The themes of this year’s conference of the Association of Democratic Services Officers were Progress, Powers, Politics and Performance. In the context of city deals, devolution of powers and ever changing governance arrangements, this was an ideal opportunity for those who best understand local governance to share their experiences and reflect on good practice.
I don’t intend to repeat everything that was presented or discussed at Conference, but rather to reflect on what we can do going forward. All too often do we attend conferences or workshops and come away enthused, but what do we really do differently?
It seems pointless to highlight that local government is changing, it always is in a state of change. The pace of change has gathered significant momentum since the election. Whilst the implications of the Spending Review are only just beginning to be understood, the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that devolution is “the only game in town” suggests that changes will continue to be pushed by the centre and new powers accepted by local government. My view here, stated during the Panel discussion on Thursday, is that local government reorganisation is inevitable. This was further reinforced during James Doble’s excellent workshop on combined authorities.
If we are redesigning local democracy and governance, surely the public, the electorate, will be involved in this process? The Cities and Devolution Bill doesn’t provide for it and local politicians and central government seem to be preoccupied with talking about funding behind closed doors. This is not healthy for the beginning of what will eventually result in a fundamental change of a local democratic decision making and oversight, to say nothing of local authority boundaries.
Tony Bovaird provided an excellent overview of co-production, where some councils are already working with the public or service users to design, commission and evaluate services. Whilst Tony admitted that more research was required, the evidence to date implies that there is huge potential for improving services and accountability, whilst achieving significant savings. I was particularly interested in the insight that we could use to redesign local democracy in the context of co-production and devolution. The #NotWestminster gang will giving thought to this and many other areas in February 2016. Do please get involved with #NotWestminster if you’re passionate about local democracy.
In this era of budgetary restraint and austerity, focus has to continue on providing services that people want in the most efficient way that they want them. Democratic Services, Governance Services Committee and Member Services, whatever it is called in your area, has to add value. With changes brought about through devolution and digitisation, this is an exciting time. There is plenty to do, so let’s make sure we’re part of it as the navigators of the local political space.
Finally, all of us in the association owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who volunteer their time on the Board and organise the conference. It was fantastic, getting better and better with each year. I think we should be proud of how ADSO has grown since 2009, recognise what has been achieved and continue to develop as the premier association for governance and local democracy professionals.