New Blog Series – Secret Secondment (Part 1 of 6)

Secret Secondment

There will be a time, maybe not be too far away, where it becomes clear that to deliver a cost-effective service, you may have to look beyond your own resources, and you will want to move quickly.

Follow me on secondment, as I discover the secret of how to get two councils to merge their planning services. Over the coming months I’ll share my first-hand experiences getting to the heart of the issues, difficult decisions, political and managerial challenges, and share tips on how best to navigate a way through and around them.

Preparing the ground

It’s difficult to embark on a project like this from a standing start. So, to begin this series, I discuss what I call the ‘change before the change’ – the circumstances that brought these 2 councils together and what needs to be in place before you can even consider such a bold move.

Part 1 – The change before the change

I spent the best part of last year working with a variety of councils asking the question: ‘What is/are the best model(s) for delivering an efficient and cost effective planning service’? As a neutral, my job was to get the councils to establish what it was they were trying to achieve before deciding which of the myriad of models would suit them best (sadly, too often, this happens the other way around).

The answer, as you can imagine depended on who you asked. Those external to planning were looking for ‘outsource to the public sector’ to be the answer, while those inside the service felt the best way ahead involved protecting the ‘public’ part of ‘public service’.

The Ideal Partner

Reading around the subject I found this article: Are shared services the new outsourcing for local government? It posed the question: What makes an ideal outsourcer for local government? Answer; an organisation that understands a local authority’s business requirements, makes no secret of its pricing structure, is open about potential problems, and one that grasps the particular challenges of the public sector at a local level. In short; another local government organisation.

The very phrase ‘outsourcing’ suggests a particular business model (for some it translates as a service is stripped to the bone to maximise shareholder return) which sits uncomfortably with many councils. Phrases like ‘public sector collaboration’ or ‘sharing’ sit much more comfortably especially within planning.

The difficulty for councils that are ‘up’ for collaborating or sharing is finding a suitable partner (i.e. another council) with the same ambition. This is doubly difficult because geography is currently a strong prerequisite (mainly, it has to be said, for political reasons). If we could be tempted to consider sharing with our situational/organisational neighbours, rather than the geographical ones, I suspect more marriages may happen.

So I have no problem with Eric Pickles urging councils to merge their planning services, but I don’t think it is appreciated in some quarters just how difficult it is to find two councils to tango. You need a willing partner; someone who you’ve got to know; someone you trust and share a mutual respect with (ok, reality check; maybe just willing). Even then it’s difficult; you need to sense the right moment politically and organisationally, and importantly, secure the backing of your community.

Lesson 1 – No surprises. Invest in relationships now, and present, where you can, a united public face.

It is important that you can move quickly and getting everyone on board with such important, strategic decisions takes time. The two councils I am working with would have no chance of moving off of first base had they not built relationships over recent years – sharing ideas, good practice and representing themselves as a ‘joint voice’ at the regional level. This has allowed them to prepare their own people and communities for change. Their joint approach to waste for example was a powerful way of presenting a ‘partnership in public’ to both communities. Both councils also took care to present themselves in communications as working very closely together.

This meant that, last year, when the public were asked to decide about how closely the councils should work together, opinion into the debate came from a much more informed place. It meant a mass knee-jerk ‘no’ was avoided, and that massive public fall out for daring to even suggest such an idea, didn’t happen. These communities were aware that there was an emerging ‘us’ rather than a ‘them’ when it came to next door’s council.

As the spending reviews bit hard, the leadership of these two councils felt it was time to seriously consider putting some of their shared agreements on a more permanent/official footing. The community was consulted about how far the councils could take this and the answer was ‘No’ to a complete constitutional merger, but a ‘Yes’ to putting staff together and delivering services jointly in the interests of reducing costs and improving service.

The realisation of this began with a decision to share a chief executive, continued with the appointment of one tier of service directors and managers and is now filtering down into the sharing of services – beginning with planning. In fact the planning service, seen as one of the largest and most influential departments across the two councils, and will be the front-runner; the model that other service areas will follow as the councils merge their services together over the next 18 months.

So it pays to find ways of working with your neighbours and having a sense of ‘duty’ about getting along. No one is a stranger any more to the financial picture for local government finances, and the pressure to consider radical changes is moving quickly towards us.  These opportunities do not happen by accident. The two councils I am helping have had to work hard to get to a place where they can begin some really hard work.

  • Next time… Rhetoric, rumour and preparing to share – first week on the project team.

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