The value of de-centralised provision of Public Services
Gordon Brown, likely to become Prime Minister in mid-2007, has been known to consider decentralisation of public services an important factor of local community government (Simon Jenkins 2007). Public services are defined as those goods that are provided for the benefit of the whole community and from which no individual can be excluded. The main question however, is whether these services are more efficiently administered through and decentralised authority and, if so, what size of local organisation is required to achieve these objectives.
Efficiency of local public service provision
Provision of public services through local authorities in the twentieth century developed because it was not possible for Parliament and its twenty-one ministers to maintain control of these factors (Jones and Stewart 1983, p.10). In recent decades, because of improvement in communication and cost reduction, more responsibility for public services has been decentralised (Doherty and Horne 2002, p.104) because it is seen to be an efficient method. Indeed, Bentham (1973, p.216-20) argues that local and regional levels of government are the only way to ensure that efficient public services can be delivered.
Efficiency is measured by two factors, being the perception of the consumers to whom the service is rendered and the cost efficiency of the process. In terms of the consumer, a report conducted by the Lyons inquiry found that the consensus of local communities deemed local authorities to be more efficient suppliers of most public services than central government. For example, as can be seen from graphs 20 and 25 of the report (see figures 1 and 2), the majority felt that local authorities would provide a service more appropriate to local needs, in the latter case relating particularly to the area of local transport.
A similar percentage (graph 29) felt that community policing would be managed more effectively and efficiently by local authorities than through a centralised body.
The same community response was found with many other areas of public services, including education, with a key element in this efficiency process being measured by the fact that the authority was in a better position to communicate with their local community and understand the local environment.
Furthermore, the communities surveyed that local authorities are more appropriate managers of funds than central government and should be able to determine, collect and administer their own revenue, with many of the participants supporting locally raised income taxes or charging for specific services.
For example, as can be seen on page 75 of the same report, most were of the opinion that local authorities should set and retain the local business rates, not submit it to central government as at present happens.
The summary findings of the Lyons Inquiry (page 2), agreed the above that, in terms of the delivery of public services, local authorities were the most efficient and effective method of ensuring that the needs and requirements of the local community were met.
In the past, one of the main criticisms of local authorities was that they had become too bureaucratic and therefore cost inefficient. The levels of employees and other resources used, far exceeded the requirements of the services being provided. Furthermore, the impression was that the organisations were devouring a disproportionate percentage of the funding being raised through rates and grants. This public perception was one of the main reasons for the controversy that surrounded the ill-fated community charge and that has led to concerns over the increasing level of council taxes.
Although the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (2001) suggested that the size of local authorities is not an issue, this is clearly not the case. Whilst it is not possible to identify a set size for a particular local authority, as with any other organisation there is clearly a need to for service provider to ensure that the cost of provision does not result in an unacceptable cost attracting to the consumer of the service.
Efficiency equally applies to the structure of the authority as well. One way to ensure that the authority remains resource efficient is to implement quality controls, such as the ISO 9000 standard that in 2002 had been introduced into some departments of approaching a quarter of local authorities throughout the UK (Docherty and Horne 2002, p.148). Furthermore, it is the task of the Audit Commission is to monitor the efficiency of both the services provided and the provider. In the case of the latter, it is incumbent upon the commission to ensure that resources are not wasted.
The size of the authority can thus be measured by the ability of the authority to deliver the public services and goods to the members of the community through the efficient use of the appropriate level of resources.
The members of the public and Lyons are agreed that the local authority is the most efficient method of delivering public services. However, it is important that this service is provided by an organisation that is of an appropriate size, as measured by its own internal efficiencies.
Bentham, J (1973). Bent ham’s Political Thought. Croom Helm. London, UK.
Doherty, Tony and Horne, Terry (2002). Managing Public Services: Implementing Change. Routledge. London, UK.
Jenkins, Simon (2007). Public services with a heart. The Sunday Times. London, UK
Jones, George. and Stewart, John (1983). The Case for Local Government. Allen and Unwin. London, UK.
Lyons, Sir Michael (2007). Place-shaping: a shared ambition for the future of local government. Final Report. HMSO. London, UK.
Lyons, Sir Michael (2006). Lyons Inquiry – Public Deliberation Events. Retrieved 3 May 2007 from http://www.lyonsinquiry.org.uk/docs/061120-consultation-public.pdf
Secretary of State for Transport, Local Governments and the Regions (2001). Strong Local Leadership – Quality Public Services. HMSO. Retrieved 3 May 2007 from http://www.communities.gov.uk/pub/215/StronglocalleadershipQualitypublicservicesDTLR2001PartOne_id1165215.pdf