What if we actually designed local government for Wales

A network not a machine

A different approach to local government structures

The excellent Institute for Welsh Affairs has published a post today suggesting that the Welsh Government’s latest suggestions for reorganising local government seemed to have stalled and proposing other, more interesting approaches.

This is an interesting post and really got me thinking but, given that it proposes thinking differently, it is oddly conventional. My colleague Esko Reinikainen suggested (in our team Slack) that

he looks at the problem like a cartographer so his answer is a map rather than through the lens of complexity

We inherit our constrained thinking

Local government in Wales can trace the evolution of its structures, approaches and interests to the Normans (OK they didn’t make it to North Wales), through the Victorians, through the social reformers of the early mid 20th Century and into the managed decline of the 21st Century. Along the way councils and communities have inherited structures and constraints from previous generations and passed them on with new takes to the next generation.

But what if we genuinely could start with a blank sheet of paper. What would local government that really worked for Wales, for all its communities, for its environment, for its businesses and charities. What would, could, might that look like.

Here are a couple of ideas:

1. It would be much more fluid, much less hierarchical.

In the 19th century when people thought about how you get things done at scale they really only had armies and machines as suitable mental models. So local authorities were carved out of these historical precedents. With officers and workers, hard boundaries between the council and the people and sitting at the top small groups of people operating the levers of power.

We have other models now. We know that decentralised, networked organisations can be more nimble, more responsive and more flexible. They don’t need vast layers of management to provide accountability and control the flow of money and ideas. They can use technology and communication.

Could we imagine a form of local government that isn’t a hard, fixed institutional structure but instead a collection of people and resources, of communities with skills, knowledge and experience. Could we imagine a dynamic fluid way of working in which small teams create themselves around needs in the community and dissolve themselves once they have addressed their founding purpose. Could we have a form of government where the people are a fundamental part of the government, working within these teams alongside professionals and other members of their communities and the wider communities of Wales.

I think we could.

2. It would be based on relationships not resource constraint.

The very idea of restructuring local government (or any bureaucracy) is predicated on the idea that it is a machine. The machine isn’t working as well as we hoped so lets move some of the cogs around and hope the machine suddenly springs into efficient life.

But local authorities are not machines. And the cogs are not cogs. They are people. Local authorities are huge, complex networks of people connected and interconnected to each other, to the people in other organisations and to the people they serve by countless invisible threads.

These redesigned authorities would be predicated on building, supporting and encouraging effective relationships. They would create spaces for people to deal with each other as human beings. People would mobilise support, skills and perspectives through the network.

No-one would be treated as a cog. No-one would attempt to pull a lever of power.

Realistic?

Maybe this sounds like a confusing mess in which the poorest will be missed and fall through the cracks… oh no hang on that’s the current system. We now have models of dynamic governance that are more effective than sacking the party we don’t like very much every four years.

Here’s the best bit

The best bit is we don’t need to wait for a rapprochement between Cardiff Bay and County Hall(s), we don’t need mergers and redundancies, we don’t need to burn it all down and start again.

We can do this right now. We can just choose to see and work within networks, we can free up staff and citizens to get on and solve the problems that they see. We can, if we choose to, make the next restructure irrelevant.

Wouldn’t that be something?


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