Shared Intelligence (SI) was commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) to provide support to local authorities leading on UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) delivery. The LGA is keen to support local government to develop, deliver and evaluate their local investment plans and provide opportunities for officers to learn from the approaches of others.
The purpose of this document is to share learning from two action learning sets held through March 2023. This document presents thematic areas and the learning shared across the action learning sets, including suggestions on how to tackle specific issues. It also provides reflections on the policy development which brought forward the opportunity to deliver priority three – People and Skills.
The UK’s Levelling Up agenda has seen changes to the approaches to funding local regeneration, businesses and employment and skills. The end of the European Structural and Investment Programme (ESIF) and the introduction of the government’s domestic replacement, the UKSPF, sees new ways of levelling up communities and places, supporting businesses, people and skills.
The government has allocated £2.6 billion under UKSPF, with at least £1 million to every lead authority. Lead authorities (combined authorities, districts, and unitary authorities) have responsibility for determining the scale of interventions and assessing applications, to day-to-day monitoring and evaluation ensuring outcomes are delivered for local communities. The UKSPF also includes the Multiply Programme which is led by Combined Authorities, county and unitary councils.
There is much for authorities to consider in an ever-changing landscape, and with the integration of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), councils are facing some uncertainty. All areas now need to consider the future of current LEP functions within a 12-month timescale.
The main aim of UKSPF is to build pride in place and increase life chances across the country. This is to support the ambitions of the Levelling Up white paper. Lead authorities are encouraged to work across boundaries and with different levels of local government to agree and commission provision across a wider geography. The UKSPF will support the UK government’s wider commitment to level up all parts of the UK by delivering on each of the levelling up objectives:
- Boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging.
- Spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in those places where they are weakest.
- Restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost.
- Empower local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency.
The UKSPF has three specific priority themes:
- Community and place
- Supporting local business
- People and skills
The priority of People and Skills was originally planned to deliver outcomes from April 2024. However, as of March 2023 the government announced that they would allow lead authorities to use their year 2 allocations for the People and skills priority.
The action learning process
The opportunity to participate in the action learning sets (ALSs) was shared with officers from district, unitary and county councils due to the varied (and for some officers, new) roles they are playing in the design and delivery of UKSPF programmes. Shared Intelligence (SI) received 42 expressions of interest from councils across the country. As smaller groups of participants are more conducive to the aims of action learning, 18 officers were invited to attend the sessions (nine in each action learning set). SI facilitated two ALSs, with the two groups meeting on three occasions. Participants were mainly from district councils but officers from combined authorities, county and unitary councils also participated.
The ESIF programme had specific management and reporting processes which not every lead authority had experience in managing. With the greater flexibilities, lead authorities are taking very different approaches. The action learning sets provide an opportunity to enable lead authorities facing similar challenges to collaborate and share learning. Bringing peers together to present issues and exchange experiences and ideas meant that participants were able to learn from each other.
The key elements of an action learning process are:
- Clarity about the task or issue that is being addressed, in this case enabling council officers to identify and suggest next steps towards addressing specific issues relating to the design and delivery of their UKSPF.
- Clarity about the people who are to be brought together in terms of role and seniority (in this case, officers from different types of councils across the country who are lead authorities or delivery partners in UKSPF plans).
- A commitment from the participants to meet regularly, virtually for an agreed period and use the group to develop and test thinking and share experiences.
To function effectively a group should:
- Comprise between six and 12 people (preferably nine in each set).
- Have a designated facilitator to facilitate the sessions. There is value in an external facilitator as they bring an external perspective and challenge to the discussions.
- Provide time for participants to reflect on the learning they have gained from the previous session and from any steps they took between the previous and current session.
- Follow ‘Chatham House’ rules (participants are free to use the information received but should not reveal the identity nor affiliation of the speaker(s) or other participants) to ensure confidentiality. Therefore, this note is in an anonymised format.
Themes from the action learning
Creating strong and reliable relationships with key stakeholders is important during the lifetime of the fund to ensure that the intended outputs and outcomes are met. As stated in the prospectus, the UKSPF is establishing new relationships between the UK Government, local government and local partners across the UK.
There is a range of different groups that are integral to the success of an authority’s local investment plan. For example, neighbouring authorities, in the delivery of fund interventions where it can best meet the needs of their place. This could take the form of national or regional interventions, or projects that deliver across places. It is important for lower-tier councils to have links with upper-tier councils too.
Relationships within a council are also important for the successful delivery of outcomes. Communication between departments can sometimes be limited, yet colleagues in other departments can be a valuable source of knowledge regarding other service areas with technical expertise, for example, legal advice or delivering on social value outcomes.
Another key relationship which is of importance in the delivery of UKSPF is between the lead authority and contracted delivery partners. For many areas, this relationship is newly established so some areas are still determining the roles of each body and how relationships can best work. For example, one key area of discussion was around the extent to which delivery partners can co-design or suggest amendments to the investment plans that were submitted last year. In this example, participants discussed that a recent change made by government means it is easier to make updates to outputs and outcomes if lead authorities and delivery partners see a case for it as delivery progresses. This emphasises the importance of a positive and collaborative working relationship between the two bodies.
Engaging with and having good relationships with end users, community groups and local stakeholders is integral to UKSPF. A few of the issues discussed among participants were concerned with how to engage with these groups in a meaningful way and create a sense of confidence in the intention and delivery of UKSPF programmes, when there was limited time to develop investment plans.
Recommendations from participants:
- Involving a local third-sector infrastructure body to help with stakeholder engagement. The third sector infrastructure body can leverage its extensive network and particular expertise to facilitate stakeholder engagement and get people involved.
- Outsourcing stakeholder engagement to an apolitical organisation, such as economic partnerships. By partnering with these organisations, the engagement can be depoliticised, creating a more neutral and objective environment for stakeholders to participate in.
- It is also important for lead authorities to see community engagement as a long-term piece to build relationships which will extend past the current UKSPF cycle. This will bring benefits in the future and will develop trust in the council. To do this, councils could engage with the community through events and activities with pre-existing leisure teams or consider using art projects to engage with new groups. To encourage meaningful consultation councils could also consider working with external consultants as this can help bring a sense of impartiality.
- In line with the levelling up priorities, engagement can be looked at through a “pride-in-place” lens. This will encourage involvement as it will create a sense of ownership on the ground and enable locals to be included in delivering improvements in their area.
- Local Partnership Boards (LPBs) are a key local structure that brings together varied stakeholders in one place. They involve a range of stakeholders, which can provide essential expertise and insights into the local area and local need, and in supporting delivery of UKSPF programmes. Having an engaged board that acts outside of meetings to push work forward and challenge decisions is considered beneficial to impactful UKSPF delivery.
Figure 1: an example action learning set discussion on improving the relationship with the local partnership board
How can we develop a better relationship with the local partnership board?
Following the guidance to develop a local partnership board, the issue-presenter’s local authority established a board in shadow form to develop the local investment plan. The board includes volunteer representatives from the voluntary sector, businesses, and the civil service. They have also engaged with local MPs, but the MPs do not have enough capacity to attend as members of the board. Participation is good at board meetings, but the issue-presenter is concerned that they are less engaged outside of meetings and could provide a more critical perspective on decisions. They are worried that commitment will not be maintained over the long term and the issue-presenter is keen to involve them in the evaluation of applications for delivery partners which would require being more hands-on.
Ensure that the plans align with the board members’ interests, so they are more likely to be proactive throughout the process.
Make sure the terms of reference are simple.
Link the work with other funders and projects so that work is not duplicated.
Set up sub-groups to meet on specific themes or an evaluation group to help with monitoring.
Allow for changes over time and focus on having the most relevant people on the board.
Have meetings in person to encourage active conversation.
Think about using an action learning set style discussion in board meetings.
Ensure that each member of the board knows why they were selected as a member and what they need to contribute.
Add flexibility to agendas and run workshop sessions to get input and scrutiny on key areas e.g., the theory of change.
The issue-presenter will think about the evolution of the board and creating specific sub-groups to discuss thematic issues and place-based actions. So far, their work has focused on setting everything up, rather than evaluating the difference that their work will have - this is an aim for the future.
The board is meeting in person throughout the lifetime of UKSPF and the issue-presenter will ensure that meetings are engaging and there is enough time on the agenda for attendees to develop ideas and be encouraged to develop work outside of meetings.
In the next financial quarter, they are beginning to plan for the final year of funding as their allocation increases drastically.
Meaningful monitoring and evaluation
UKSPF takes a different approach than previous European funding in relation to monitoring and evaluation. The UKSPF evaluation led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) aims to evaluate the fund’s processes and impact through understanding what the UKSPF has delivered and whether it has successfully contributed to wider levelling up goals. It also measures how effectively it has been implemented in places and whether it has constituted good value for money.
Through the evaluation, an evidence base will also be built to develop DLUHC’s understanding of what works in this kind of local growth programme. From a local perspective, the evaluation is light touch as DLUHC itself will be carrying out most of the fieldwork and analysis. This is to keep reporting to a minimum for lead authorities. This is different to previous approaches in that it is much less prescriptive, which leans into the flexibility of the programme and allows districts to follow their own approach.
Although the flexibility for tailoring monitoring and evaluation to local areas is welcomed, councils are still keen to gain more clarity around the requirements of monitoring and evaluation at a local level, as well as utilise any monitoring and evaluation to their own benefit. Participants were particularly keen to understand how areas were developing a proportionate approach to evaluation and monitoring. Therefore, much of the discussions in the action learning sets looked to share experiences and learning about how different authorities had approached the design of their monitoring and evaluation processes.
Recommendations from participants:
Draw on previous approaches used, such as those involved in Community Renewal Fund projects.
Take the uncertainty out of the process by considering how the local authority would look to measure change and impact normally without the pre-requisites of UKSPF.
Use the question, 'how do we know this programme is making a difference?' as the starting point, using data and insights from needs assessments as a reminder of where the programme is looking to get to.
Developing monitoring and evaluation frameworks with colleagues leading the delivery of projects to agree on data required to measure change but also to evidence delivery of interventions.
Figure 2: an example action learning set issue which looked at monitoring the impacts of a project
In monitoring the impact of projects, how can outputs/outcomes based around improved perception be best measured?
One of the key projects this issue-presenter raised requires outputs and outcomes relating to increased perception of an area. The role of the intervention is to strengthen the visitor economy by investing in the local infrastructure to improve accessibility. Across the three-year programme, accessibility measures will be installed. The outcome for the project is to increase perceived experience of the immediate area by five per cent. When originally putting this figure into the proposal, the issue owner believed that they would have an opportunity to refine this figure by setting a benchmark, either using an initial survey or through more concrete data. This has not been the case. The problem now is that they are struggling to think of ways to measure increased perception of the seafront when regular metrics like footfall cannot help.
There is a technique created by the Association of Town and City Management (ATCM) that could help measure perception. This involves a first impressions exercise, where council officers take a visitor and resident group into the targeted area, and they fill out a form on perception. This includes looking at facilities, what is provided, and how they feel about the place. After the project is completed, the same process is repeated with different people and the scores are compared.
Under newly released guidance, the percentage figure may have to be changed into a numerical figure. This could provide flexibility, as it provides freedom in how you interpret and translate the figure from percentage to number. The issue owner could work backwards to create the new numerical figure. Firstly, by deciding how they are going to measure perception, then by working backwards to find an achievable number. This would also be easier if they know who the targeted groups are. This could be done through social media engagement.
In terms of UKSPF, it was suggested that central government are expecting 'us to tell them' about monitoring and evaluation practices. To satisfy UKSPF monitoring and evaluation requirements, authorities do not have to do as much in comparison to previous funding like ESF (European Social Fund) and ERDF (European Regional Development Fund). One suggestion was to consider whether this would be measured without UKSPF, and therefore, how much evaluation would be required at all.
The priority is to choose the groups to engage with, for example, this accessibility project could engage with groups representing people with disabilities or parents with young children. This intervention would be much more valid to them than the wider tourism sector. It would address more priorities for that beneficiary group or end user. By identifying the core priority group first, it will make the evaluation process easier.
Commissioning and procurement processes
UKSPF is a flexible fund, with interventions being delivered via grants to public or private organisations, commissioning third party organisations, procurement of service provision, or in-house provision.
One area discussed in the ALS was about ensuring the organisations commissioned to support delivery of interventions are those who are best placed to meet local needs and deliver impact.
Some experience has been that those best placed to deliver contracts, for example, some community based organisations, may not be able to navigate procurement processes as easily as other organisations, and therefore these groups miss out.
Recommendations from participants:
Ensure that procurement and commissioning is fair and open to all was the option of developing a programme to help communities build their capacity to go after funding and competitively tender.
Ensure there is understanding of the subsidy control guidance. There are strict regulations around subsidy control which are still new to some officers leading on UKSPF programmes.
Essential to maintain links with legal teams, who can provide advice and expertise.
Figure 3: an example action learning set discussion around co-commissioning in delivery of programmes
As a district, how can you co-commission a county council to deliver programmes for the first time , without delaying the project?
The issue-presenter and other neighbouring districts are attempting to deliver a county-wide skills and employment project. This project will be delivered through the county council acting as a delivery partner to the districts.
The districts are co-commissioning the county to deliver the project on their behalf. However, they are unfamiliar with this process and there is additional uncertainty around the creation of the agreements, particularly when working with a short lead in time.
The issue-presenter is aware that there is no single approach to creating an agreement and is concerned that the project could be delayed by these issues with co-commissioning.
Depending on the district’s risk appetite, the nature of the agreement can be varied. For example, there may already be an agreement or a level of trust between districts and county, which may necessitate a lower level of “contract”, like a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
The districts need to clearly define who the accountable body and the delivery body is and the timelines for achieving outcomes.
Consider using a service-level agreement (SLA), which will ensure delivery.
Each district could have an individual agreement with the county council, which clearly states how much that district is funding. This would allow individual districts to raise issues with the deliverer. There also should be a joint contract across the districts and county.
If commissioned on a multi-district basis, the districts could come together with a single agreement, and then present this to the county.
Use a senior cross-authority group the gain greater clarity on the challenges.
Look at examples of co-commissioned contracts from other projects and use these as guidance.
Establishing an MOU was considered a good route. Also, individual contracts for each district would work well, as each district is funding a different amount and deliveries, whilst still maintaining a joined-up approach. It might also be potentially beneficial to collaborate with the NHS and other non-delivery partners/accountable bodies.