Features: October 5th, 2010

When the waters of deficit reduction have subsided the total place legacy will be there to help in the process of rebuilding public services. The brand will disappear, but the principles will be embedded in longer term change initiatives. This is the view of directors of the local government improvement and efficiency partnerships.

Total place, which looks at how a whole area approach to public services can lead to better quality at less cost, has brought a paradigm shift in thinking about how taxpayers money can best be spent. Although sometimes viewed as a methodology. Steve Johnson, Corporate Director of Capital Ambition, London’s improvement and efficiency partnership, describes it as: “Systems thinking historically used to examine the costs across a much wider context.” When Publicnet interviewed the directors in March 2010 the 13 total place pilots had reported the success of their projects and described how substantial savings could be delivered by focusing on the customer and cutting out duplication. At this time, total place appeared to be the route to reducing costs to meet the expected budget cuts. Six months later the world has changed and total place does not feature in budget planning for March 2011. Chris Allison, Director of the East Midlands partnership summed up the situation: “Councils are simply cutting services and focusing on budgets.”

Focus on deficit reduction

The shock and speed of the Comprehensive Spending Review demands short term thinking. Martin Ryan, Director of the North East Partnership said: “Total place cannot respond quickly to the Spending Review and it is not being planned into budgets.” The start line for budget cuts is only six months away. The focus is on finding ways to meet the new budget allocations. Internal costs and procurement are top of the ‘cuts’ agenda. Next come sharing services, management teams and chief executives. The ideal would be, for example, to pick up learning from the total place pilots and look at ways of keeping older people out of hospital and cutting expenditure by the primary care trust, as well as improving the quality of the older person’s life. The reality is that demand is being depressed by increasing caring charges and tightening the eligibility criteria for care services.

Although deficit reduction is going to bring a great deal of pain, it is having an undoubted impact on mindsets. Andy Hancox, Director West Midlands Partnership said: “Mindsets are changing. Deficit reduction has caused people to think the unthinkable. There is a focus on how to deliver and how to work better together.”

The total place legacy

Total place is complex. It involves working across boundaries and building relationships. The costs and benefits can fall to different budgets, with some benefits deferred for many years. All these characteristics add up to long timescales. It is not surprising that no evidence could be found of any changes made to services because of the total place pilots, or even of the pre pilot work, as many are still in train. Analysis of benefits are still being made, Work in the parallel projects is continuing and total place thinking is being incorporated into issues such as alcohol abuse and bed blocking, but nothing has changed so far.

For all these reasons it is clear that now is not the time for pursuing the transformation of services across the board because the Spending Review timescale is just too tight. But the experiences and learning are not lost. Chris Allison said: “Through the pilot and parallel places projects total place has become well recognised and the experiences valued.” The unanimous view is that at some stage down the line this radical approach to public services will be back on the agenda. Martin Ryan said: “When organisations are in the deficit reduction trough, total place is the best option to re-build, but not as a first aid”. The situation was summed up by Andy Hancox: “The landscape has changed with deficit reduction and huge changes taking place in the structure of public service provision, and this has inevitably re-positioned the focus on total place. But it is recognised that the total place perspective is essential for going forward, though with the sharper edge that place based budgets should hopefully encourage over time.”

The new landscape

So how does total place fit in with everything else that is going on? The short answer is, very well. Creative thinking now comes from the front end rather than the top end. Dick Sorabji, Director of Policy at London Councils, expressed it this way: “The situation has changed and central government wants more ideas about the way forward”. There are also other developments to support this cultural change. The Coalition Government has placed the Big Society at the heart of its political programme. This involves a radical commitment to the transfer of power from the state to citizens to take over assets, run public services and make planning decisions. It also involves the third sector. There is also a commitment to localism with power moving from Whitehall to the town halls. These agendas mean less top down management and more local control. The total place approach is about finding tailor made solutions to local problems and it aligns well with the Big Society, localism and bottom up creativity.

The veil which shrouds the future of public services will be drawn back on 20 October 2010 when the Spending Review is published. The headlines will be about budget cuts, but the directors of the partnerships are hoping that the small print will chart a way forward. Steve Johnson is looking for a reduction in ring fencing and less regulation. Dick Soabji is looking for green lights. Chris Taylor, from YoHr Space the Yorkshire, Humberside Partnership is: “Looking for some architecture for delivering improvements to services.”

Although at the moment there is silence from the centre, there are indications of the direction of travel. The Local Government Group launched the Placed Based Productivity Programme to support the drive for increased efficiency and greater productivity. Chris Taylor believes: “The Productivity Programme and Neighbourhood Spend is one way forward if we can get it right.”

The Programme also embraces the development of new business models for delivering services. Rebecca Murphy, Chief Executive of the North West Partnership said: “All the principles of total place are being carried forward in place based budgeting.” There have been numerous pronouncements in recent weeks about top level support for place based, neighbourhood or community budgets. There has also been frenzied activity. Four councils have delivered reports to the Cabinet Office with views on the integration of services and the governance arrangements that would be needed. The LG Association has gathered evidence from councils to use in presenting a case for place based budgets. A spokesperson from the Association said: “We are looking for something more ambitious than pilot place based budget projects from the Spending Review”.

Place based budgets are not total place, but they are similar. Rebecca Murphy said: “Both involve wrapping services around groups, such as offenders or looking at the totality of public spend in an area or locality in a holistic way.” The main difference is that total place focuses on a theme such as care for the elderly or alcohol abuse, while place based budgets take a wider view and look at the total spend in an area. Inevitably more people in different organisations become involved, the complexity increases and the options for change are multiplied. Like total place, place based budgets are no ‘quick fix’.

Total place will live on and the learning will be invaluable. Cecilia Tredget, Director of the East Partnership said: “Total place has set the stage for community based budgeting and increased localism.” Perhaps the greater value will come, not so much from analysis of the substantial cost savings that can be made, but from the issues that emerged such as leadership, collaborative working, acquiring new skills and managing change.”

2020 vision

In the short term all the energy of pubic service leaders will be consumed in managing budgets, downsizing organisations and dealing with the fallout from the cuts as they affect customers and the workforce. For the longer term, when the tsunami of deficit reduction has ebbed away, the focus will move to transforming services. In the meantime, work will progress on finding ways to shift funding around to get the best value for the taxpayer and improve the customer experience. There will also be work on finding new business models to deliver services.

The Spending Review will reveal just how far public services are to be downsized and it will give an indication of how they are to be re-shaped. It may even be possible to distil an outline of a vision for public services in 2020 from its pages. However vague and blurred that vision will prove to be on 20 October 2010, it is clear that the total place legacy will be visible.