Features: June 9th, 2010

A key feature of the LGA Group’s offer of a deal to the Coalition Government is to find large scale savings from a total place approach across the board. All 13 pilot project reports show clearly that duplication and unnecessary bureaucracy cost money and can be substantially reduced. But big savings demand transformation, not just change. Transformation is difficult to do, as the report about Collaborative Procurement from the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission clearly shows. So what are the prospects for reducing budgets without harming front line services?

The watchdog’s description of the public service procurement scene shows that in the last six years there has been no transformation. Here and there individual public bodies have made substantial savings and proved beyond doubt that by working together and using the lever of large scale contracts, goods and services can be procured at much lower costs. Suppliers are also in favour of a new approach because fewer contracts would mean less work for them and they could lower their prices. But despite these wins for buyer and seller, change did not happen.

Shared services is another warning about the difficulty of making transformational change where joint working and effective collaboration are involved. After years of pressure to collaborate on back officer services such as payroll, HR and ICT, there has been no shift towards sharing services. Once again, a culture change did not happen.

Collaborative procurement and shared services are well defined concepts which are not difficult to grasp. Total place on the other hand, is not well defined. It is a general approach that can be applied in most situations, but demands innovative and creative thinking. It can only be understood in the context of a specific area of activity. In different locations it emerges in different forms. Transforming local government, the health service, job centres and police, fire and rescue and probation services, by a total place approach is something like asking a weekend fell walker to climb the north face of the Eiger.

But the total place pilot projects all succeeded and they involved collaboration among public bodies in the area. So why cannot that success be replicated? Each pilot will probably attribute success to different factors, but in all cases there was top level commitment and support and everyone involved was under the spotlight. The spotlight is important because the 20th century ‘Hawthorne’ experiment showed that people perform much better when they are under the spotlight. Perhaps above all, everyone involved grasped the opportunity to make a difference and show that there was a better way to do things. The Bedfordshire pilot has moved on to produce a vision of what the future should be and how to get there. So in the pilot areas transformation is firmly on the agenda.

Moving total place into the mainstream creates a different situation. Whilst there will be pressure to succeed there will be conflicting pressures of the day job, of the professional culture, of standard processes and of organisational structures that do not match the objectives. There will be no ‘Hawthorn’ effect. To see how strong these pressures are take a look at collaborative procurement and shared services today. So will the watchdogs in their 2016 report bemoan the absence of a widespread transition towards total place and will they call for a stronger framework and greater collaboration?