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April 2020
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Why Demand Management is important to local government

Martin Creswell is Chief Executive of iMPOWER and a member of the MCA Think Tank

Martin Creswell is Chief Executive of iMPOWER and a member of the MCA Think Tank

Carl Jung once talked of synchronicity, of separate events connected by a form of ‘meaningful coincidence’. Such connections, difficult to explain through the standard scientific method, were somehow deliberate and that the manifestation of one was reliant on the other. This art, of seeing the irregular links and patterns in what appears to be chaos or regimented uniformity, is not unlike one’s first attempt at a behavioural analysis.

Take for example a parent using the free school transport service for their disabled children, a service which costs local authorities a small fortune in taxi fares. On the face of it a rigid and uniform system; it is right these children attend school therefore by virtue of them being considered ‘in need’ by the state they are provisioned with a service to address that need.  When iMPOWER explored this problem further we found a previously unrecognised behavioural trigger, the council we were working with was simply offering the service to any parent who qualified. When they changed to asking those same parents ‘How are you going to get your child to school?’ the numbers of people accessing that particular service fell dramatically. Behavioural analysis allowed us to look beyond the linear nature of the problem and to find an innovative and cost effective solution. By simply reframing the offer of the service we unlocked a different set of behaviours in service users. This is just the tip of a big iceberg, and an area which has received recognition today from our industry Think Tank.

The new Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank report, Local Government – Time for Reinvention highlights how effective demand management really can transform local services. The report recommends that by taking a more imaginative look at service users through the deployment of behavioural analysis (and not just the traditional assessments of socio-economic need), councils can segment and tailor services in ways which may see reduced levels of demand.

With local government likely to be burdened by a further reduction of 30% in its overall spending power the sector will be in need of support and fresh thinking. If raw financial numbers behind the cuts are not enough, consider the 400,000 jobs lost in local government (according to UNISON), many of them from the councils corporate core; the critical thinking capacity if you will. What is left is essentially the front line. If local government wants to navigate its way through the next five years of fiscal contraction then it needs to start embracing new tools like behavioural analysis if it is to address the white elephant in the room that of increasing demand for public services.

The real danger to the sustainability of public services isn’t the fall in public spending; the amount we contribute to public services has fluctuated over recent history. Rather the real threat is that of unchecked (and poorly understood) increases in demand. As the MCA Think Tank point outs, managing this demand will be a significant part of most local authorities answer to their funding challenge. Behavioural analysis is one tool that will help to unlock better demand management but it is not the only. We at iMPOWER see this as a broader opportunity to expand on the orthodox socio-economic forms of analysis that have traditionally informed senior decision making in local government.

The MCAs new report into the future of local government makes this point clearly. We’re now operating in a world that is rapidly downsizing and where our populations are more mobile and increasingly transient. What this mean for ‘place based’ delivery of public services is still be decided. What is clear is that a one size fits all approach is not the answer, it’s one of the contributing factors to our current problems. We see a different public sector emerging, one where the stock in trade of local government will be the ownership of our most complex social problems, and in truth, many are not solvable. At least not by singular one shot solution. Rather, they are managed and ameliorated over time, evolving into ever more manageable versions of themselves.

Political commentator Janan Ganesh recently noted that those of who are 35 ‘have already lived through one re-imagining of the state’ and that we are now about ‘due for another’. I’m inclined to agree with him. Managing demand is not just an important part of the future of local government service delivery; it is also a gateway to the next generation of the state. 

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