The role that local government plays in the frontline provision of public services is highlighted and accentuated at times of crisis. Councils across Wales have co-ordinated and delivered a range of actions in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, including distributing over £500m in grants to businesses and supporting a wide range of vulnerable people and families.
It is likely that councils will continue to play a significant role as Wales moves out of lockdown, including tracing and isolating new cases of the virus, as environmental health teams are well-placed to lead this community-based work. However, the current crisis has also highlighted several issues facing Welsh local government which should be addressed post-Coronavirus.
How Welsh Government and local government work together
Collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders can provide a more sustainable response than centralisation during a crisis. Responses to crises happen at multiple levels, and it is important to link these levels together. While existing mechanisms such as Public Service Boards might be used, it will be vital to identify which structure is best placed to contribute to the desired outcomes in the medium to long term. Structures which have been unable to deliver pre-crisis might not be fit-for-purpose to coordinate post-crisis. However, care should be taken to avoid yet another reform of Welsh local government, which would be costly and disruptive, particularly under the current circumstances
Welsh Government are working towards a collaborative response. Ministers have met all 22 council leaders at least twice weekly to discuss problems and identify solutions and actions. By bringing local government into the response to the virus, the challenge is shared across levels of government. Leaders of the UK Core Cities group argue that localism needs to be at the heart of recovery and recent examples from Greater Manchester suggest positive signs of leadership and joined-up working. Localising a response means opportunity for pockets of good practice to be shared across the sector. Welsh Government and councils in Wales need to continue working closely together to ensure a co-ordinated and effective response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of local government capacity
Austerity, as well as decades of disempowerment and consecutive reforms of local government across the UK, have atrophied local government capacity and constrained the sector’s response to the pandemic. The third sector – who provide critical services at times of crisis – have also suffered from significant funding cuts.
One consequence of constrained capacity is the move away from direct service provision by local councils towards commissioning and coordination of networks of public service providers, with opportunities for greater citizen participation. But there is little evidence to suggest that the change in local government’s role – from provider to strategic commissioner and coordinator – is any less resource intensive, and can be done effectively without devoted resource. There is also little robust evaluation suggesting that such approaches, including citizen co-production of public services, lead to better outcomes (although some research is emerging). There are also serious doubts about the sustainability of initiatives and how to overcome difficulties such as ensuring accountability.
Local government can play a co-ordinating role well, and there are some ‘good practice’ case studies of how local government is supporting community initiatives to meet the needs of the most vulnerable groups. Simultaneously, a considerable number of community-led initiatives have emerged organically in response to the crisis and may be ‘filling gaps’ in local government provision. There are new voluntary action coordination networks (such as the NHS volunteering programme and the community action response partnership) and thousands of community based COVID-19 Mutual Aid Facebook groups and local WhatsApp groups in the UK. The extent to which Welsh councils are playing an active and effective role in coordinating local area responses and acting as a hub for third sector and community initiatives, is likely to vary according to existing relationships and resources.
In the post-Coronavirus phase, it will be important to debate and determine who is best placed to continue with the initiatives described above. Where would investment in local government and/or the voluntary sector best be targeted to add the most value and support communities to recover? Funding models need to be designed which recognise the strengths of each sector and existing initiatives need to be evaluated and the results shared to spread good practice.
The future role of local government?
As a recent Wales Centre for Public Policy report showed, Welsh local government was already at a financial tipping point before the pandemic. Despite a recent increase in the latest settlement and emergency funding, the costs for councils in responding to the virus are significant as well as the loss of income. Despite limited capacity, local government has demonstrated its ability to cope and respond to the outbreak, with skilled staff, infrastructure and network management. Its localness and ability to develop targeted responses for specific areas is illustrated with the types of actions local councils are deploying. More could be done in the future to equip localities with the necessary tools and resources to provide excellent services, as well as the necessary powers to formulate place-based responses that are effective. Positive changes that have been introduced because of the virus need to be embedded and be long-lasting, rather than reverting to old ways of working.
Councils need to learn from those who have reacted quickly to develop new ways of working, and we all need to understand what can be done to encourage greater agility across the sector. Councils need to discuss ways to avoid duplication and encourage joint working where it can improve efficiency and effectiveness, such as digitally-enabled service transformation. However, all these new ways of working involve challenges, for example joined-up working and pooling resources can lead to accountability headaches. Learning from how local government has responded in other countries – available from the OECD and Regional Studies Association – could be useful for applying these lessons in Wales.
The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the challenges faced by local government and revealed the ability of local public service coordination and delivery to adapt, innovate and respond to place-based need. Post-crisis, there should be an opportunity to reflect on the role, status and funding of local government to deliver the best for communities across Wales and ensure our resilience to crisis in the future.
Read our next blog in this series: Building back better: the importance of a green stimulus