You would think that this is an easy question yet I have asked it many times to some of the brightest brains in the region (well, university students) and it has left them dumbfounded. It seems that government, like digital, is one of those words that we use over and over again yet don’t really know what they mean. When I ask it people mutter something about tax and after a few minutes think about roads and schools and libraries.
Considering that the public sector accounts for around forty percent of all expenditure in this country and that most people have the burden of paying monthly council tax it is quite surprising the level of ignorance. Perhaps because it is something that is divorced from our everyday ability to affect it, it is pushed to the back of our minds.
Local authorities are big businesses with employees in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, and turnover into the billions. They provide hundreds of different services that provide the fabric that underpins society. Some of the services they provide are statutory, that is are required by law, while others are discretionary. Sometimes the statutory nature is not that clear. They cannot pick and choose their customers and provide services that some people do not want but society needs.
Durham for example, the authority that I have the most recent experience of, looks after 518,000 residents, has 18,000 employees and a budget of well over a billion pounds. Birmingham is the biggest authority with 55,000 employees. Durham pays benefits every week to 49,000 people, looks after 3,000 kms of road and manages 18,000 lamp posts. Durham Council is the largest elected body in England outside of Westminster with 126 councillors. It is, by any standards a big business.
Yet it is not a business. It must be business like yet it cannot think of efficiencies in a commercial way.
They caught in the duality of their role. In part they are there to set policy while on the other hand they deliver services. Perhaps this is the difference between local government and a local authority. This is certainly something that adds tension into the system, the desire to make change through policy and the need to deliver stuatury services in an era of declining an already stretched budget.
The biggest issue that the authorities face is the growing demand for social care. Already this accounts for two thirds of all expenditure and, with an ageing population, is only going to grow. They are caught in the so-called scissors of doom where eventually the amount of money required for care will overtake the money available.
There is a lot of tension in the system, due to cost, politics and, clearly, a lack of understanding.