Features: October 30th, 2009

Total Place, which allows the way in which taxpayers money is spent in a local area to be challenged, has triggered a seismic shift in the public service landscape. The scale and shape of this landscape shift has been set out by Communities Secretary John Denham. Although Total Place is still in the initial pilot phase, the tremors are already being felt across local councils, primary care trusts, the police, fire service, criminal justice agencies, Job Centre Plus, Government regional offices, economic development agencies and the Learning and Skills Council.

Total Place was launched in April 2009 as part of the Treasury’s Operational Efficiency Programme. The other strands of the Programme are Shared Services Collaborative Procurement, and Property Asset Management. Savings from the Operational Efficiency Programme are estimated at £15b with a further potential saving of £20 from property sales in the next ten years. No prediction has been made about likely savings from Total Place.

John Denham’s vision revolves around a fresh look at local spending. Total Place maps how money is spent in a local area and allows all the organisations spending the money to work together to find innovative ways to improve the services and cut the costs. Birmingham, for example, spends £7.5b annually across all its services and as a pioneer of Total Place it has launched projects which include re-engineering services for people with mental health needs, for those who abuse drugs and alcohol and for young people leaving care.

The other elements of the vision are to encourage councils to be entrepreneurial and to strengthen accountability. The current patchwork quilt of public services leads to accountability gaps, so the way forward is seen to be to put local councils in the driving seat and extend scrutiny powers of council members to all services in the local area. Accountability will also be strengthened by pursuing an open data policy. Publishing detailed information about how money is spent will allow public bodies to compare their spend and results, but more importantly, it will allow citizens to do the same thing. This knowledge will empower people to challenge performance.

The first calls to service providers to focus on the citizen were made some two decades ago. Over the years there has been some movement towards citizen centred services, but progress is slow. A decade later the call to join up services was very strident and it appeared to be taking hold. See Publicnet July 1998. As the years rolled by the difficulties of moving to joined-up government have become more apparent. The barriers include different objectives and targets, ringed fenced budgets and widely differing cultures. There has been progress and a number of notable success, but joined up government has not arrived yet. Citizen centred services and joined up working are essential components of Total Place and there is a prospect now that these long cherished aims might be realised.

Collaborating to deliver services can extend beyond the front line to influence strategic thinking. Capital spending is largely determined in Whitehall in line with national priorities. Local priorities may be quite different. For the future it is likely that a community will be able to choose between say a new hospital, a new school or more housing. Meeting specific priorities in a locality would result in greater value for money for every pound spent. Total Place thinking could have a significant impact on capital spending.

Moving away from the current silo budget arrangement would open the door to an investment analysis process. Looking at a range of options for spending money against the actual needs of a locality could produce different investment decisions. In particular it opens up many possibilities for pursuing an ‘invest to save’ approach. Spending more money on supporting young children might mean reducing expenditure on more intensive support at school later on. Taking an holistic view in this way could make a significant difference.

Total Place is going to affect all frontline services, but whatever changes emerge will also affect Whitehall. Officials sitting at desks in the Department of Health, Communities and Local Government or the Home Office will have to re-cast their roles. Their thinking will have to be at a strategic level, because they will no longer be able to contribute to the tactics, where they will be out of their depth. Their expertise stops at the function boundary, but at the sharp end, boundaries will be spanned. This transition to the new world of Total Place will be a major challenge for the civil service. The option of a structural re-organisation of Whitehall to reflect what is happening at the frontline has already been ruled out.

The roles of the watchdogs will also have to change. The Audit Commission and the many inspectorates will have to work in different ways. The inspection agenda will have to be drawn up in terms of geography, not function. Total Place may be the route cutting back the burden of inspection once again.

Total Place is also likely to have an impact on Parliament. There is a proposal to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to keep central-local government relations under regular scrutiny. The way in which Select Committees work will also have to be examined, because they will no longer be able to focus on a specific function.

The next milestone for Total Place is a report to Ministers in November 2009 with a full analysis of the findings of the pilots in Spring 2010 prior to the Budget. Nationwide roll-out will follow.