Sally Loudon, Chief Executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), discusses the place of councillors and local authorities in our current changing political landscape. Though specific to Scotland, Sally’s message resonates with councils across the UK.
APSE is an organisation that I admire both in terms of the work it does and its staff’s commitment. It’s an organisation which I have a soft spot for, especially as the APSE Annual Seminar in Northern Ireland last September was one of my first speaking engagements as COSLA Chief Executive.
My message to that audience focused on the challenges that all four UK Local Government Associations face in leading our organisations. Public service reform featured strongly throughout that event, both in terms of the presentations and the questions from the audience. It is for that reason I would now like to highlight why I feel that the challenge of public service reform is something that councils should lead and embrace in equal measure.
With the political landscape across the world changing by the day, I firmly believe that public service reform is something that our democratically elected councillors need to be at the forefront of, set the political tone for, and lead. This advocacy is one of a number of things that I’ll be pursuing in the year ahead – and we should not be timid in this aspiration. Many organisations have a stake in public service reform, but our councillors rightly give local government the mandate to lead the charge on this.
In Scottish local government, we deliver 600 plus life and limb services, employ roughly one in ten people, and are the largest employer in many communities. Councils and our elected members in particular have historical roots in standing up for and protecting the most vulnerable in society. We should rightly be proud that, in our formative years, local government pushed for some of the necessities we all now take for granted, such as decent water, sanitation and affordable housing. Public service reform is something we all recognise is needed; firstly, for the benefit of our communities and secondly, to meet the significant financial constraints we are now facing.
Whichever way you look at it, public service reform should be led by councillors and councils. Elected members have always promoted and led the community planning agenda, and I want local government to take the next step and lead the public service reform agenda. Our democratic mandate supports the idea that we should we take the lead in developing the future shape of public service delivery in Scotland. It is, in essence, what Councillors are elected to do – stand up for and champion their communities – because, typically, councils and their communities know what works for them.
In addition to our democratic mandate, COSLA’s member councils have coped well with the first wave of austerity. The challenge facing us all now is that we need to go further and deeper with what we are facing, both in terms of demand and resource in the coming years. Local authorities have been innovative up until now – and this should not come as a surprise to anyone. The bottom line is that Scottish local government is good at innovation and shaping the future - we perhaps just need to believe it more.
In my view, only a resolute, determined drive towards continuous improvement and commitment to public service reform will both bring our communities better outcomes, and give local government the credibility it deserves and needs to achieve the wider vision that we all want to achieve.
Sally is the Chief Executive of COSLA. Learn more about COSLA here.