Paul McKevitt explains how a transformation programme and engagement with the citizen across a variety of areas has enabled Wigan Council to save £133 million since 2011.
With the second wave of local government funding cuts in 2015 we realised we needed a long-term approach to how we would deliver services in the future. Alongside increasing economic growth, a key strand of the strategy was engaging our local residents to help us by cutting waste and increasing volunteering.
To do this we created ‘The Deal’, an informal agreement between the council and the citizens of Wigan to work together to create a better borough. It invites citizens to recycle more, get involved in the community, go online, be active and support local businesses. In turn, the council committed to a series of pledges protecting front-line services and not increasing council tax.
The press noticed The Deal straight away and some people thought it was a gimmick at first. We faced a lot of opposition with people questioning things like, how a council that's under increasing financial pressure could give money to the third sector. We kept referring everything back to The Deal, explaining it simply to our staff and to members of the public. And slowly we won people over.
We’re communicating in lots of different ways and making sure we demonstrate what we’ve achieved.
To do this, we are using more social media, presentations at our public meetings and making sure the messages in our council tax leaflet and magazine are right. Key to our success has been achieving and communicating annually how we’ve been able to freeze council tax.
Engaging the third sector
We set up a community investment fund linked to our budget reduction programme. If we’re looking to reduce money spent on a service, we invite bids from the third sector and fund them over three years on a reducing scale, by the end of which they should be self-financing or have other financial backing.
Not all of our investments have worked, but a lot of new ideas have flourished that wouldn’t have previously been created.
Our greatest success has been in adult social care where we’ve saved £25 million since 2011. We’ve changed the type of care we facilitate, moving from a one-size-fits-all care package to one that builds on a person’s strengths. This is different for everyone, and in some cases it wouldn’t typically be recognised as a care package.
For example, one of our social workers was visiting a man who wanted respite care because he was a full-time carer for his wife. It came up in conversation that his wife had been a keen sewer before becoming unwell. We got in touch with a nearby sewing group we'd invested in and they were happy to take this lady to the sewing group twice a week. Now the husband gets a respite, the woman's quality of life is better and the council is offering a better service with a lower spend.
The community investment fund is now so well established, other groups have come forward, broadening the scope into a wider health and wellbeing agenda. Overall, general public health indicators have improved markedly on the back of some of the work we've done.
Changing ourselves with The Deal
For all this to happen, a lot had to change within the council. Having the right people was essential to moving fast enough. In addition, linked to reducing spend was reducing headcount. So we had a deal for staff. We recognised we were asking them to do more and work differently. In turn, we communicated that we would protect their terms and conditions, support and invest in them.
To achieve a positive outcome for all, we needed everyone involved, including the management team. Throughout the year we hold frequent briefings to present our financial position and direction, and make sure we are all adhering to our ‘BeWigan Behaviours’, including taking up the two days volunteering everyone is given. We’ve also changed our recruiting practices and focus more on looking for people with the right attitude.
What made it possible
There are a number of conditions that made achieving The Deal possible:
A politically stable council, with a long-standing leader, prepared to take some difficult, long-term decisions
A long-term plan with the budget set on a four- to five-year basis that allows us to back people to ‘be courageous’ – If their idea doesn't work we can stop and do something else without it damaging our financial plan
We’ve engaged consistently on the need to remove waste (excess costs and reducing demand) from the budget, rather than increasing income by raising council tax or charges – That’s a clear message externally and internally.
Overall, The Deal has evolved so we've got to a position that looks great. When we started off, we'd never imagined we'd be in this position. It's just built as we've gone along. It hasn’t been easy, but it's definitely worked for Wigan and put us in a sustainable position.