Last week, we joined the 2021 Solace Summit: Leading from the Front Line, meeting with leaders across local government to come together around levelling up, climate, the future of work and much more. I was fortunate to join the Levelling Up panel alongside Pam Smith, CEO of Stockport Council; Kersten England, CEO of Bradford Council; and Tom Walker, Director Levelling Up Unit of Cabinet Office. This is a write up of a talk I gave as part of that panel.

Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Matt Skinner, CEO of FutureGov. I’d like to sneak in some exciting news. If you’ve seen our logo on Twitter or the conference website, we’re currently transitioning into a new organisation called TPXimpact. This brings a collection of purpose-minded organisations together as we continue working across public services and health, along with many organisations who may not think of themselves as ‘gov’ but who are all focused on the future.

Maximising the opportunities of Levelling Up

I was asked to reflect on what local authorities are doing or can be doing, to maximise the opportunities presented by the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

I think levelling up needs to start with a conversation about how you as leaders can do even better for our places, particularly in the midst of some of the hardest, most complex challenges our sector faces; a global pandemic, climate crisis, energy crisis, Brexit. Over the last 18+ months, you’ve all moved at an incredible pace to make urgent and necessary change happen. How do we consolidate on those goals? What radical change is needed to not only keep that momentum but maximise the opportunities in front of us in levelling up?

Through the pandemic, we’ve had the privilege of working with several local authorities up and down the country, including Camden Council, Trafford Council and many others, to support their COVID-19 response and recovery. At the same time, we’ve also been working alongside a consortium of partners and MHCLG to deliver the Towns Fund programme. Common across all of this work is place leadership, different types of collaboration and the new skills needed to solve the challenges ahead.

Don’t wait

You’ve proven complex problems are best dealt with locally, so don’t wait for central government to level up. Time and again we’ve witnessed centralised approaches to complex problems fail. And instead, we’ve seen success where good local leadership, vision and partnerships have been in place. Examples include the amazing localised responses to getting food parcels delivered to the most vulnerable at the height of the crisis and the centralised vaccination programme that would have been unachievable without well-organised local provision.

Coming out of the height of the crisis, we’ve been working with local authorities to build on these partnerships and try new methods of organising their communities to better understand and work through local problems. For example in Blackpool Council, where neighbourhood assemblies brought partners and local people together online and in-person to discuss local climate priorities and agree on how to use local resources and with Camden Council where a similar model was used to help communities inform the design of new community housing infrastructure in one of their neighbourhoods

There’s an opportunity, before levelling up is properly defined, to be agreeing your local priorities. This will require really understanding the pressing inequalities in your place and using more deliberative processes like assemblies, that involve local people, your MPs and your partners in a conversation about priorities. This would also be a great way of taking them on the journey of creating a strong vision for your place.

A strong vision and story for place

So what do we mean by a strong vision and story for place? Michael Gove MP has said that levelling-up is about “empowering local government” and “allowing communities and councillors to take back control”. If this genuinely happens, then I think levelling up could be transformative.

Levelling up needs to start with a long-term vision for local places and a coordinated local approach to that change. The opportunity right now is to be creative and radical in that vision and to double down on the local partnerships you’ve been building over the last 18 months.

Think about the narrative of your place and work on telling that story. Understand local needs and set ambitious goals to address them.

Strong local partnerships are essential

Our work through the Towns Fund taught us that working with businesses and strong local partnerships are essential to build local vision. This government wants close involvement from local businesses and local MPs in determining levelling up action.

In all of the work we’ve been doing with local authorities over the last 18 months the areas where the response to COVID-19 has been strongest are where there has been a strong vision for place, leadership pulling in the same direction and a willingness to work together, often in very different ways than we’ve done things in the past.

Levelling-up is more than just strong leadership, it’s partly about having local champions. But it’s also about joining up as well as leadership and having the single point of contact who can bring together everything inward investors want: the land, the skills, the transport.

Neil O’Brien MP for the Guardian

As part of the Towns Fund, places were required to form a Towns Fund Board, chaired by someone from the business community. The benefit of this was the opportunity to bring a group of people together from across the community to help make decisions about how local funding should be spent.

The challenge was providing business leaders with the necessary support to understand the constraints around public money and the real meaning of community involvement. So the opportunity now is identifying the right type of local business people and community leaders who can be encouraged into these leading positions.

21st-century leadership

I think to level up our places will need really good 21st-century leadership. And dealing with complexity requires you to think in new ways and involve new perspectives even more. As leaders, it’s critical to focus on the outcomes. Fine-tuning existing processes and services can only get you so far. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask: what should we fundamentally be changing to create radically better outcomes for people?

We have to change our approaches and commit to working in very different ways, not just with partners but also within your own organisations:

  • distributing trust down to communities, removing barriers for people to help themselves or making it easier for them to organise solutions with others

  • embracing new technology so that staff can work in more hybrid ways and so that residents can interact with you

  • distributing trust down to frontline staff so that they can come up with ideas or ways of working to help communities solve problems

  • embracing risk, taking and accepting that things will go wrong but that we learn from these things to improve next time

Be prepared to try new things and for some things to fail, be transparent about that - take time to listen to residents and communities, and to explore what new partnerships will help you to respond most quickly.

There’s also very practical things to share around levelling up. Grant application writing skills and the operational mindset to go with it are going to be essential. Towns Fund, High Streets and Levelling-up funds are becoming increasing vehicles for funding. Applying for and delivering these require specific business cases, grant application skills, time and energy. There’s something useful to be learned from private sector organisations for whom 100% of their income comes from bids, and with the various organisational design challenges of flexible resourcing and so on that go with that.

I’ve worked in both and the dynamics of resourcing a council department are very different to the dynamics I now face at FutureGov. I wouldn’t advocate for the “penny packets” approach to council funding but if that’s what we’re going to get then we may need to have a new look at organisational design and even governance to respond to it.

Ultimately, levelling up and strong local leadership has to focus on delivering outcomes.

If public sector reform is code for new unitaries to overcome, the inevitable distraction and restructure will require you to understand the unique needs of your place so you can design and deliver the best outcomes for your people. This means:

  • you’ll need a really good understanding of inequalities and challenges in local areas

  • developing common and meaningful segmentation of residents shared across the organisation

  • paying attention to geographical subdivisions and the role of area committees

  • involving other tiers of government, supporting and enabling town and parish councils

Anything we can do to improve the ease of working with our partners, whether that’s in public health or job creation we should be getting on with.

One of the critical things still holding us back is data sharing. We’ve talked about working with businesses, but also working across government agencies and local authorities to reduce valueless friction in things like data sharing is essential. A good example is the OxCam Arc Spatial Framework, where we’re making data findable and usable across different local planning Authorities and Central Government.

Touching on public sector reform you need to think about what your future operating model might look like, and make sure it’s truly based on partnership working. North East Lincolnshire is a great example of thinking strategically across their place. We helped them design and test the future operating model to create a seamless health and social care service to improve the health, care and life experiences of their residents.

I’ll wrap up by saying that we’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to the types of skills that public service leaders need today, even more relevant in the context of levelling up. These are critical skills to get us through this next phase of change, work together to respond to local challenges while understanding and practising 21st-century leadership behaviours.

Get in touch

We’re always happy to answer any questions you have about FutureGov and discuss how we can work together.

Contact us