Agilisys brought together a group of senior officers from its customer councils, its own leading staff and three major figures in commissioning from local and central government to discuss how councils are developing a strategic commissioning approach, and how that is enabling them to meet the challenges of rising and changing demand and less money.
This article, by journalist and public policy commentator Richard Vize, who facilitated the forum, explores the themes which emerged during the day.
The need for the public sector to change
Barnet council in north London is putting strategic commissioning at the heart of the way it delivers services. Chief executive Nick Walkley illustrated the need for a profound change in the way the public sector meets citizens’ needs with the example of a local family with a chaotic life. On top of all their other problems they had to cope with over 30 different connections with the state; they were so overwhelmed by the pressure from different services they had stopped answering the phone.
“We have thrown the state at this family and they are knocked over by it. It cannot be right that this is where we have ended up in terms of our state services. It is not working,” Walkley said.
Some families are soaking up close to £300,000 of public money a year without achieving sustained improvement in their lives. He stressed the hard truth that the public sector had been adept at using increased resources in the 1990s but had not helped communities and families develop resilience for tougher times.
“Strategic commissioning begins from assumption that we are not achieving what we should do out there, not getting to the right set of outcomes.”
Barnet has secured a place in local government lore for its “graph of doom” – demonstrating how falling funding and rising demand means its money will run out in about 20 years. Other councils had reached a similar conclusion. As Walkley stressed, if you can see the end you need to change course.
Public services have failed to keep pace with changes in society. For example, the web has profoundly changed social relationships but public services have not harnessed this potential for local communities. Often councils are talking to ‘community leaders’ who are not connected into the online social networks that now drive ideas and perceptions. Mobiles are central to the way many people live – how have councils responded?
So commissioning is about how public services respond to a changing society. Walkley said: “Where it ends up is that commissioning is simply a conversation about the balance between state, community and citizen – who does what in that process and how do we best bind those together.”
The role of politics
Politics should be central to commissioning. A technocratic, process driven view of commissioning disempowers councillors. It should be about deciding the values of the organisation, applying those values to decide what the council wants to do for the local community, and then mobilising the resources from inside and outside the council to achieve it.
For example, discussions around how to help troubled families and children at risk invariably turn to ‘early intervention’. But if the political objective was to build services round an early intervention approach that would have profound consequences for what services were delivered and how.
The risk of failure is inherent to commissioning. One of the biggest challenges is having a political discussion about this, and finding a way to address any failure which does not derail the authority from pursuing the bigger goal. All this is a tough conversation to have with the public.
Creating space for change
One of the lessons from tech companies such as Google is that no-one has a monopoly on innovation – the best idea may come from the most junior member of staff or from outside the organisation. Applying this lesson to local government means freeing up the flow of ideas in the organisation and being far more open to others, such as voluntary groups or local SMEs, experimenting with new ways of delivering services.
For example, if a library is due to be closed and the building is occupied by protesters, should the first reaction be to send in the police or should the council see if there is an opportunity to establish a community-run library? What other ideas has the group got?
Professionals and customers
The culture of professional groups is a key influence on the way councils work. High professional standards are the foundations on which effective services are built, but they can also result in services failing to meet the needs of customers. Professions such as planning, for example, need to focus on being a service as much as a means of control and regulation.
Changing hearts and minds on commissioning
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is one of the few Cabinet ministers over the years to have taken a long term interest in the machinery of government. At the heart of Maude’s efficiency drive is the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group. Deputy director Pippa Bass explained that the government believes different parts of the administration do not use their purchasing power, take too long to procure goods and services, are too reliant on consultants, work in silos, are too willing to embark on big procurement schemes and lack data.
The ERG has replaced more than 6,000 pages of procurement guidance across Whitehall with a 50 page ‘lean’ guide laying out standard procedures. “EU rules” are the routine excuse for complicated procurement. Maude confirmed many of these supposed rules did not in fact exist. The new procurement guidance strips away, for example, many requirements which had made it difficult for SMEs to bid for government work.
The impact of all this work is gradually spreading through government systems, Bass explained: “It is having a ripple effect. [Maude] backs it up through scrutiny across Whitehall. He is forcing the issue by shining a light and putting fundamental controls in place.”
The ERG aims to improve the quality of public sector commissioning skills. This includes developing standards for contract and supplier management, training officials in lean techniques and developing a curriculum for a virtual Commissioning Academy. Central to this will be growing an alumni network across the public sector to embed these skills as widely as possible.
The discussion at the Agilisys Customer Forum touched on many of the key issues facing the public sector. At its heart was redefining the relationship between citizens, communities and the state. With no end in sight to public spending cuts and services absorbing huge amounts of money yet failing to meet people’s needs, political courage is needed to find new ways to deliver services. Organisational boundaries which harm the interests of citizens and waste resources have to be broken down. Public servants need to be able to work with greater levels of uncertainty and be far better at recognising and managing risk. Space has to be created for new services to flourish.