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Councils should take role of commissioner in service provision

Alison Jaap
The Scotsman
11 February 2010

In light of predicted future cuts to local authority budgets, Sir John Arbuthnott's recent recommendation for closer joint working between the eight local authorities in Clyde Valley – designed to improve service delivery and reduce costs – is welcome. There is no doubt Arbuthnott's report presents significant opportunities for local government in Scotland, but does it go far enough?

In practice, given the scale of cuts envisaged in the public sector, aligned to the ever increasing demand for efficient service provision, current joint working proposals are likely to fall short of what is actually needed to enable Scotland's public services to deliver sustainably.

But sharing services, as proposed in Arbuthnott's report, will only make a substantial impact if each of the authorities focus on the bigger prize for the sector and, demonstrates a willingness to embrace more original and bold thinking.
My company's experience suggests the original thinking needs to be more ambitious than simply sharing services. It requires a wholesale, strategic move towards a more transparent model of a "commissioning council".

The "commissioning council" concept is a means of ensuring local authorities deliver maximum efficiencies while also building the flexibility required to meet future culture change and deliver a healthy public sector long into the future.

The model is based on the hypothesis that citizens and communities, by and large, are not that concerned about who actually provides services. They simply want consistent, high quality services, delivered efficiently and effectively.

As such, councils should not be tied to their current service delivery role; instead they should be free to get on with the crucial business of providing council-tax payers with the services they rightly expect – however that is achieved.

In effect, the model moves the thinking away from the common presumption that public services have to be delivered by the existing organisations and that the only solution to the funding deficit is through mutually aligned and beneficial shared services.

The commissioning council concept drives a more agnostic approach to sourcing where local authorities have three main functions: understanding customer and community needs; commissioning services to meet these needs and performance managing services to satisfy community needs.

Under the model, local services would be provided by a wide variety of suppliers from across the public, private and third sectors. This would, in turn, stimulate a market for national and local enterprises and third-sector organisations according to their ability to respond to what any given local authority requires.

Any local authority adopting the concept (or a group of local authorities collectively) may choose to provide a number of services, act as a provider of demonstrable best value or inevitable last resort – where there are significant community or regulatory concerns.

This entails leaders recognising that actual service delivery is not their primary purpose – as it is today – causing them to look to commission the delivery of these services through the help of external partners who offer best value.

In many parts of local government, there is evidence of this concept already partially in play; for example, the buying-in of social enterprises for waste collection in Edinburgh.

Other councils in Scotland are taking steps to more fully exploit the concept, with both Edinburgh and Fife councils presently exploring alternative delivery models.

Under Arbuthnott, the Clyde Valley Partnership has the opportunity to bring much of this thinking together and lead the wider public sector towards a future that is very different to that in existence today.

Although solid, effective examples of shared services do currently exist – a notable example is councils delivering integrated health and social care services through one entry point – a more radical approach is now required. There are far too many examples where organisations start the shared services journey with the best intentions, only to pull back or at best, implement a diluted version of the concept.

The commissioning council approach provides a brave and bold means of achieving much needed reform of public sector service delivery.

What is now required is an acceptance among council leaders presently considering a way forward from Arbuthnott, that a move towards a more transparent model of a commissioning council is a smart one.

Alison Jaap is a public-sector specialist with PA Consulting Group, based in Scotland.

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