real impact on their lives.

For those people who receive complex services from the council, we need to look at the needs of the recipients. We need to develop more personalised services, potentially with a greater intensity of service among those who need it, but with an end date. For example, we now provide tailored and intensive support for older residents who have just come out of hospital — but it is based on supporting them to help themselves. Rather than washing their dishes for them, we now support older people to relearn how they can do so with restricted mobility. Do many old people want a stranger popping in to do their washing up or would they rather do it themselves?

In all honesty, some of Barnet’s proposals may not work, just as many new business models in the private sector are ultimately abandoned. But if we don’t experiment and we carry on providing services in the same way, then the system will underperform against rising expectations. Ultimately that would undermine faith in the whole political system.

Mike Freer is leader of Barnet Council

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