Feedback report: 06–09 December 2022
"If the LGA didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it" - a quote that captures how many partners and stakeholders feel about the LGA and the vital role it plays in the local government sector.
Whilst a similar quote was given to the previous CPC team in 2015, it’s clear that this is a strong organisation which has been able to improve further over this period.
The evidence of which is shown throughout this report, but includes:
- Only 2 councils nationally not being in membership of the LGA, with none on notice to leave – a considerable improvement compared to 2014/15.
- 84% of local government stakeholders being supportive of the LGA’s sector led improvement approach. This figure was 62% at the time of the 2015 CPC.
- A strong record for influencing the issues facing the sector, which has grown further over this period, including how the LGA has supported the sector to respond to national crises.
- The LGA having significantly strengthened its financial resilience since 2015 on the back of planned strategic steps, which have been carefully managed.
- An established, strong and stable senior management team and an organisation that performs remarkably well at gaining political consensus.
A drive for continuing the LGA’s improvement led the LGA to seek out its 2nd CPC and open itself up to the feedback given, which is an openness that partners commend the LGA for, in demonstrating an authentic spirit for improvement. Whilst this CPC was later than the LGA had originally planned - due to the COVID-19 pandemic - the timing in other ways could not have been better.
That’s because the sector is now, once again, in a period of significant change which will require the LGA to transform how it operates moving forward.
The growth of Mayoral Combined Authorities and new county devolution deals represents one key change. There is feedback contained within this report around how the LGA may seek to build a closer working relationship with the Mayoral Combined Authorities and new county devolution areas.
The requirements of sector support and challenge are now also changing. It’s important that the LGA not only changes with this, but leads the change on behalf of the sector, working with others, in a way which best supports the sector overall. This means building on the strengths that already exist, adding to this with new models and ways of working for those requiring a higher level of assurance and tightening the networks between those supporting improvement and assurance. Further detail is provided on this throughout this report.
Further change however, is always guaranteed. The LGA membership and partners have reflected on the important role the LGA played in supporting the sector to respond to a number of national crises in recent years. This was made possible by the reputation and relationships the LGA has built-up over time – being seen by partners as “constructive”, “helpful”, “valued”, “candid” and “reasonable”.
Many of those in the LGA’s membership want to also see the LGA develop more forward thinking positions on behalf of the sector, looking out more and scanning the next horizon.
Delivering against the different change requirements posed throughout this report will require strategic change in how the LGA works internally. Indeed, it is recognised by the LGA that “we’ve been so focussed rightly on supporting councils, but we need to plan for our own future too”. The LGA is recognised as having a well-established, strong senior management team. This next phase will require the LGA to ensure it has the dedicated senior capacity needed to deliver on the internal change requirements presented by all of this.
Whilst the LGA has recently agreed its Business Plan for 2022 – 2025, it is important that the priorities of the LGA are now used to shape financial and organisational decision making more closely. This does not mean using this to the extent that the LGA in future is no longer responsive to new, key challenges as they may emerge for the sector, but using the agreed corporate priorities more to shape organisational and financial planning.
An internal change programme that supports the delivery of this Business Plan should also include reaffirming the commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and continuing to lead and resource the steps forward in regards to EDI. The internal change programme will also include putting in place more support for officers when operating in a member-led organisation, amongst a number of other aspects of internal change, as featured throughout this report.
There is much already in place that the LGA can utilise and build from in leading the above changes, including for example:
- Highly motivated staff who are passionate about what they do. To get even more from this (as an asset), find a way to bridge the apparent gaps in day-to-day working across functions, as appropriate.
- Strong recognition for the brand of the LGA externally and the influence the LGA is able to have. Use this established platform to further develop strategic relationships with Government departments more widely, whilst also ensuring that all political lobbying is succinct and disciplined.
In summary, looking forward, the LGA should now design its next phase fully reflecting the needs of a changing sector. Developing the required infrastructure for this will enable the LGA to continue its trajectory of improvement, whilst being tightly aligned to the changing needs of local government. Doing so will in-turn make a big difference to councils and the communities they serve.
There are a number of observations and suggestions within the main section of the report. The following summarise the peer team’s key recommendations to the LGA.
- Develop a closer working relationship with the Mayoral Combined Authorities and new county devolution areas as a key, growing part of the local government family. This will mean ensuring greater oversight and prioritisation corporately of this shift and building in the corporate requirements of this.
- Lead the design of a reshaped sector support and assurance framework for local government, reflecting the different needs seen across the sector now. Build and add to the strengths that already exist, with separate offers for ‘assurance’ and ‘improvement’, ensuring models and ways of working for those requiring a higher level of assurance are suitably utilised in the timeliest way possible.
- Tighten the networks around sector support and assurance, including between the various professional bodies and work with the DLUHC and the emerging OFLOG in a way which leads to earlier support, challenge and sharing of best practice.
- Use the LGA Business Plan and the priorities it sets for the organisation to more consistently shape financial and organisational planning at a strategic level. Doing so in a way which can help to more closely align the capacity, development and resource requirements of meeting the key priorities of the LGA, whilst still remaining essentially adaptive to significant challenges and crises as they present themselves.
- Ensure sufficient, dedicated senior capacity and structures are in place to deliver the LGA’s internal change requirements fully.
- Agree and implement an internal change plan for closing the apparent gaps in day-to-day working between functions across the LGA, as appropriate. Doing so can further strengthen the quality and timeliness of support provided to member councils, whilst also supporting the LGA to utilise and convene more real-time, real-world experiences in the LGA’s policy development work.
- Reaffirm to staff the commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and continue to provide the required internal leadership and resource requirements for this, building on the steps taken in the last 2 years.
- Implement the planned training and induction programme for all staff about working in a member-led environment at the LGA. Establish a member-officer protocol, specific to the LGA to help shape this.
- Reset the Audit Committee function to ensure that this function is able to provide proactive oversight and challenge through a more active work programme which is well connected into the work of other relevant boards. Refreshing the terms of reference, meeting frequency and number of members involved with the Audit Committee will aid in this regard.
- Refresh the member development and induction offer for members involved with the LGA boards and ensure suitable formal and informal feedback loops are in place across the activity of the boards. Ensure all members feel fully supported to perform their specific roles. This also includes ensuring members involved in lobbying meetings being supported to consistently convey focussed points in a succinct and disciplined way.
- Review how the LGA can better use the analysis from international networks to support its work on behalf of local government. This will help ensure that the learning from these networks is utilised to most effect across the LGA’s work.
- Develop more horizon scanning positions on behalf of the sector, building on the work started and the methods used more recently (e.g. Culture Commission).
Summary of the peer challenge approach
The peer team
Peer challenges are delivered by experienced member and officer peers. The peers for this peer challenge were:
- Ali Griffin (Chief Executive – London Councils).
- Ian Hudspeth OBE (former Leader of Oxfordshire County Council)
- Peter John OBE (former Leader of the London Borough of Southwark)
- Baroness Dorothy Thornhill MBE (House of Lords and former Elected Mayor of Watford Borough Council)
- Cllr Jim McKenna (Cornwall Council)
- Andreas Kiefer (former Secretary General - The Congress of the Council of Europe)
- Charlotte Ramsden OBE (Strategic Director for People - Salford City Council)
- Peer Challenge Manager – Dan Archer (Senior Regional Adviser - LGA).
Scope and focus
The peer team considered the following themes which are based on the core components of Corporate Peer Challenge:
- Priorities and outcomes
- Sector leadership
- Organisational leadership
- Governance and culture
- Financial planning and management
- Capacity for improvement
The peer challenge process
Peer challenges are improvement focused – they are not ‘inspection’ and the process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and the materials they read.
The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information in order to ensure they were familiar with the LGA and the challenges it is facing. The team then spent four days onsite at the LGA, during which time they:
- Gathered information and views from approximately 65 meetings, in addition to further research and reading.
- Spoke to more than 150 people including members, officers, partners and external stakeholders.
This report provides a summary of the peer team’s findings.
Priorities and outcomes
The Local Government Association (LGA) exists to promote, improve and support local government.
Over the course of 25 years, under the ‘promote’ element of this purpose, the LGA has sought to ensure the local government sector has a strong, credible voice with national government. The LGA has developed real credibility and trusted relationships in doing this over a long period of time, which has led to a number of key ‘wins’ being secured for the local government sector. Further detail on this is provided in the ‘Sector Leadership’ section of this report.
Across the ‘improve’ and ‘support’ elements of the above purpose, sits the LGA’s wide ranging peer-based sector support model, which is available to all councils in England.
Between April 2019 – March 2022, this sector support offer from the LGA led to 563 instances of remote peer support and corporate peer challenge (CPC) being delivered to over 250 councils. More than 3,500 councillors were trained through LGA leadership programmes (including targeted programmes for the development of councillors with protected characteristics) and over 450 graduates were recruited and placed in councils across England and Wales through the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP).
The sector support offer is so extensive that the above reflects only a small sample of the work these programmes cover. The offer from the LGA’s improvement functions more widely includes children’s services, health and social care, climate change, finance, leadership, governance, digital, performance management, economic development, devolution, housing, behavioural insights, equality, diversity and inclusion, culture and much more beyond this.
Whilst much of the support made available from the LGA to local government is formalised through established programmes, the LGA also has regional teams across England who act as the key interface between sector support and individual councils. The regional teams provide both tailored support and challenge to the councils in each region, whilst also playing a key role in helping councils to find the right support for them. Council Chief Executives regard the regional teams highly for the support they bring to their councils, for example going as far as to say “it is often therapy as well as support”. This is consistent with 84% of councils being supportive of the sector led improvement approach.
There are a host of support functions also provided by the LGA for the sector including for example legal and governance, the One Public Estate Programme, planning, workforce, pensions, communications and procurement. The LGA also provides the secretariat and officer function for 12 National Employer committees and related support functions for employers. Given the level of industrial unrest in other sectors in 2022, securing an early agreement on the local government pay award in England has been a significant achievement and, in this context, reflects positively on the ways of working established.
There are four political group offices (PGOs) at the LGA – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent (the latter of which includes Independent, Green and other parties in England and Wales). The PGOs are there to be a key bridge from improvement activity and policy into politics. The role is crucially important for what the LGA seeks to achieve for local government, across all of its functions.
Members and officers across the LGA are consistently clear in their understanding of the LGA’s mission – ‘to promote, improve and support’ as set out in the recently launched LGA Business Plan 2022 – 2025. A new set of priorities have been agreed for the LGA in this Business Plan also. How the LGA uses these priorities to meaningfully prioritise its use of finances and organisational planning is the most important step. It is not as clear how proactively and consistently the LGA has previously used the Business Plan to do this at a strategic level. Doing so in more depth, can help the LGA to ensure it is able to strategically invest and adapt the organisation to provide more capacity, space and pace as may then be required in some areas, whilst remaining sufficiently flexible to respond to key issues and crises as they emerge. Some of those the team met with asked what the LGA is currently doing that it could perhaps stop. Using the Business Plan proactively and routinely in this way, should help with such questions, on an ongoing basis.
In using the Business Plan as the key strategic planning tool, how the LGA engages with partners at a strategic level around their shared interests and complementary objectives, under these priorities is well worth further consideration. This can help also in further galvanising, amplifying and networking the efforts of the LGA and others, as a proactive and pragmatic systems leader for the local government sector.
Over the course of the previous LGA Business Plan (2019 – 2022), the LGA was required to transform the organisation to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The LGA is recognised by partners and stakeholders for the way in which it was able to do this and the impact it was able to have. For example, working closely with council leaders and central government, the LGA helped secure over £10bn in grant funding for councils to deal with extra costs arising from the pandemic in addition to other compensation schemes.
The responsiveness of the LGA to the key challenges that emerge for the sector is a crucial feature of the role the LGA plays – as seen around exiting the European Union as well as supporting the resettlement of new arrivals from Syria, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine. There is however a requirement to ensure a balance across the LGA’s work, to find space to ‘horizon scan’ more, a responsibility that does not just sit within the ‘promote’ / policy functions of the LGA, but right across and between all LGA functions.
The LGA is uniquely placed to quickly lead the design of a reshaped sector support and assurance framework for local government, reflecting the different needs seen across the sector now. This is to ensure that the framework meets the different needs of councils – in particular the small number of councils who require a heightened level of assurance, whilst retaining the existing improvement tools which remain crucially important to the vast majority of councils.
100% of councils participating in a CPC say the process has had a positive impact on their organisation, which is an achievement that is hard to match. Whilst the CPC should remain as the key learning and challenge tool for the vast majority of councils - and is seen as such by many of the council representatives the team spoke with - it is important to not lose its unique value as an improvement tool, by forcing it to now try and fulfil two distinct purposes at once.
The LGA must move quickly to lead this design work on behalf of the sector, working with others, to develop a single, widened improvement and assurance framework which includes distinctly different tool(s) that sit alongside CPC and the other improvement and assurance tools, to give an enhanced level of assurance for the small number of councils who need it. This framework should build on the role of regional teams working with councils and should support effective, enhanced and well utilised early warning. This framework should also work with the intelligence provided by the emerging OFLOG, ensuring that failure and the signs of failure are identified as early as possible and responded to with the most appropriate tool / approach. There is naturally an ongoing role for the LGA as the voice for the sector, to ensure that that the analysis produced by the OFLOG is relevant to and usable by councils, in supporting timely improvement and assurance. tightening the networks between those supporting improvement and assurance.
This improvement and assurance framework should also include the sharing of learning from all of this peer work with the sector, including the emerging issues and the examples of outstanding practice, in a timely way. The LGA should therefore continue to develop how it shares this learning across the sector, as a system leader using creative, targeted and engaging ways that support sector wide learning and improvement.
The successes shown above and throughout this report have contributed to a position where the LGA brand itself has become an important asset. Thinking creatively about how this is used in future when working with others can help the LGA to extend its reach, influence, capability and influence even further. A renewed approach to internal monitoring and evaluation against the Business Plan and full suite of sector support can help in not only preserving the existing brand value, but building it further.
The LGA is recognised as the key partner in the relationship between central and local government. This relationship is described by partners as “constructive”, “helpful”,“valued”, “candid” and “reasonable”.
There is a strong recognition that the LGA is the voice of local government and has influence (e.g. with the NHS). As a membership body however, some will question whether the LGA is seen to be challenging enough publicly in its positions. This challenge is often given when the LGA – as the single ‘voice of local government’ – is required to seek consensus amongst its membership, given the sometimes different political perspectives of the constituent local authorities. Members and officers of the LGA are also aware of the influence they are able to have in shaping Government policy at an early and informal stage, by working in a trusted and credible way with Government colleagues, therefore being careful to choose responsibly from the range of lobbying tools available.
The range of tools for lobbying used by the LGA are extensive. They include the relationships held by senior politicians across the political groups, weekly meetings between the Conservative leadership and the Secretary of State, the role of the Labour Group Leader at the Shadow Cabinet, the work of the President and Vice Presidents, being a representative on boards and networks across the wider public sector, responding to consultations and regular formal and informal correspondence from both members and officers of the LGA, to name just a few.
Using these tools in a responsible way has led to a series of ‘policy wins’ on behalf of the sector over time. Over the course of the previous LGA Business Plan (2019 – 2022), examples of these have included:
- £4.8 billion of additional grant funding as part of the 2021 Spending Review.
- Over £10 billion of grant funding to deal with costs arising from COVID-19.
- £26 million to speed up Local Land Charges Register transfers.
The list of achievements is much more extensive and could equally include elements of the Planning.
White Paper, Health and Care Bill, extensive involvement with the health taskforce, Schools White Paper, Right to Buy Scheme as well as the former Prime Minister’s commitment to enable Ukrainians to transfer from the Friends and Family to the Homes for Ukraine scheme, as a handful of examples.
The LGA will often choose not to speak publicly about the specific successes and differences it has been able to make, preferring to respect the trusted relationships it has, which have been built-up over time. These relationships enable the LGA to have early influence, ultimately for the betterment of the local government sector. This often helps to avoid significant new additional burdens or adverse impacts for local government and the communities it serves.
Publicly, the LGA is quoted more than 500 times annually in Parliament and is known for being one of the organisations nationally to provide a particularly high amount of written evidence to select committees. The LGA was featured nearly 35,000 times in national, regional, trade, broadcast and online publications in 2021-22, with more than 1,500 mentions in national articles.
The LGA commissioned a Communications Peer Challenge which took place in April 2022. This peer challenge gave a series of recommendations back to the LGA which are now being acted upon under the leadership of the new Director of Communications. Most recently, the ‘Save local services’ campaign has received real traction and a positive reception from the sector. This Communications Peer Challenge also recommended that the LGA develop its methods for understanding the impact of its communications activity, beyond the above output metrics.
The LGA’s response to the Communications Peer Challenge includes the development of an approach for “co-creating” more communications resources and materials with the LGA membership. This is a different type of relationship which can widen the gateway for the LGA to have routine access to more real world examples of the specific successes and challenges being faced by local government. These can then be used across the purposes of promote, improve and support, which could then help connect more people to the case for local government as a sector, as well as their own local council.
There is the potential to look at the informal ‘deal’ between the LGA and its membership. This is in terms of the complementary roles that the member council and LGA play, where it is in the mutual interests of both councils individually and the sector overall.
Such an informal deal approach could operate across the promote, improve and support functions of the LGA and might include clear ‘you do’, ‘we do’, ‘we do together’ elements. One example, in terms of the improvement aspect might include setting out how, who and at what points a council is expected to engage with sector support. In developing this different type of relationship between the LGA and the LGA membership authentically, some movement in how the LGA operates may be required.
A different relationship with the membership could only really work if it is developed in collaboration with the guiding principles based upon the outcomes required for local government as a sector, rather than the LGA organisationally (granted, the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive in many cases). For example, such guiding principles might include -- supporting a strong voice for councils and the sector, high performing local services and strong, locally led accountability.
A further example of LGA success may be in how individual councils engage with the national pay negotiations. In the 2022/23 financial year, widespread industrial strike action took place across many sectors of the economy, which was not a feature in local government in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. The LGA provides the secretariat for the National Employers for local government, hosting regional ‘roadshows’ each year to help communicate around this and inform the position taken by the National Employers. Ensuring the right people from each council contribute to these roadshows, is important and can ultimately then help the individual council and sector overall.
95% of council leaders across the country speak positively about the LGA which reflects the often more targeted nature of LGA engagement with councils as this figure drops to 72% for other frontline members. Part of the reason for this may be explained by only 62% of frontline members feeling they know ‘a lot’ or a ‘fair amount’ about the LGA (with 100% feeling they know ‘a bit’ or more). Developing some of the thinking above, about how the LGA works with its membership, can play an important role in addressing this. The nature of the relationship the LGA needs with different stakeholders in member councils, would need to be considered also. If the LGA wishes to develop ways of working further in future around the requirements from different relationships, more sophisticated stakeholder and channel analysis may be required.
At a regional level, there are various different arrangements for regional forums for members and officers in place across the country, often run by bodies/representatives external to the LGA. Representatives the team spoke with gave mixed feedback on these arrangements and the impact they have. The LGA may therefore wish to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of these forums in each region. The LGA could then take a regionally nuanced view as to whether they are something the LGA could take a different role in, how these may need to evolve to reflect changes in local government structures and ways of working over time and how this might be achieved. This would be different in each region, dependant on the strengths, potential and suitability of what already exists whilst representing the interests of supporting the sector and the LGA membership. This involves looking at the potential use of these networks when working across the ‘promote, improve and support’ purpose, whilst also potentially giving more local visibility to the national voice for local government.
As a body that covers a vast range of themes and topics, the LGA corporately sits within many “complex webs of relationships and co-ordination”. Often, these networks are not explicitly written down or widely shared within the LGA but sit within busy, individual brains. Taking the time to map these networks out, particularly where they directly relate to the LGA’s corporate priorities can be an important step. This can assist in helping the LGA to take stock of strategic relationships and to identify which to invest more into, which to divest from or approach differently and the new relationships that may be required. Routinely considering these mapped out relationships in collective groups can support prioritisation, improvement and succession planning. This is one further method for increasing the level of horizon scanning the LGA is able to do - horizon scanning being both an exercise that is done routinely and through dedicated one-off pieces of work. In doing this, it is important to consider the nature of the partnerships and relationships with the different professional and representative bodies, as well as other key partners such as OFSTED and the CQC, tightening and optimising these relationships and networks wherever necessary.
Finding the right balance between being nimble / responsive, whilst also being able to horizon scan effectively, is a question the LGA continues to consider. There is recognition from the LGA membership for how effective the LGA has been in responding to national crises in recent years, whilst there is also a desire to see more forward looking positions from the LGA on behalf of the sector. In recognition of this, the LGA commissioned Ipsos to conduct a horizon scan and driver analysis of key issues in UK society, which was showcased at the LGA Annual Conference in June 2022. In response to this analysis, the LGA is now working with the sector to develop a formal publication for the 2023 LGA Conference through a programme of sector engagement during Autumn 2022, with the aim of influencing manifestos for the next General Election. The membership are keen to see more examples such as this. The Commission on Culture and Local Government is another positive example of this, which was launched during the time the peer team were onsite. The approach taken to producing this Commission – with asks both from the sector and of the sector, is recognised by Government colleagues and presents a model which could also have wider application.
Dedicated exercises to horizon scan are important and have a clear and visible role, but effective horizon scanning goes beyond this. The responsibility for horizon scanning does not sit alone within policy (for example), but is a shared responsibility which cuts across ‘promote, improve and support’ functions. This involves dedicated events, whilst also being an important feature of how the LGA responds to what is happening in real time, considering both the immediate as well as the longer term in tandem, where possible. An example may be in regards to the forthcoming changes around waste collection, the impact this may have for a number of councils across the country and the contracts they are involved in and the support offer that could possibly follow. On the back of the relationships established, there is an openness from many of those the team spoke to in Government departments to work more in these types of spaces with colleagues at the LGA. The LGA will wish to choose how it steps forward into such opportunities and which it prioritises.
The relationships that the LGA has built up over time with many Government departments, in particular with DLUHC are strong. At a strategic level, there are opportunities to go further to capitalise on the position that the LGA has on behalf of the sector. In regards to transport for example, there is an openness from the DfT to go further in this relationship, working with the LGA to state quite visibly the wider outcomes associated with future transport and what the requirements from and of the sector for this are. Similarly there are opportunities to work more closely with the DWP to help increase the impact the sector can have through employment and welfare programmes. The routine network mapping exercises, based around the priorities in the LGA Business Plan, is a useful way to explore this further and set priority actions.
In the LGA’s self-assessment, the LGA highlighted how ‘structures and roles such as Combined Authorities continue to develop and we must evolve our approach accordingly’. The new LGA Business Plan includes this as a priority – ‘to engage more fully with combined authorities and mayors of combined authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners and Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners’. This is a crucially important step both for the sector and the role that the LGA is able to play on behalf of the overall local government family and includes all new governance shapes emerging from devolution.
The LGA should push forward with this, working quickly and with real purpose. Ensuring this has an increased profile as a corporate priority area internally, with collective corporate oversight and steer is an important step. Doing this fully will have internal change and development requirements which should be comprehensively planned for and managed.
The LGA benefits from well-established, positive, cross-party working relationships between the Chairman and Group Leaders. The LGA is seen as an organisation that performs “remarkably well at gaining political consensus”.
There are clear roles and well established relationships between senior members at the LGA and the Senior Management Team (SMT). This includes regular, ongoing dialogue that supports the development of proposals that go to the LGA Board.
The SMT is well established, with officers who are highly respected both inside and outside the organisation for the expertise that they bring over broad areas, their accessibility and engagement. Within the ‘Capacity to Improve’ section of this report, the LGA’s capacity to deliver internal transformation is considered. Key to this, the LGA will wish to actively consider its leadership of the internal organisation, strategic organisational development and the dedicated capacity required to lead the future corporate change programmes.
The LGA is a politically led organisation and has put plans in place to further support officers with the tools for working in a distinct, cross-party, political environment. This includes an all officer training programme, as well as making this a key feature of the induction programme for all new and seconded staff. The LGA has officers and peers who are highly experienced in providing support to councils across the country, in understanding and working to the distinct member and officer roles, as well as working well in the shared space in-between. There is an opportunity here to use this expertise internally in support of this programme, whilst recognising the different day-to-day nature of working at the LGA. A clear member/officer protocol, specific to the LGA therefore can be of use also in this regard and help to inform the content of the training for officers. The training should take the opportunity to ensure all staff are aware of the protocol for dealing with any issues if they arise and re-emphasising the roles and expectations around the Political Group Offices at the LGA.
On the officer side, a Corporate Leadership Team (CLT) which includes the members of the SMT plus a range of senior officers from across the organisation is in place. Over 50 officers are members of the CLT, although attendance at these meetings varies. The CLT does not appear to have a clear role in the organisation at present and this is something the CLT group has been considering in recent months. It is very important that the CLT has a clear purpose. The feedback and recommendations in this report may be able to assist with this – such as how the LGA addresses the apparent operating ‘gaps’ between functions. Once that clear purpose is defined, it is important to reflect on the membership of the group and approach to meetings, so that this fits the purpose intended, thus enabling the CLT to make a positive difference corporately.
Governance and culture
The LGA benefits from many highly motivated staff who are clearly passionate about what they do with 95% of staff feeling committed to the LGA’s work. Further-still, 82% of staff would recommend the LGA as a great place to work, which is over 20 percentage points above the benchmark comparator average. In the same staff survey, 79% of staff felt the LGA shows a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) which has increased by 9 percentage points since 2018.
The LGA commissioned a review of internal EDI arrangements in 2020, which led to the production of an EDI Action Plan which is overseen by an EDI steering group chaired by the Director of Improvement. The latest monitoring report evidences a range of activity that has taken place on the back of the review in 2020. Equalities Network Groups have been established across the organisation, with members of the SMT being key links to the networks. Over the period since the 2020 review, the LGA has seen an increase in the proportion of its workforce who identify themselves as being from a black or minority ethnic group, from 14% of the workforce in 2020 to 20.5% of the workforce in September 2022. 63% of staff are female, 57% of those working at a senior, Corporate Leadership Team level.
It is important that in order to continue this improvement journey, the LGA now reaffirms its position to all staff on equality, diversity and inclusion. This will be an ongoing area of work which the LGA will need to continue to lead, support and resource.
The policy boards at the LGA are seen as an effective mechanism for gaining cross- party views, with members valuing the quality of briefing materials provided to them in these roles – ““…I mean, what a top, professional outfit the LGA really are – well briefed, well supported, papers are detailed and thorough”. Further-still, the LGA is seen to produce high quality policy content, a point which is roundly recognised by members, stakeholders and partners. Building on this, there may be opportunities in more closely aligning the work of other representative organisations in the sector to the LGA policy boards. This can mean looking at how other bodies could be routinely involved with policy boards as non-voting observers / participants.
The LGA has a small office in Brussels which is there to support local government’s formal representation on international bodies (such as the Council of Europe), to ensure that LGA policy work benefits from international challenge and to identify best practice in other nations to help service improvement in England.
It is a strength and an opportunity for the LGA to have an office in Brussels to liaise with other national associations and to support members in the Congress of the Council of Europe, Council of European Municipalities (CEMR) and United Cities and Local Government (UCLG). This gives the LGA a wide network across Europe and beyond at both a political and officer level.
It is not clear however, where in the LGA’s governance structure or in communication with the membership, members are routinely updated on the LGA’s European and global work, or how and where the learning for the sector is disseminated. This includes through the sharing of good practice and the use of international contacts. The LGA should therefore consider how it can make full use of its contacts and the analysis from international networks to support lobbying ambitions on behalf of local government, e.g. Congress Monitoring Reports and CEMR policy papers - CEMR: Themes (ccre.org).
It is also important that the LGA and political groupings develop the member development and induction offer for roles on LGA boards. The induction and development offer for LGA roles at present seems by many board members, to be largely missing. This includes those roles which require specialist knowledge (for example - Audit and National Employer Bodies). It also means ensuring that all members who are involved in political lobbying are supported to convey consistent, focussed and disciplined messages. This includes how members present at meetings with Government colleagues, as well as the written submissions to Government departments.
The LGA and political groupings recognise the need to do more to continue to increase the diversity of membership on the boards. Across the board structure, ensuring suitable feedback loops are in place is also important for supporting effective decision making, assurance and ‘cross-fertilisation’ across board activity. This includes feedback to policy board members about progress following an item and the opportunities for board chairs to meet more informally to discuss board activity and plans. The virtual meeting technology now being used day-to-day by all members and officers, can be of further particular benefit to a national body such as the LGA, when used in this way. Enhancing the above feedback loops can have the added benefit of further supporting officers with a clear sense of member interests, needs and focus.
The LGA asked the peer team to provide feedback on the cohesiveness of the LGA as an organisation. The LGA’s recent staff survey showed that 68% of staff agreed that they felt that they understand how the different parts of the LGA work together to support local government with 18% disagreeing. The percentage agreeing with this statement had reduced by 8 percentage points since 2018. It was clear from the officers the team spoke to that many staff experience this and whilst staff want to see these gaps bridged, not many articulated a clear business ‘why’ i.e. a specific business difference this would make.
There appear to be a number of benefits to bridging these gaps, should the LGA be able to do this. By better harnessing all of the knowledge held at the LGA, the impact the LGA is then able to have across its ‘promote, improve and support’ functions can be even greater. Officers at the LGA reflected on how differently the LGA worked in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be learning from this – some of which is now applicable, some of which perhaps less so.
As one example of the above, the regional teams at the LGA are very well connected into the pulse of what is happening in councils across the country and the policy teams are equally well connected into the pulse and detail of changes from Whitehall. Connecting these two strengths up can help improvement teams to provide ever more responsive and insightful advice to councils, which in-turn supports discussions which lead to more specific feedback of the ‘lived’ experience in different parts of the country to policy teams. This adds to the impact, credibility, agility and insight the LGA corporately is able to bring to its relationships with members and partners. Having this requires more responsive and consistently used feedback loops between policy and improvement functions, for example.
Financial planning and management
It is clear that following decisive strategic action, the financial resilience of the LGA has improved significantly since the last CPC in 2015. Steps taken to arrive at this improved position have included:
- Converting the LGA from an unincorporated association to an unlimited company.
- Transferring two buildings to the new LGA and winding up two property companies.
- Borrowing to refurbish both buildings with a view to securing commercial rents and increasing the value.
- Moving the IDEA pension fund from Camden to Merseyside.
These steps have helped to significantly reduce the overall pension scheme liability which is down to £67m. As should always be the case in any organisation, it will remain important to continue to ensure ongoing monitoring of the position.
The LGA currently receives around £64.1m in revenue income (2022/23). Approximately 16% of this comes from membership subscriptions, around 21% comes from a combination of commercial income, joint ventures, rental and property income, with the remainder coming from a mixture of grants and contracts for services.
The LGA has diversified its income streams in recent years, increasing the amount of commercial income it receives, with a portfolio ranging from subscription and consultancy services to commercial events and training, to properties and joint ventures.
The LGA is refreshing its commercialisation strategy currently, doing so means deciding on whether the strategic direction for income generation is to optimise existing income and/or target increasing the amount of commercial income (and on what terms). The process to refresh this commercialisation strategy is well underway and following whichever decision is made about the future strategic direction the LGA wishes to take in regards to commercialisation, ensuring that it has suitable assurance and the capacity to meet this direction will be an important, ongoing consideration.
If the LGA seeks to, or is required to, bid for further grant contracts in future, the type of capacity required to do this and where this sits within the organisation would need to be planned for. For example, if the LGA wishes to act quite extensively in this regard, a dedicated unit for this may be required, alternatively a business partnering model internally may suffice (for example).
The LGA has an internal ‘Commercial Lab’ network for officers from across the LGA to share ideas for future commercial projects. Up to now, involvement in this group has been based on a coalition of the willing. The LGA may wish to extend the membership of this group to include a wider spread of LGA functions. This would include those who are less familiar with commercialisation but are familiar with their own service area, who can be supported to explore options with those who are more familiar with commercialisation more generally. There may be wider commercial opportunities that this brings to light – for example considering how the LGA expertise in providing sector support could be utilised in other sectors, in a way which brings benefits to councils and does not negatively impact on existing support. Widening involvement in the ‘Lab’ can also help in sharing the corporate learning from commercial activity to date.
The LGA receives a significant proportion of its annual income from single-year grant funding arrangements which presents a number of challenges. The annual nature of this arrangement limits longer term financial, organisational and service planning as well as restricting potential economies of scale. The LGA continues to make the case for longer term grant funding agreements, although at present the situation remains the same.
The LGA has in place a reserves policy which states the different reserves held by the LGA and their purposes. This includes a General Reserve, a Risk and Contingency Reserve, a Property Revaluation Reserve and a Pension Revaluation Reserve. The General Reserve is there to provide adequate resources to continue for a short period of time, should usual sources of income be suspended or lost. When the LGA reviews its risk management approach, considering ways to link the level of reserve held for each risk - which can be adapted as individual risk profiles change - can help support risk management and help members and officers to understand the financial resilience of the LGA in more detail.
The LGA has a positive working relationship with the external auditor although the Audit Committee does not appear fit for purpose at present, meeting only twice per year with only 4 members on the Committee. The Committee is not seen to make any recommendations to the LGA Board and does not provide significant, meaningful challenge to the external auditors. As a member-led organisation, the LGA should look at how it can be better supported with more assurance from a proactive Audit Committee.
Capacity for improvement
In the recently published LGA Business Plan (2022 – 2025), ‘Part 3’ picks out the internal priorities of the organisation. This includes actions aimed at strengthening the LGA voice, to support the LGA as one politically-led organisation, to increase the LGA’s financial resilience, to support efficient business management and deliver on the LGA’s commitment to Net Zero. The recommendations and wider feedback contained within this report also give further, specific areas which will support the LGA to improve further under its overall purpose of ‘promote, improve and support’.
The LGA benefits from a highly skilled and knowledgeable officer cohort across the organisation, with the potential for further development and succession planning. How the LGA develops its people to support effective succession planning, staff resilience around key roles/functions and supporting the future evolution of the LGA is an important consideration. There are many opportunities that could be used to support this work, given the LGA’s positioning in the sector.
The LGA internal ‘People Plan’ was in the process of being launched at the time of the peer challenge and a set of organisational values consisting of ‘inclusive, ambitious and collaborative’ had been recently developed. Further work is required to support organisational development, in a strategic and consistent way that moves the organisation forwards and uses these values to more actively shape how the organisation evolves, in delivering its priorities.
In the above ‘Governance and Culture’ section, there is feedback given about the need to bridge the apparent gaps in day-to-day working across the different functions at the LGA. Bridging these gaps has many external benefits and can also help the LGA to deliver its own internal improvement and change priorities too. For example, it can play an important role in delivering a refreshed commercialisation strategy, as well as ensuring the Green Action Plan fully reflects the diverse ways of working, risks, challenges and opportunities.
The LGA is keen to continue the improvement journey it is on; the openness into which this CPC was approached as well as the way in which the LGA will regularly review internal areas of work are clear examples of this. This holds the organisation in good stead, moving forwards.
All of the above leads to an extensive, ongoing programme of strategic change, which includes organisational development, commercial, climate change, political leadership, digital, culture, the relationship between service areas (as well as with the corporate centre) and so forth. Ensuring, for this stage of the LGA’s evolution and whatever stages that follow, that the LGA has sufficient, dedicated senior capacity and the agility it needs to draw on, to continue to adapt and transform the organisation itself, in an increasingly and rapidly changing local government environment will be an important consideration.
The peer team have been able to observe how much the LGA does for the sector across its promote, improve and support functions and the credibility the organisation has both with its own membership and with partner organisations. Some of these successes will always happen beneath the surface, for the wider benefits this brings. But the LGA very much has a positive story to tell to its membership, about the difference it makes.
Successive stakeholder surveys show that whilst there is very high awareness amongst council leaders and chief executives of the role and impact the LGA has, there are many backbench members who will be less aware of the impact and difference the LGA makes. The LGA should challenge itself around how it tells its story to the membership – including the different stakeholders and channels. There are opportunities that can be further explored in this regard – such as whether, in an online world, events such as the online Councillor Forum could be more visibly promoted and accessed. This can help the LGA maintain its high membership levels and increase engagement further-still. This also plays a role in further preserving and building the value of the LGA brand, which the LGA gained over many years from providing “coherence to confusion” and a strong voice for local government. Doing this, can only help the LGA to continue its established trajectory of improvement well into the future.
It is recognised that the senior political and managerial leadership of the LGA will want to consider, discuss and reflect on these findings. The CPC process includes a six- month progress review, which provides space for the LGA’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the action plan and discuss next steps.