Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

The "Graph of Doom" and the changing role for Local Government

Over the last few months the phrase “graph of doom” has been used increasingly regularly in respect of the future of local council spending. First used by Barnet Council in May  it’s now being applied to the whole of local government. Principally this is the view that if spending projections are accurate and if councils statutory responsibilities are the same then within the near future statutory services and social care costs will swallow up most local council spending leaving very little for other services to the community such as libraries, parks and leisure centres.

The Barnet Graph of Doom

The Barnet "Graph of Doom"

What’s worrying, notwithstanding the loss of such services, is that the services most at risk are those most used by local people. The LGAs report into this issue makes reference to a recent survey showing that whilst 39% of the population had used a library and 27% had used leisure services only 11% had used social care services. The worry is that as people are engaged less with council services then the stigma of collectively provided services may grow, adding additional stresses onto social care delivery and reducing access for some. There may also be a change in the political mood as with people more distant from public service delivery then its perceived value may be weakened

Of course this is also worrying for any organisation funded by local authorities or who might see demand on their services and activities grow as local councils withdraw from large areas of activity. However the key to understanding the importance of the Graph of Doom is that it’s a projection based on the status quo being maintained so the significance of these reports is that they are more likely to herald a significant change in the role of local government rather than being an accurate prediction of the nature of service delivery in the future.

One interesting point about the LGA report into this issue was that there was no demand from local government for more government spending, instead a request for more local decision making. Local government is essentially requesting the ability to join up services at a local level, to pool spending with central government spending, to reduce the number of statutory responsibilities placed upon councils and for the ability to raise money by other means, including charging. Each one of these could see changes that will affect us all and rather than see services disappear entirely we may see different approaches to standards and risks with some universal services withdrawn and only made available to targeted users, whilst some contracting is delivered across larger areas as services are merged.

At GMCVO we have seen these discussions reflected in Greater Manchester’s Wholeplace Community Budgets pilot. At its heart is a view that the “as is” is unsustainable and the public sector is likely to play a different role in the future. Rather than be focussed around problems that need to be fixed the public sector is likely to look at addressing the root causes of problems that then result in a growth of social care costs later in life. Alongside this, a recognition that these root causes are often linked to social norms within our communities that cannot be changed by the state but only by those communities themselves with appropriate support. The view is that the voluntary sector will have to play a greater role and will be a more significant partner in tackling these issues, engaged in preventative work that reduces demand.

While this might seem like a positive opportunity for our sector it’s not likely to appear in the very short term and should our local councils be able to position themselves to invest in the sector they may be looking for different organisations than those they’ve commissioned in the past and may fund work in different ways. What is clear is that as public spending reduces and demand for social care services increases then the market for public sector commissioning will become much more competitive. This may leave many organisations with a choice between taking on larger scale contracts on tighter margins, gaining income through a more diverse trading model through personal budgets or to move out of public service delivery back into work on a smaller scale, supported by volunteers, grants and traditional fundraising.

Just as the “as is” is no longer unsustainable for the public sector the much of the voluntary sector will face the same challenge to adapt to a new environment.