When Gordon Brown announced to the TUC conference in September that he would
have to make cuts to public spending, there was an air of inevitability about
veryone knew it was coming and that “hard choices” had to be made. Quite
rightly he said he would not support cuts in vital frontline services but this
has not stopped the increasingly feverish debate on which services should or
should not go.
The Institute of Directors, the CBI, national newspapers, magazines and think
tanks have all waded in but, as is so often the case, reality can be very
different. At the coalface of local service provision, money has always been
tight, even during the good times. Impressions of widespread council waste are
unfounded and the ‘job for life’ tag has long since gone.
Unfortunately other people have made the beds in which we all now have to
lie. The overall budget gap is such that we cannot afford to sit back and hope
for the best. Also, we cannot afford to make knee-jerk reactions and cut staff
and services. We have to start prioritising services while improving
The CBI announced last month that the public sector should aim to save £30bn
by 2013/2014. It sounds an awful lot of money. When the public sector was
dancing to the tune of Gershon it managed savings of £26bn in four years and
that was mainly through picking off the low hanging fruit those organisations
that bought into Gershon and acted on it immediately.
With a broader plan of efficiencies and more councils getting involved, the
target could be achievable without inflicting widespread carnage. In the last
budget the Alistair Darling announced plans to save £15bn in public money by
2011. We have yet to see any real sign that the sector is on target.
Central government departments will undoubtedly play a role, but local
government has to step up to the plate too. The government, under the watchful
eye of former Cabinet Office director of shared services David Myers, made great
strides towards implementing an attitude change in the public sector and
creating a vision of efficient, shared service provision. Unfortunately local
government as an entity didn’t want to play fair and the drive towards shared
services came in fits and starts or, in some instances, mismarriages and
collapses. A few high profile services such as Somerset’s Southwest One have
subsequently pushed shared services down the popularity list. However shared
services was always a good idea. It is just that in some quarters it has been
poorly translated and implemented.
So what is the solution? More thrust and more direction from central
government perhaps? Perhaps not. With mixed results this has already been tried
and those that didn’t go for it the first time are hardly about to change their
minds now. If anything, the reactionary elements in local government will put a
stop to any new schemes and batten down the hatches hoping the storm of
recession will pass overhead quickly. They could be waiting a while.
What councils need to do is roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty.
Many are already doing this, trying to avoid redundancies and trying to maintain
A recent report from Localis and KPMG called on councils to save money by
outsourcing non-frontline services and touched on the idea that they should be
acting as commissioning and procurement hubs. This is born out of shared service
Bracknell Forest Council is a living, breathing example of the reinvigoration
that shared services can bring and the savings that can be made in time and
money. There are several initiatives that we have implemented that have all been
successful. During the three-year Gershon period, we achieved efficiency savings
of £7.1m compared to the £5.6m target.
Getting this foundation right is essential. The proposal last month by a
member of the Public Accounts Committee to blacklist IT suppliers who oversell
products, services and consultancy, shows how important initial choices have
become. We chose Agresso as the main software supplier. Support costs can easily
spiral out of control so we had to be sure this wasn’t going to be an issue.
Other councils have fallen foul of this. Austin Mitchell, the labour MP who
brought this proposal said: “When we try to do more with an IT system than it
can bear, it inevitably breaks down and performs inadequately. There is failure
on both sides, on the part of the department and the salespeople.”
Local government has to take responsibility and show more energy in fighting
its way out of these troubled times. It’s too easy and too detrimental to
communities and local government to just make cuts in staff and services. More
can be done to improve efficiencies, cut waste and improve accountability.
Perhaps the recession should be seen as an opportunity, one that focuses minds
on providing efficiently run services and that makes all public sector workers
appreciate the value of every penny of public money.
Paul Bettison is leader of Bracknell Forest Council
Bracknell Forest Council’s initiatives are a prime example of how local
authorities are turning to flexible software options as a way of facilitating
innovative shared services, and this is something that we are increasingly
noticing in the public sector. Having been involved in configuring the Agresso
system for NHS requirements, Berkshire Shared Services recently partnered with
us to implement solutions for organisations that may like to join the shared
service in the future. BSS has now rolled out the procure-to-pay programme
across the trusts it serves, which enables around 1,500 users to order goods and
services and authorise their invoices online.
The public sector has been undone in the past by its over-reliance on
third party IT consultants and engineers. That has to stop, otherwise any
savings made will be soaked up in support fees. It means a change in mindset.
Preferential buying schemes and flexible IT systems with a low overall cost of
ownership have to be embraced and then perhaps we will have a chance of hitting
efficiency targets. In February this year it was announced that public sector IT
spend could be anything in the region of between £13 and £21bn, a shocking
disparity that highlights the fragmentation of the public sector. The control
that Bracknell is taking over its IT systems is a trend that will increase.
Anwen Robinson is managing director of Agresso UK
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