How can the next Spending Review work better for different places?
July 03, 2019
There was a time when a Spending Review would have been one of the key moments in the political calendar. But, between Brexit and the election of the next prime minister, the 2019 Spending Review is proving elusive to pin down. We do know, however, that when it happens it will be critically important that it sets the right course for the transformational challenges which the UK public service will face (whatever Brexit outcome happens). So, we’ve been collaborating with the Institute for Government to think about how, when the time comes, building on the proposals in their report last year.
One of the strands of our Future of Government research programme is exploring how taking a ‘place’ based approach could help create a fair and inclusive future. To help inform this work, we recently convened a meeting in Birmingham with people from central government and local public services to consider the particular question: how can the Spending Review work better for different places across the UK? A number of key themes emerged from the discussion:
1. There was broad agreement that the current siloed, short term and service-centric nature of government department funding streams acts to restrict local organisations coming together to collaborate around local priorities. Our work to survey local government highlights similar concerns from senior leaders. The Spending Review provides an opportunity to look at how greater flexibility and certainty of central government funding streams could enable places to invest longer term and ultimately deliver greater value out of public spending.
2. The notion of central government moving away from a ‘deal based’ approach to devolution and towards ongoing ‘place-based’ dialogue and a relationship based on collaboration also struck a chord. Regular touch-point conversations between the centre and local places would highlight how regions, counties, cities and towns all have different avenues to deliver value for money and effective public services, as well as enabling local economic growth.
3. With the evolution of local enterprise partnerships, integrated care systems and local industrial strategies, many organisations are now working collaboratively with public sector partners and their geographic neighbours to agree a set of shared priorities and resources. However, some attendees felt there was more that places like the West Midlands could do to ensure they were all speaking with one voice. Furthermore, the lack of a similar list of shared priorities from central government was highlighted as a challenge. Greater clarity around shared priorities, as well as accountability, at a local and national level would see greater alignment across public services, and as a result, more effective use of public spending.
4. A set of national priorities is not a novel idea. The Scottish government has a clear set of national outcomes it prioritises, while the recently unveiled ‘Wellbeing Budget’ in New Zealand places a heavy emphasis on the ‘wellbeing’ of citizens, over economic growth or other priorities. It sets out how government spending will be funneled to achieve these priorities and how the central government will work with local regions in this joint endeavour.
5. A focus on the outcomes for the citizen, rather than on services or departments, will help to further create thriving, prosperous places, resilient and healthy communities. Crucially, there was a clear sense that government needs new ways of thinking about how it invests in social capital and work alongside people to create self-sustaining models of support that foster wider community resilience and contribute to wider growth. The Australian commonwealth and state government partnership agreement model is instructive (and reminiscent of previous UK attempts to encourage collaboration around Local Public Service Agreement targets (which underpinned successful programme like Surestart and the reduction of teenage pregnancy).
Looking through the ‘place’ lens is just one way the Spending Review could think more radically about how to approach cross-cutting issues. Cross government collaboration, as well as improving dialogue between Whitehall and local government, will be key.