Theresa May was right when she called the official response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy a “failure of the state”. The Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea council has resigned and was right to do so (even though he rather gracelessly mentioned it was against his will).
The Government is now leaving no expense spared to help the victims. We all hope the public inquiry will be fearless in its scrutiny and ruthless in its remedies.
But it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that Grenfell was a one off failure of the state – it unmasks the failure of the whole system of local government.
Some of the most contentious issues of our time involve local government; housing and social care being obvious examples. There is a seductive narrative that it is failing because of ‘cuts’. And while it is true that funding has been squeezed, this easy argument glosses over the real problem: the system itself is broken.
Anyone who has ever tried to have a constructive conversation with their local council about even the simplest issue knows this to be true. In an age where commercial services can be accessed at the wave of a smartphone, it is beyond parody that many local services still require several phone calls – each usually rendering a slightly different answer.
A trivial example from my own experience: I have for years now tried to persuade my local council to give me a bin. The reason for their refusal? People might put rubbish in it. Their official advice to me is to put my rubbish on the street outside my home. I am not making this up.
Of course this minor irritation is a world away from the horror at Grenfell, but it’s also a symbol of what is going wrong. If local government cannot provide something as simple as a bin for an entirely spurious reason, then is it really a surprise that it is so ill equipped to cope with a real problem?
There are two main failures of the system at work here, and neither is to do with money.
The business of government is actually the business of prediction. If you are a local authority, with limited resources, you need to know exactly what demand for services will be. We live in an age of advanced machine learning, yet most local authorities base their budgets largely on guesswork and project so many years into the future as to be largely fantasy. This is despite evidence dating back to the 1960’s that a) human judgement is deeply flawed (see here) and b) projecting anything beyond a year or so is no better than relying on random chance (see here).
This is not to argue we should just replace local government with an algorithm. It is to argue that we should end our sole reliance on a cadre of well paid, well traveled officials and incorporate data science. Human experience matters, but as with the medical profession, when you move from eminence based science to evidence based, the improvements are life saving.
It is no longer good enough for the answer to be: “Oh no, trust me, that doesn’t work”. Have randomised control trials been done? What is the evidence? What does the data model say about demand?
I have worked recently with a leading data science company that was able to vastly improve a council’s enforcement of overcrowded homes through a simple predictive model of the most likely properties. They caught more rogue landlords, with fewer resources. Before, officers just walked down the road and knocked on the door hoping for the best.
The second is democratic accountability. There are some very fine, dedicated elected council leaders across the country. But the truth is many councils are run by officers. Clearly you need a balance between elected politicians reflecting the will of the people and officials speaking truth to power, but the balance has shifted too far to the unelected.
In practice, many councillors – working part time – are simply bored into submission by officers who are artists when it comes to getting their own way. When councillors are brave enough to challenge the system, canny Chief Executives simply ‘re-structure’ to give the appearance of change (a process that takes at least two years). In reality, they are merely bolstering their own authority rather than taking action to actually improve services.
The result? Poorer, more vulnerable people who rely on council housing, social care, disabled services and more are failed by this dysfunctional system. Complaints are ignored. Constructive solutions discounted. Dedicated councillors, cross party, try to do their best but often get a nonsensical response from the system.
When things go wrong, politicians get the boot (in some cases rightly so). But the system and the officials overseeing it remain and very rarely change their ways. When they are held accountable, pay offs and pensions provide a very soft landing.
Councils are at the front line of delivery, and the politicians leading them need more powers over the bureaucracy and (dare I say it) probably need to be paid more so they can make it their full time job. It is virtually impossible to sack a failing official without months of legal wrangling and a giant pay off at the end. This needs to change.
Local government must also urgently embrace predictive data science. This is essential if councils are to operate efficiently with smaller budgets.
They also need to embrace business. With the devolution of business rates replacing central government grant, they have a fantastic opportunity to boost their income for local services. Simply lying to Whitehall and forecasting flat business rate growth in the hope of staving off change, as I have seen happen, is a complete abrogation of responsibility.
The public is rightly exasperated with the entire political process. How many shocks must be delivered before it is understood that the system itself must reform? We have the tools, we have the science. All we need now is the will to make it happen.