Learning about Austrian local government

In July LGiU arranged a knowledge exchange between Birmingham City Counciland the Salzburg Local Government Association. Martin Huber, CEO of the Salzburg Local Government Association, visited LGiU and Birmingham for a day each to share practice between the two organisations and to learn from each other. Here is what Birmingham CC learnt from the visit:

Vienna

(c) Krister462

Now more than ever, how we run local government in Britain is under the microscope, our budgets are under pressure and services are being stretched.  We need to find different ways of delivering services, protecting the vulnerable and helping more people to help themselves

Here in Birmingham, we’re keen to learn how local governments in other countries are doing this.  On 21st July we welcomed Martin Huber from the Salzburg Local Government Association, Austria to share with how Austria organises its local government

We found that there are many similarities between Britain and Austria, for example local government is responsible for child care and primary school admin, municipal building inspection, regional development and town planning, (local) tax collection, refuse/waste management, foster homes and homecare.

However, we also discovered some intriguing differences – in particular, they also had some responsibilities that we don’t have, such as inpatient care, the fire brigade, rescue and ambulance services, road construction, drinking water supply and effluent disposal.

Two areas of difference were particularly striking.

– The first was the relatively high number of “councillors” in Austria compared to here.  Austria has approx 1 councillor for every 150 people.  In Birmingham that would be the equivalent of over 6,500 councillors.  In a road like mine – an average road in an outer suburb of the city, we’d have two elected members.  That’s two people who would represent the views and interests of our street and the people who live there.  That could be great for community engagement, helping residents to have a real say in what, when and how services are delivered to them, potentially right down to a street level.   Of course it introduces complexity also – for example around decision making.  This is managed in Austria through a hierarchy of authorities with different responsibilities.

– The second thing that struck us was the example Martin gave of Austria’s ambulance service which is staffed 90% by volunteers.  Our initial reaction was shock at an emergency service being delivered in this way, but when we reflected we realised that volunteers in services like the RN Lifeboat Institute, police Special Constables and reserve firemen already deliver similar roles effectively in the UK.

During his visit, Martin also met with some of our lead officers for Corporate Policy and Strategy, and Procurement where they discussed changing relationships with national government, our learning on coalition working nationally and locally (where Austria has much longer experience than us!), our approach to public spending reductions and how we approach our commissioning and procurement decisions, including Birmingham’s 13 service delivery options.  Austria is exploring the use of commissioning and mixed markets so it was interesting to discuss our approach and lessons learned.

This post was written by Rachel Hinton, Policy Officer, Birmingham City Council

    1. Elke Loeffler says:

      Excellent blog by Rachel – there is one difference between volunteers in Austria and the UK though: Whereas in the UK community groups and voluntary organisations have to provide a lot of evidence and fill out many forms to apply for public funds, the overall funding approach in Austrian local government is very much discretionary. As I found out at a joint seminar with the KZ – the Austrian equivalent to LGIU – most local councils do not even have set criteria on who gets how much for what. Outcome-based commissioning may sound like an idea from Mars to most councils in Austria but, if we are serious about outcomes, maybe the UK should put less emphasis on contracts and tolerate a bit more trial and error in seeing which providers are best at achieving them.

    2. Thom Oliver says:

      Good point, reminded me of paper from Chris Game at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham that gives a good comparison of elector to councillor ratios across Europe  http://www.psa.ac.uk/2009/pps/Game.pdf . Its no wonder that potential representation may suffer.

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