Natalie Tarry, Research Officer, NLGN
Public Service Director
Modernisation continues to create challenges for most local authorities. More responsive, customer-focused services, better access, more personalisation and choice in service delivery, social and economic regeneration and community engagement are at the top of the policy agenda. At the same time, the Government is seeking greater efficiencies, more value for money and better use of resources. With an unprecedented investment in public services the pressure is on local authorities to demonstrate tangible results. A wide range of delivery options are available to bring about the necessary service improvements. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are playing a significant role in this context, as are partnering arrangements with the voluntary sector, public agencies and cross-boundary collaboration among local authorities. However, there is no level playing field. Many local authorities have so far failed to recognised the need to change, despite increasing central government pressures.
The New Local Government Network has recently concluded a year long study into how local authorities are using partnerships and collaboration to modernise. Travelling across the country to unearth the modernisation stories, new trends were identified in the partnership market. The final report, New Ways to Modernise highlights the innovative types of partnerships (in terms of the outcomes they are now delivering and, in some cases, new partnership structures) and share the lessons can be learnt from these experiences.
The evidence supports the view that local government modernisers approach service delivery with pragmatism. They choose whatever works and no longer feel constrained by ideological concerns. Beyond this, the type of PPPs being established is also changing as some lessons have been learned from earlier partnership experiences. Authorities and their partners are trying to address problem areas around which consensus has emerged, such as accountability and the need for a real partnership culture. New structures and programmes are being introduced that increase the possibility for profit-sharing, for example Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs). Partnerships have also become increasingly outcome focussed and some councils have begun to allow the private sector increasing room for innovative solutions, as some of the case studies demonstrate.
One example of an innovative partnership is the experience of Sheffield City Council, which has formed a partnership with Kier to deliver building repairs to all council properties. It is one of four strategic service delivery partnerships the Council has set up to bring about improvement for its communities.
Sheffield was realistic about its abilities and limitations, recognising that it could not continue alone to solve all the complex modernisation issues local government faces. It could not meet the necessary investment in ICT or into its management capacity, nor could it guarantee future opportunities for its staff. The partnership with Kier brought the necessary change. Not only is it delivering service improvements, it has also made the service sustainable with ample long-term opportunities for staff.
Together, the partners have succeeded in building a robust and open relationship where both parties are not constantly referring back to contracts and protocols. The Council operates an arms-length approach to contract monitoring and the relationship is largely based on trust. Sheffield City Council was recently awarded ‘Council of the Year’ by the won the Local Government Chronicle and its partnership with Kier won ‘Best PPP’.
The Sheffield/Keir partnership demonstrates a cultural shift. This not only includes the development of a real partnership culture, but also genuine understanding of the spirit of Best Value. The pressure of competition, the payment and performance mechanisms and the development of meaningful relationships, complete with shared aims all contribute to a story of improvement. New accountability structures and the rigorous discipline of targets and realistic Key Performance Indicators have made many of these new partnerships a great success.
Among the wide array of service delivery vehicles on offer for local authorities willing to challenge their existing ways of working, is joint working with other councils. Such cross-boundary collaboration will play an increasing role in public service delivery as it has the potential to deliver the efficiencies demanded by the Gershon Review. On the whole however, local government remains slow to recognise the benefits.
One exception is the partnership between Suffolk County Council and Mid-Suffolk District Council with BT. The problems both councils have sought to address through joint working are common among many local authorities. Most citizens do not understand council service boundaries, and by extension which authority is responsible for emptying bins and which for delivering social care. The Suffolk partnership is trying to address this by creating single points of access for customers and communities, and aims to offer choice and convenience. Among the improvements is a single customer service centre, joining-up county and district services for enquirers, a series of ‘one-stop-shops’, a website and a single point of access.
Of course, it is not just PPPs and shared service delivery partnerships that NLGN has been examining. Some really exciting new examples of public-public partnerships such as Neighbourhood Action are also considered in the report. In Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, a major partnership initiative is tackling the problem of crime, drugs, anti-social behaviour and environmental issues. Supported by West Yorkshire Police and the Community Safety Partnership, it is the Council’s biggest ever clean up and community safety project and provides a joined up response to crime and disorder.
As part of the catalogue of solutions, Wakefield has set up a rapid response unit to be able to address minor environmental issues like fly tipping, graffiti and general clean up. This has already had a tangible impact, as local communities are seeing for the first time things getting dealt with almost immediately. Last year the Council spent over £3m cleaning the streets and had to sweep up a staggering 3799 tonnes of rubbish. This activity is linked to enforcement; neighbourhood patrollers will come in to the area to ensure that there is no repeat behaviour. In addition, the police use mobile Neighbourhood Action Stations, which are deployed in three different local areas. Some early successes have been reported. Since July 2004 the local authority’s Neighbourhood Patrollers and enforcement officers have been able to issue a £50 on-the-spot fine to anyone they witness dropping litter. Early evaluations of the scheme and comparisons of crime data show a 10% drop in overall crime figures as well.
NLGN has also been observing examples of joined up service delivery and service integration between different council departments. This kind of working creates the sort of seamless service users expect, but many councils fall short of delivering this type of experience, only co-operating in times of crisis or failure. Nevertheless, there are some notable exceptions.
Slough Borough Council is the first local authority to go live with a full electronic service that joins all council departments together for property searches, benefiting local home buyers with a more efficient and faster service. Previously it took an average of ten days to process land information applications, but the service has now reduced waiting to just a few hours. The new system has given the authority the means to implement a modern e-government solution, transforming how information is managed within the authority and helping to meet targets. The project has cut across service areas to link back-office systems, and provide the future for e-government initiatives such as knowledge management. The large-scale project represents a first for Slough as a truly cross-cutting initiative that has converted huge volumes of paper to fully electronic formats, as well as integrating with existing systems across departments.
It is time that local government thought much harder about the kind of experiences that users are having when contacting their council about particular needs. It is no longer acceptable to assume that citizens understand the intricate makeup of council departments and the power relationships between them. Most local authorities have to still learn to view themselves from the eyes of citizens and service users.
NLGN’s study contains many more exciting examples of new ways of working, including closer co-operation with the voluntary sector, examples of NHS LIFT and Building Schools for the Future, the Local Government Franchising Method and turnaround management. In concluding however, one thing has become obvious from the research: the world of local public service delivery is slowly but surely changing.
Some progressive local authorities have recognised the benefits that can be achieved through partnership and collaboration and are using them to deliver on the many modernisation challenges, such as choice, greater efficiency and community regeneration. Some councils are pioneering new ways of working, others just copy somebody else’s solution. But the outcome is the same – better services for our communities.
Even so, the councils engaged in all of this activity are a minority. Too many local authorities remain unconvinced of the benefits or continue to be stuck in CCT style attitudes towards the private sector. It is time to move on, time to leave parochialism behind and time to be part of a new and exciting partnership agenda that is delivering improvements across the country.
NLGN’s major new study on partnership working, New Ways to Modernise is available for £26.25 (inc. p&p) from firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7357 0051.