By Alan Gillies
A recent enquirer to our popular Ask a Researcher service sought our help to identify the available research on the concept of place-based or whole-place working.
Place-based approaches have been promoted through, for example, the previous UK government’s whole place community budgets. And in the Scottish context, the 2011 Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services recommended a place-based, or ‘total place’ approach in order to improve local services and break down institutional silos.
In keeping with its focus on localism, the UK government also piloted a neighbourhood-level version – ‘complementary and integral to the concept of Whole Place community budgets’ – and in April 2014 granted an extra £4.3m of investment to ensuring the model reached 100 new local areas through the Our Place programme.
Principles of place-based or whole-place working
The principles underpinning this model of collaborative place leadership have been identified by the Local Government Association as:
- building services around people and communities;
- removing barriers to better outcomes and reduced costs through integrated working across agencies;
- involving the business and voluntary sectors as equal partners;
- collaborating to put together a workable whole public sector approach, joint responsibility and shared leadership;
- local innovation and co-design with central government departments;
- local delivery and investment mechanisms tailored to local needs and circumstances.
The financial savings of such an approach could be significant. In January 2013, a report by Ernst & Young estimated that community budgets in England could deliver a net benefit of between £9.4 and £20.6bn over five years.
In looking at the costs and benefits of the whole place pilots in England in 2013, the NAO warned however that previous attempts such as local-area agreements, multi-area agreements and Total Place “did not lead to widespread or fundamental changes in local public services, or in the relationship between central and local government”.
But as financial pressure on public finances increased, there was even greater incentive than before to assess whether integrated whole-place approaches could help deliver services within increasingly tight budgets. A major driver of the process was therefore to maintain services while making savings.
The potential for place-based or whole-place policies to deliver financial savings does seem to be backed by the available evidence.
However, Localis, as recently as March 2015, has suggested that there is a sense across local government that Whitehall is unwilling to devolve the powers and funds necessary to let whole-place community budgets become a truly successful alternative means of delivering public services. The community budget pilots themselves ‘consistently pointed out that to deliver change on the scale they envisage there has to be change not only at a local level but also in Whitehall.’ (Ernst & Young, 2013)
Current government policy
The current government’s policy of devolution deals with certain areas has been seen as a way of realising the potential of place-based working. The Core Cities Group has called on the government to go further though. It wants the government to undertake a ‘place-based’ comprehensive spending review, looking at the total public resources deployed across a city or city region. It argues that without a similar place-based approach “within Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay”, to join up the way different departments work with local agencies and cities, “we will not see the changes people want, need and deserve, in their lives and their cities”.
Local government lessons
In an interesting exercise, the New Local Government Network brought together local government chief executives to explore how place-based, integrated public services could deliver budget reductions and better outcomes for people in a notional ‘Newtown’.
The main learning points identified it its 2014 report were:
- Working towards outcomes for place requires a different way of thinking and is an incredibly hard thing to do, particularly in relation to prevention, commissioning for outcomes and joining together what different sections of the public sector are doing to deliver outcomes for place.
- Groups found it tough to move beyond current services and ways of working to develop new approaches to deliver outcomes. Thinking tended to involve ‘less of the same’ or different delivery bodies, rather than whole-scale public service reform.
- There are a huge number of choices that need to be made and a vast range of stakeholder interactions required, yet few localities have the capacity available to complete this unaided.
- Few areas have the practical experience to embed customer journey mapping into place based design principles. Perhaps worryingly, the report noted that groups found it difficult to put citizens at the centre of their plans for reform.
- Despite having ‘red-lines’ of was not possible to change as part of the exercise (e.g. taxation), the groups went outside of these to ask government for additional powers, which suggests that in order to radically change public service in localities, central government reform maybe necessary.
These findings point to some of the challenges that local areas will need to overcome if they want to embrace a place-based approach.
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