The Comprehensive Spending Review has confirmed that local government is going to be making a lot of very tough decisions in the coming months, with local government funding from the centre reduced by 26% over 4 years (very close to the 25% cuts predicted by IFS in May based on the Conservative manifesto plans) and the Communities and Local Government budget more than halved.
But with less money, comes greater freedom – as emphasised by the Coalition since coming to power (Nick Robinson at the BBC highlighted the conventional wisdom that “Governments with money centralise and claim the credit, those without decentralise and spread the blame“). Ending ring-fencing for revenue grants, and local control over Council Tax Benefit, means that the ball is firmly in local authority court(s) over which services to prioritise, and which to cut. And the cull of Local Area Agreements (LAA), Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) and agreed targets (announced by Eric Pickles as “scrapped 4,700 Whitehall (LAA) targets”, although less dramatically this equates to 30 or so per LAA) means that local areas are free to identify their own performance priorities and targets.
The challenge for local research and performance teams is enormous. They must not only provide the critical intelligence to support decision-makers, commissioners and providers, but also make a crystal clear case for how investment in research and performance can best deliver benefits to the front-line. And alongside cuts in local capacity, there is a double whammy: national and regional support groups such as CLG and the RIEPs will no longer provide background support. For example, resources provided by CLG to support customer insight work and local information systems are likely to end or at least be cut heavily, the RIEPs and other regional support agencies are disappearing altogether, and the Office for National Statistics budget is down 9% per year.
Many areas will be tempted to cut research and performance functions very heavily, particularly with no need to report on LAAs or CAA. Protecting front-line services is clearly the priority, and every pound spent on research is a pound less for the front-line. But indiscriminately slashing research spending would be shortsighted. Leaders and decision-makers, commissioners and providers more than ever need the right intelligence to prioritise and reshape services, identify over and under-performance, highlight where early preventative investment can save significant resources in the longer-term and so on. Effective research and information is needed in order to meet the tough spending challenges.
But this is not to say that research functions should remain as they are – local research and information capacity must be reviewed in the same way as other services. Very different ways of working are possible, that provide the critical intelligence needed but without duplicating work that could better be done in partnership with other areas or organisations.
In reviewing capacity, local authorities and partners need to ask the key question: how can local research & performance most effectively and efficiently provide the critical local intelligence we need?
For further information on OCSI work to support effective local research and performance teams, see:
Tom Smith, OCSI