A discussion the team had this week ended up painting a dystopian vision for the future of local government. At one point we were discussing what would happen if you decapitated a chief executive. (You may wonder where I am going with this, but please hear me out.)
A pretty similar prospect was raised on Thursday by GOD, or Lord Gus O’Donnell, to those less familiar. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Lord O’Donnell suggested a “brain drain” of civil servants was in part responsible for the problems tendering the West Coast mainline rail contract.
I don’t want to rehash the entire episode within this blog post, but I do think there is an interesting lesson for local government.
Local government spends more than £62bn each year on the procurement of goods and services. If those writing the specifications or drawing up the contracts get it wrong it, as it appears has happened at the DfT, it can affect communities. Not just in monetary terms (think council’s cutting services to make the necessary savings), but in human terms, meaning schoolchildren don’t get fed or vulnerable adults don’t get the care they require.
Central government funding to town halls has been cut by 26% between 2010/11 and 2014/15. An increasing number of council leaders and chief executives have been looking at the services a council provides and the contracts in place to provide them as a means of delivering savings. The smart and appropriate use of methods like outcomes-based commissioning, setting clear goals for services, rather than arbitrary schedules or targets, can improve services to residents yet deliver efficiencies for local authorities. Private firms have also been open to re-negotiating or changing contract terms with local government as they appreciate the certainty of long-term contracts.
What is required to procure and commission services successfully is bright, competent people working in the public sector. They don’t need to be procurement experts, but they do have to recognise when expertise is required.
The government has succeeded in keeping wages down in the public sector (as demonstrated during the last few years of pay restraint); holding on to the smartest and brightest staff at the same time seems to be proving more difficult.