There seems little doubt that devolution will be the chief driver of public service reform in 2016. Local leaders are enthusiastically negotiating devolution deals as a means to bring decisions about public spending closer to themselves and the public they represent. It's encouraging and admirable that they are eager to accept the power and responsibility that comes with managing potentially huge amounts of public money.
There is plenty of encouragement from Government. The Spending Review announced that from next April, local areas will have the power to raise council tax to pay for social care and will also be able to retain their own business rate revenue. Measures like these are providing an incentive for more local areas to seek devolution deals, following the examples of Greater Manchester, Cornwall, Sheffield and others.
Whilst localising power is important (and this is what is attracting many to the idea of devolution), local leaders will quickly need to think bigger. This means local areas agreeing to push power and control over services back up a level as part of their devolution deals. There are two reasons for doing this. The first is about service quality and the benefit to the public from services that are more joined up and user friendly (like health and social care) and also the possible benefits of joining up services like children's social care across council boundaries. The second reason is about the financial sustainability of services which are under threat from budget cuts. Whilst devolution deals do not create new money they do provide an opportunity to keep services alive and available by pooling resources and sharing the financial burden between councils (and perhaps the NHS as well).
This type of bigger picture thinking is how councils working together can maximise their 'devolution dividend' and get the most from what could be a once in a generation opportunity.
Let's look at health and social care in more detail. To meet the long-term challenges of increasing demands on health care and our ageing population, everyone from politicians to doctors agree that the integration of health and social care is part of the answer. But while this all sounds logical, nobody is quite sure yet how to do it best in practice. It's a huge intellectual and practical challenge which is causing everyone to scratch their heads. In the recent spending review, the Treasury was clear that integration is a key goal across public services but that it would not be dogmatic on how it is achieved: 'the ways local areas integrate will be different', it stated.
The Department of Health's 'integrated care organisation' vanguards are exploring how to join-up services and create smoother pathways of care. In doing so they are combining both service and geographical integration. In Cornwall, for example, proposals include a wholesale transfer of the budget for adult social care from the local authority to the Clinical Commissioning Group (which operates on a wider geography) - tying up health and social care budgets together for the first time. This is a great example of where local areas are getting more control over services but are choosing to organise at across traditional council boundaries.
Devolution also presents an enticing catalyst for neighbouring councils to join forces to deliver children's services including children's social care. Achieving for Children is an example of this collaboration. It's an independent organisation established in 2014 and jointly owned by Kingston and Richmond councils. It has had some early successes, notably moving Kingston's children's service's up to an Ofsted rating of "good", which in the new regime is quite an achievement. Geographical collaboration via a new delivery model, like Achieving for Children, is also being actively discussed in Greater Manchester and behind the scenes in a number of other places.
The Government is studiously avoiding prescribing how devolution and integration should happen - but it is already clear that those who are thinking bigger than just their own local area will be more successful in their negotiations. So yes, fight for more power for your local area - but to maximise your 'devolution dividend', you must be ready to share it.