What does 2015 hold?
Q: What does 2015 hold for local government?
Neil McInroy, chief executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies
In 2010, local government spending was perceived as the low-hanging fruit in the Government's austerity drive. Few in Westminster complained. Local government has been of little concern and few are battling for it. The outlook for local government in 2015 is bleak.
Many areas have not seen an economic recovery and demand on public services remain high, while cuts just keep coming. Morale is dropping. As a senior director about to retire told me: "Why would you bother making local government a career nowadays?" Or as a disillusioned councillor said: "I became a councillor to make things happen, not stop them."
Some hope that organisational change programmes or service innovation or upstream demand reduction will ease the pressures. Maybe. But for some this is merely masking a more fundamental fact: quality in services is dropping, gaps in service are appearing and local government is now under-resourced.
With a general election comes an opportunity for a change in emphasis or new approach altogether. We can optimistically hope for an easing of the depth, speed and unfair nature of the cuts. Realising the promises of devolution to local government could bring some positive change. But for all the brouhaha, we are very distant from any comprehensive deal and lasting solution to the funding of local government.
2015? Things may get even worse before they get any better.
Ian Washington, lead local government partner, Deloitte
They will have to have frank conversations about service reductions and reshaping, exploring the role that alternative service delivery models and the extended organisation needs to play; and how the digital agenda can be used reduce demand for services.
A big challenge will be addressing the pressure that adult and children's services puts on councils' budgets. Accounting for a significant proportion of spending, it's hard to see how local authorities can balance the books without major reform in these areas, at a time when there is a high level of scrutiny on these services.
However, what is feared - and not yet fully understood - is the social impact of austerity and how it will affect the individuals and communities. There is a serious danger of a vicious circle emerging whereby social issues caused by austerity place increasing pressure on local authority finances.
Dr David S Moon, professor of politics, University of Bath
In January, the Williams Commission on Public Service Governance & Delivery recommended merging Wales' existing 22 local authorities, leaving around 12. Leighton Andrews AM, minister for public services, has indicated there could even be six, echoing the old county councils scrapped in 1996.
A 28 November deadline was set to submit voluntary merger proposals. However, Bridgend councillors voted to pursue a merger with the Vale of Glamorgan, and the latter's own vote to rule out amalgamation with Cardiff, demonstrate complications ahead. A Bridgend-Vale merger would breach Williams's key recommendation that newly merged councils sit within current health board areas; Williams proposed Bridgend merge with Neath Port Talbot - and possibly Swansea - served by Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board - and the Vale of Glamorgan with Cardiff - both covered by Cardiff & Vale University Health Board. Fear of domination by their bigger neighbours appears to be guiding councillors' votes against these plans.
Ultimately, the Welsh Government's decision will be presented in a white paper Andrews promises "in the new year", although it could follow May's General Election, keeping discussion of the proposals off of the doorstep: Mergers may involve upfront costs of between £100m to £268m while councils face £164m in budget cuts in 2015.
MPs have their own interests also as new councils could determine constituency boundaries following any future reduction in Welsh representation at Westminster.
I think the lessons from what's going on with the mergers will be something local government in England will want to pay attention to.
Paul Bradbury, group business development director, Civica
More than half of the UK adult population is now using social media, a figure set to rise in the year ahead, and how we communicate with companies providing goods and services has been shaken up as a result. Whereas once consumers would call a customer services line, they now tweet or post their complaints and questions on Facebook, often ensuring quicker results.
Communicating with those providing public services should be no different, particularly with the Government's drive to grow digital capabilities to improve services for all. In conversations with our customers, we're increasingly hearing about the ways that social media is improving the overall citizen experience. The ability to engage with people at the click of a button has transformed the relationships local councils have with their communities.
Rather than just deploy one or two social media campaigns to enhance citizen engagement, there is a requirement to think digitally across all areas of local government, from the collection of revenues and benefits to bin collections.
Furthermore, Gartner recently found that the smart public sector organisations will be those that harness the power of social, mobile, cloud and information to drive innovation, improvements and savings. The nation is becoming increasingly digitised and as the typical man and woman on the street begin to embrace social media in all aspects of their daily lives, so too must local government organisations who deliver the public sector services they require.
This is an important takeaway of 2014, and will continue to be a key focus as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.
Paul Tombs, head of public services and infrastructure, Zurich Municipal
Last year, we saw more innovation in local government than since the rebuilding of public services post WWII. As this trend gains steam, local authorities will need to ensure that the march to change doesn't affect their reputation.
Their track record, in this instance, is positive. Last year, Zurich Municipal's A New World of Risk: Change for Good report revealed that most people (63 per cent) say they have not noticed any difference to their council services despite almost all local authorities (97 per cent) introducing major operational changes in response to budget pressures. However, this may not be sustainable as local authorities transform further next year.
2015 will also see an increase in the use of external organisations (public, private and voluntary) to deliver services, with funding cuts driving a surge in commissioning, outsourcing and partnership working. Local authorities are likely to become more commercially minded to generate income in the increasingly austere funding environment. In turn, there will also be a growing move towards integration.
While we have seen the beginnings of this already in the sudden burst of combined authorities, the devolution agenda will also drive this trend.