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Stronger leadership and clarity from government needed for localism and the ‘Big Society’ to work

25 January 2011

Localism and the ‘Big Society’ are central to the government’s long term public service reform plans. However, a new report from Deloitte shows that the government’s flagship policy of improving public services by devolving power to local communities requires leadership to build consensus and bring clarity to the varying interpretations of what localism means.

Mark Lawrie, head of local and regional government at Deloitte, said: “From the beginning, what the government means by the ‘Big Society’ and localism has, to some extent, lacked clarity. This has had consequences: people don’t understand it so they ignore it or they interpret it in a way that suits them. Clearly, for the government’s localism vision to be realised it needs to provide the leadership necessary to bring clarity to the interpretation as well as remove the barriers to implementation.”

The Deloitte report, A little local difficulty, explores the challenges of making localism work. It finds that currently there isn’t a broad consensus across the public sector on how localism, decentralisation and the ‘Big Society’ will work in a systemic fashion across local government. The report identifies a number of actions that local authorities can take to address the challenge: mapping which parts of the community have the potential to deliver services, develop accountability and governance models and then understand how the local authority will need to change to meet these demands.

Deloitte interviewed the chief executives of 15 local authorities who collectively manage over £7.4 billion and employ more than 100,000 people. The Deloitte report finds that:

  • 80% of councils participating in the Deloitte survey do not have a specific strategy in place to address localism.
  • Council chief executives view the engagement of local communities as the primary challenge; in particular how to introduce governance and accountability mechanisms for local activity.
  • There is a lack of consensus on what localism actually means. Central government thinks it’s about reducing government control by devolving power to local communities. In contrast, local government expects an increase in its responsibilities.
  • To drive localism local authority chief executives would like to see a stronger relationship established between local tax raising powers and locally provided services.
  • Whitehall intransigence and resistance to change in central government departments (that provide local government with £140 billion per annum) is seen as a key threat to successful implementation of localism.

The report concludes that the localism agenda could be constrained by a mix of capability challenges, varying degrees of community participation and uncertainty around governance and accountability mechanisms. This may mean that localism could be limited to a few flagship reforms that have concrete policy direction, such as health and education.

A little local difficulty identifies the challenges that local authorities need to confront to make localism a reality:

Changes to local authority business models. Councils need to take action to understand the challenges at a detailed level, including how capabilities and structures may need to evolve to meet future roles and responsibilities.

Community capability and engagement. Councils need to map which parts of the community have the potential, that is, the capacity, capability and inclination to get involved in either direct delivery or oversight of key business areas. Aligned to this work, local authorities also need to sell the idea of greater community independence and involvement. They need to articulate the reasons why communities should get involved.

Understanding what is possible. Understand what is possible on a systemic, not just ad hoc or experimental, level. Councils need to build a matrix of organisations to do business with based on their track record, impartiality, corporate structures and their legitimacy. They need to identify which services represent low risk areas where great community involvement can be introduced on a sustainable basis.

Accountability and governance. Before localism can be implemented, councils need to develop new frameworks for performance management and accountability that meet the specific requirements of a local service, and test these models against user experiences.



A copy of A little local difficulty, the challenges of making localism work can be found at:

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