The public sector stands on the verge of the biggest constitutional shake-up for many years, as the Government loosens the ties on local government enough to allow incomplete devolution to the cities and regions of England. At the same time, public sector jobs and services will continue to shrink under austerity.
It is a very significant challenge. Local and central government will need to ensure that they have enough staff skilled in partnership building, community engagement and particularly project management. They will need to ensure that the people who will manage the complex change projects needed in the coming years will be supported by the political and officer leadership.
The Local Government Association (LGA) is ambitious about the benefits of what it calls “devo-next”, its campaign to broaden and deepen devolution. It believes that a new devolutionary settlement can “deliver £11 billion in savings for the public purse through radical reform, generate at least £80 billion in growth and 700,000 new jobs, and build half a million new homes.”
But sooner or later, local government should apply itself to the processes it will use to deliver new forms of public and private delivery at a time when much of its time and resource will be spent managing the implementation of significant cuts.
For many years, the most obvious and significant projects in this country have been the ones that involve major and sometimes breath-taking feats of construction and engineering. This country is showing it can really get to grips with delivering major projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail.
It may be that some of the most ambitious projects of the next decade – HS2 aside – will be to deliver the great venture of devolution to the English cities and regions in ways that recast the economy to deliver the jobs, homes and skills this country needs.
So watch this space – project, programme and portfolio management can offer the means to make devolution work as a reality for people, communities and businesses. As a country we will need to invest in the skills of project directors and managers so that the practical delivery of devolution can happen on the scale required.