Features: February 25th, 2010

Across the country pioneering project teams have found out how public money is spent in their area and then looked in detail at how services could be improved at a lower cost. The new approach of focusing on what happens in a place across all public service boundaries and then getting together to find better ways of doing things has been proved beyond doubt. This has not been easy, but the greater challenge lies ahead. People in Whitehall and town halls together with colleagues in the health service, the police and other public bodies have to find ways to take forward the idea of Total Place.

The 13 Total Place pilots are doubtlessly breathing a small sigh of relief that their reports to inform the Budget have been submitted. An enormous amount of hard work was required to complete the work and assess the findings in such a tight timescale. But the pilots, and most of the 80-plus parallel places which have taken up the Total Place agenda over the past eight months, know that the work will not suddenly stop with the Budget.

Total Place was never meant to be a one-off experiment; Whitehall looked to local government and its public sector partners to lead the way in finding out how to maintain and improve frontline services for people in the face of the most drastic financial squeeze in a generation.

The search for better ways

Arguably without exception, all the pilots and parallel places have found that there are better ways of doing things: better ways of working with each other on a local level, better ways of working with central government and – most importantly perhaps – better ways of engaging with residents to find out what they need from public services.

We now have some answers to some tricky questions, such as where is money being spent unnecessarily? How can we make sure public services are based on the needs of people rather than of organisations? How does local and central government’s behaviour need to change? A big question that remains is: how can we make sure Total Place has a lasting impact?

The sheer volume of parallel places is testament to the sector’s enthusiasm about and belief in the aims of Total Place. The idea behind the project was not a revolutionary one – a number of areas have mapped all public money spent in the area. But invariably, the local leaders of those places were left saying “so what?”

What has made Total Place different to previous finance mapping exercises is strong support and engagement from Whitehall. Pilots and parallel places now have open channels of communication with central government, to tell them what needs to change to make public money go further, and for it to get to the people who need it most.

Beyond the pilots

This is why Total Place has allowed places to go much further than “so what?” and is one reason why the potential for its methodology to be rolled out and made permanent is significant.

The unprecedented fiscal challenge facing the public sector will mean that more and more places will develop their own Total Place approach. While it does not ¬- indeed could not – provide a solution to the financial difficulties, it shines a light on how different places can find their own way through it.

How and whether the methodology will be formally rolled out to the rest of the country continues to be considered by both local and central government. High level talks continue between Whitehall, pilots and the LGA Group about the next steps, which will be informed by the Budget and a report from Communities and Local Government to be published at the same time.

The LGA Group is committed to supporting local areas in pursuing Total Place aims and helping to spread the learning more widely across the sector. The Improvement and Development Agency’s series of free seminars, which have a particular focus on parallel places and how they can learn from each other, continue to be extremely popular as more and more local areas sign up to the agenda.

Partnership the way forward

A spokesperson for Barnet Council, which has forged ahead with its own Total Place-related projects as part of its Future Shape programme, said: “The majority of people seem to have signed up to the Total Place ethos, whether they are officially part of it or not. The central issue facing the public sector is finding a more efficient way of working. Once you start to streamline everything you do by joining up the same functions of different agencies, you are inevitably involved in partnership work, and it stems from there. The more contact you have with agencies in dealing with issues, the more a single way of working will emerge.”

Keith Bowman is corporate policy manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, and one of the leads for parallel place Making Cambridgeshire Count. He believes all areas can and should be doing or planning similar projects. “There are several reasons why, but largely it is the recognition that things have to be different in the future,” said Mr Bowman. “Doing what we have always done will not deliver the better use of resources that we need to achieve, it will not be enough to handle the anticipated demographic changes or the increasing personalisation of services. “Realising and accepting that will bring about the will to change things, which is critical – a fundamental cultural change is needed for the Total Place approach and you need to spread that down to the frontline staff who deal with people most.”

Barnet Council has set up a Future Shape fund, but many other parallel place projects, including Making Cambridgeshire Count, were funded by regional improvement and efficiency partnerships (RIEPs). The money is limited however and Cambridgeshire, like many places, is planning for the next steps.

Mr Bowman said: “We are very much continuing, and have identified seven different project strands to pursue. Some of them we can do without too much resource, but others will need funding, and we are looking at what additional support is available.”

Grasping the agenda

The message from the parallel places seems to be not to wait to be told or given money to take a Total Place approach. Total Place was always meant to be an organic process: it was defined by the different directions the pilots and parallel places took it.

The same will be true of its lasting impact – it will largely depend on the willingness of local government and partners to grasp the agenda and develop their own version of it. An already considerable source of information and experience continues to grow, and other places can benefit from it. “Don’t be proud, look for help, whether it is financial help, or just finding out what a place has done and found,” added Mr Bowman.

But that will not be enough on its own. Key to implementing the lessons of Total Place will be the response from central government. Councils and partner agencies can show how redesigned services could look, and can begin to change them on a local level, but what is ultimately needed is a change within Whitehall. The pilots’ findings provide a compelling argument for change. For example, on average £7,000 is spent per head on public services, of which only £350 is discretionary spending by councils, those who know their area and people best. With more than 50 benefits available for people to claim through national and local bodies, there is a need for Whitehall to tackle the complexity issue.

The challenge to change

As varied as all the places’ reports have been, the findings consistently bear out that redesigning services around people rather than institutions requires an end to ring-fenced funding, excessive regulation and multiple performance frameworks.

Total Place has always had cross-party support, but it remains to be seen whether any government will remove the long-standing barriers that stifle local innovation.
John Atkinson, managing director of the Leadership Centre for Local Government, which is leading Total Place on behalf of the LGA Group, says government departments have all responded differently to the work so far. “One of the benefits of Total Place is that people have realised there are things they can change on their own and they are doing so. But other things require central government to let go, and we know that departments are increasingly ready to do that.”

Other challenges remain, such as the question over the governance of a radical new way of delivering public services. But Mr Atkinson has no doubt that what the project has set in motion will continue. “It will carry on, and grow. The next stage will see it broadening and deepening, with more people becoming involved and planning how to take it forward.”