The Future Is Local—But What About Competence?

Brian Lee-Archer

Last week (June 19-22) I was in The Hague, the international city of peace and justice and the government administrative home of the Netherlands. I was participating in the 24th European Social Services Conference conducted by the European Social Network. It was a fantastic event attended by more than 300 social delegates from 36 countries. The theme of the conference—“The future is local!”—provided the background for social services to be designed and delivered at the local government/community level. This devolution of social services responsibility to the local government level is a major policy initiative in the Netherlands.

Not surprisingly, speakers and delegates at the conference were overwhelmingly supportive of the “future is local” message. The principle of subsidiarity was raised on several occasions, usually in the context of the argument that for social services to be citizen-centric, they need to be designed and delivered at the community/local level.

Subsidiarity, which has its origins in the Catholic Church, can be defined as a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual, so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over. In political systems, subsidiarity is the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level. One Dutch speaker said words to the effect: “While subsidiarity has its roots in the Catholic Church, that didn’t get in the way of a Protestant society like the Netherlands adopting the principle.”

But what I felt was missing from some of the conversation in The Hague was a deeper examination of a key phrase in the subsidiarity definition: lowest practical level. This is sometimes referred to as competence —i.e., a service should be delivered at the lowest level of government which has the competence to deliver such a service. So if a level of government has competence, then the principle of subsidiarity should prevent the raising of the service responsibility to a higher level of government.

Within an administrative service system, the term “lowest practical level” is a subjective term and is relative to the order and norms of the society. While there was universal acceptance of the role of local government and communities in the design and delivery of social services, there needs to be a parallel discussion around their capacity and capability to deliver such services – i.e., are they competent?

If the answer is no, then what needs to be done to make them competent? Otherwise, efforts to devolve responsibility from central to local governments will fall well short of expectations in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Several speakers said words to the effect that “devolution is not about local governments doing the same thing; it needs to be about doing different things differently, aligned to individual and community needs.” Doing different things differently demands an ever-growing range of knowledge and technical skills that often can only be satisfied through the economies of scale available to larger administrations.

At the final panel debate every level of competence was represented, including the European Union, national, provincial, and local levels of government, NGOs, and a user of social services. Cormac Russell, managing director of nurture development and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, challenged the top-down view dominating the discussion; i.e., European-level and/or central governments arguing the case to devolve social service provision down to the local level under the guise of better outcomes while too often using it for an efficiency and cost-cutting agenda. Cormac introduced the important issue of community capacity building and empowering communities to be self-sufficient—perhaps if communities are strengthened from the bottom up, they won’t need some of the services that are coming from the top down. And if they do need services, they may be very different from what is currently offered.

The subsidiarity principle is often quoted in the context of the debate for the appropriate level of government services without thinking about the key question of competence. The discussion needs to be evidence-based rather than based on what seems right or logical. It seems right and logical to design and deliver social services at the local/community level. But where is the evidence that local government and communities have the required levels of competence, and what can higher levels of government do to help in developing such competence?

For example, at the pre-conference event, Nordic Day, we heard about the 900 local communities across the Nordic region (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) doing some fantastic work in the area of welfare technology. Local authorities have responsibility for procuring and developing ICT-based solutions to assist elderly people and those with disabilities live independently in their own homes. Do all 900 communities have the necessary technical competence to deal with the complex issues of sourcing ICT products from the market? With a thousand flowers blooming (900 at least), is this an efficient and effective use of resources?

The Nordic Centre for Social and Welfare Issues – NORDEN, an initiative of the Nordic Council of Ministers – is leading a capacity-building initiative to identify best practices and develop guidelines to assist local authorities in getting the best value for money outcomes from their welfare technology investments. However, it does raise the question of whether more needs to be done from a central government perspective to invest in core physical, technical, and knowledge-sharing infrastructure for local authorities.

In my own country, Australia, the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), hosted its annual conference at the same time as The Hague event, and our Institute was involved. On two sides of the globe, the role of local government was being debated in two very different ways. In Australia, local government competence is limited to traditional civil-level municipal services, whereas in Europe there is a long history of local government involvement in social services. The ALGA event addressed capability issues, especially in terms of a digital agenda as they recognise this as an area where local government needs to develop competence.

We all want our local government and communities to do more. But in doing so, we need to argue for them to be supported to become competent at what we want them to do. The higher levels of government with revenue-raising and funding competence need to sponsor initiatives, like the Nordic Council of Ministers, to enable this to happen.

Digital government and its enabling role in the delivery of social services is complex and comes with potentially high costs and risk. As services are devolved for all the right reasons, the question of digital competence has to be considered in parallel with the issues of governance and professional social services program design and delivery competence.

As attention turns to the 2017 European Social Services Conference (ESSC25, the 25th anniversary conference), to be held in Brighton (UK), competency for local governments and communities to be digitally enabled will no doubt be high on the agenda.

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Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.