Ray Dawe: Massive challenge of doing more with less in an era of significant savings

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Councils have received 40 per cent less money from central government in grant since 2010. This has been necessary to help cut public spending and reduce the country’s deficit. Last year the Department for Communities and Local Government outlined 50 ways to save money and now the Taxpayers’ Alliance has come up with a list of 201 ways to save money.

While these reports make good media stories and sound simple, most councils have already worked hard to meet the challenge and made significant savings.

As councils wait to hear the 2014-15 financial settlement from the Government, it is certainly important that councillors up and down the country share as many ideas as possible to cut out spending while still attempting to provide quality services.

What is the challenge? It is essentially to do ‘more with less’.

While we value all help and advice in meeting this challenge, councils trying to respond to doing ‘more with less’, given that most of their costs are in staff, also face another unprecedented challenge - that of keeping employees on side against a constant backdrop of pay freezes, pension reform and job cuts.

While on paper it may sound easy to make cuts, council employees also have to deal with a background of, and fallout from, frequent political and media criticism of the public sector, which portrays the workforce as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Councils everywhere face a massive challenge in achieving the cuts required of them without fatally damaging staff morale and undermining delivery of services.

Clearly we need to skill up our workforce in very different ways from the past and at Horsham District Council we have been running a transformation programme to promote more flexible working and cut out all unnecessary bureaucracy.

Staff will need to take on more responsibility and accountability, with fewer people in the chain of command.

All of that requires a different skill set for individuals and managers.

From my observations, our staff are not in denial about the implications of the financial savings they are required to make, or about the scale of likely future reductions, nor are they dragging their feet in accepting the changes needed in structure and systems in order to respond.

Senior managers have had to communicate to staff a complete picture of the bleak longer-term financial situation but also keep the show on the road.

So yes, while it is absolutely right that we work hard on the agenda of doing ‘more with less’ and emulating private sector levels of productivity, it is also important to understand that in this time of rapid change, council management, elected councillors and the public have to recognise that keeping employees on side in such circumstances is also a difficult but important task.