Crystal Balls

The beginning of a new year normally sees a rash of predictions as commentators of all descriptions tell us what they think the next 12 months will hold. Of course at LGiU we’re keen to get in on the act, but the sheer unpredictability of last year gives us pause for thought before we reach for our crystal ball.

The defining event of 2008 was an economic meltdown that hardly anyone saw coming and whose speed and extent has surprised even those who did predict a period of financial readjustment. This had all the characteristics of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” or what Nicolas Nassim Taleb describes as Black Swan events: rare, high impact and retrospectively, but not prospectively, predictable.

The big question now is whether the current crisis represents a major disruption after which we will return to some version of business as usual or whether, as some have argued, we are seeing a paradigmatic shift equivalent to the move away from government dirigisme and towards free markets and smaller states that took place from the late 70s. But if so what is this a move towards? A rejection of individualist consumerism in favour of a more communitarian modes of social organisation? A return of the state as the primary economic agent? Or a libertarian free for all in the face of systemic failure by state and market?

It is too early to tell of course, but we should nonetheless begin to ask what these changes may mean for local government.

In the short and medium term it is clear that local government will have to play a significant role in helping people cope with a prolonged recession. Housing, social services, education and skills and economic regeneration strategies will all have to adapt to altered economic circumstances.

Longer term trends are harder to predict but it’s worth asking how the potential re-emergence of big state politics would play in a local government context in which the main ideological drivers of recent years – de-centralisation, commissioning, the empowerment agenda – have all tended (in theory at least) towards a reduced role for both local and national government. If we are really seeing the beginning of one of history’s periodic re-alignments of the relationship between state, citizen and civil society where might local government sit in this shifting landscape?

Very broadly we can imagine four scenarios:

  • Recentralisation – a retrenchment of decentralisation – more power centralised in the hands of national government.
  • Local Statism – local government playing an increased role in the management of people’s lives – (even) more people employed in the public sector, more people in social; housing etc, a greater range of services delivered by local government
  • Power Sharing – citizen and state working together to implement the forms of behaviour change needed to tackle some of our most complex social problems – climate change, anti-social behaviour etc
  • The Vanishing State – Services delivered entirely by groups of citizens, social enterprises and the private sector. Local govt functioning only as a radically reduced commissioning hub.

Of course any of these scenarios, or none, or a combination of them may be the most accurate. As we have seen over the last year prediction can be a fool’s errand. Nonetheless it is still worth initiating a discussion about these different scenarios precisely because, however unexpected it may sometimes be, the future is not just something that happens to us but something that we can shape and influence even if we cannot full control it.

In exploring the different potential roles for local government do we have any preferences? Which scenarios seem most likely to help us rise to the challenges society faces? Which scenarios do we wish to avoid and which to embrace? How do we act today and tomorrow to make the positive scenarios more likely than the negative ones?

These are the sorts of questions we should be asking as we move into a new year. We never know what exactly is going to happen in the months and years to come, but a little creative imagining of the future can help us to plan for it. This is a conversation that LGiU will be looking to have with its affiliates and with the broader policy community through its work in 2009.