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  • Writer's pictureEmmet Regan

Striking the right balance

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Emmet Regan explores how leaders must take a balanced approach to solve complex public service problems and improve outcomes. A version of this article was published in the MJ on 28th May 2019 – click here.

Balancing the priorities

The scale of the challenge is unprecedented across the public sector but is particularly pressing for local authorities.

Increasing demand for our public services is placing councils in precarious financial positions. According to the Local Government Association, the total number of looked-after children reached a new high of 75,420 in 2017/18, the biggest annual rise in eight years.

Information released by NHS Digital shows demand for adult social care has increased by 1.6% since 2015, equating to an additional 5,000 requests per day.

Aligned to this growth in demand is an increase in complexity, both in terms of the needs of service users and in society as a whole. Families are living more chaotic and fragmented lives, relying on services that need to cross organisational boundaries and with multiple needs to address. The rise of complexity bears out in service areas such as transition from children’s social care to adult social care or special educational needs and disability provision, where service users need a coordinated response across council departments.

No local authority chief executive will need to be reminded of the challenging financial backdrop. However, taking a step back and looking at the scale of the reduction over the last 10 years is startling.

Since 2010, there has been a reduction of nearly £16bn of core funding to local authorities (equating some 60% reduction in overall spending). This position frames the need to seek solutions and partnerships outside of local authority boundaries to address the trio of challenges. The need for public services to work together has never been more important to stem cross-system pressures and demands.

Added to demand, complexity and financial constraints are wider system pressures. There is no doubt the outcome of the Brexit debate. It will impact our public services for the next generation. Finding the right balance is not about trying to ‘balance the books’, it is about addressing all the challenges public services face, balancing demand and supply, expectations and reality, capacity and capability, resources and wider system pressures.

Finding the right balance

In the coming years, successful local authorities will be those that find a balance between competing pressures. The idea of a balanced approach is a way of re-framing complex problems and seeking out connected solutions.

Trying to find a balance may seem like an impossible task but local authority chief executives must seize the opportunity to take a wider perspective. A rise in demand for adult social care, for example, is likely to have a series of interconnected causal factors relating to complexity, wider system pressures and the use of resources. Looking purely at trying to manage the demand as a stand-alone issue may allow you to hit a target but runs the risk of missing the point.

There are no easy solutions and no single levers to be pulled to solve complex problems. Decisions must be made with eyes wide open, striving to find the balance between the four challenges outlined above. Council staff must be empowered to take a step back and address problems in a different way, not looking at individual symptoms but rather at wider interconnected challenges. This will require leadership from the top and the patience to drive and sustain a balanced approach.

While central Government’s attention is focused elsewhere for the foreseeable future, chief executives have the chance to find solutions to complex public services problems in a balanced way, at a local level, to improve and sustain our public services for the long-term.

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