Casting light

The beacon council scheme recognises achievement at
local authority social services departments and provides a route
for sharing innovation and best practice. Deepak Rawal

Local authorities, and ultimately service users, have much to
gain by learning from each other’s effective approaches in a
national context where practice and services can be variable in
their quality.

This is the principle behind the beacon council scheme that aims
to help local government learn from itself and is now in its second
year. The idea of beacon councils was first outlined in the
government’s White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch With the
People, which was published in 1998.

Those councils that are chosen disseminate their practice and
experiences through national showcases, local open days, workshops
and seminars and further learning activities such as visits,
secondments and web-based information and resources. The government
provides a special grant to each beacon council to support them
with the costs of their dissemination programmes.

In February, the government made 43 awards across 11 themes.
This year, the 11 themes include four areas of direct interest to
social care practitioners and policy makers: foster care; older
people and independent living; local health strategies; and
tackling drug misuse.

The application phase for round three next year has just
started, with adoption as the key theme of interest for those in
social care.

What drives delegates to learn from their peers and what they do
with what they learn are key questions being asked by the
Improvement and Development Agency – the central government body
set up to assist local government, which manages the dissemination

Some clear messages have emerged from an IDeA study of the
motivations of delegates that attended events in round one.

These motivations depend on whether the focus in their local
authority is operational or strategic, but principally they would
like to obtain a practical sense of how a service is being run
effectively and meeting the needs of its users.

This is driven by a number of factors including the need to
address the performance improvement agenda for local government,
the focus on modernisation, the drive to deliver better services to
local communities, and the need to respond to areas of concern
identified by inspection processes.

Significantly, the research identified inspections such as the
Best Value review process and the need to seek out comparative
practice, data and performance standards within this, as a key
motivator for attending beacon events. Aside from the practical
service delivery focus, delegates were also interested in how
cultural change had created an environment for improvement and
innovation, and how partnerships had been established.

Beacon councils are a useful development resource for local
government improvement, although the demands placed on them are
quite high in terms of time and resources, despite the grant aid
they are given.

It has become clear that there is a hunger for good practice
within the social care sector. And there are benefits to being a
beacon beyond the obvious status of the award. Beacon authorities
in both year one and two have been candid about the fact that they
do not see themselves as experts. Rather they are offering
opportunities to share the approach that has worked for them and
with other authorities and they in turn learn about other practices
and approaches and develop contacts.

Additionally, there is a certain amount of motivation that is
generated within the service area from having beacon status, and
the processes of communicating good practice confers useful
development opportunities to those staff involved. There is,
however, no denying that there is a commitment of time and
resources required to engage in sharing practice.

Fifty per cent or more of the research sample indicated that
councils have made changes, intend to or are planning to make
changes to their services as a result of delegates attending a
beacon event.

For social services departments, encouraging learning
opportunities exist in this year’s dissemination programme. The
beacon council open days have been very popular, across all the
themes. Given the challenges of health and local government
partnerships, the National Service Framework for Older People and
the drive to improve children’s services, beacon learning events
and activities will continue to provide a useful support resource
for local government.

For information about forthcoming learning events and activities
and details of the application process for beacon status in
adoption visit

Deepak Rawal is beacon support unit consultant,
Improvement and Development Agency.

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