Why Eric Pickles’ “50 Ways to Save” Fails Local Authorities

By Allan Watton on

Piggy BankOn Friday 21st December 2012 — the last working day before the Christmas break — the details of core grant allocations to councils across the UK were announced. The data revealed that cuts to local authority budgets could be as high as 15% in 2013, rising cumulatively to nearly 40% in 2014-15.

It is against this backdrop that Eric Pickles issued a document under the auspices of the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was entitled “50 ways to save: examples of sensible savings in local government” and offered a foreword from Pickles in which he promised “practical tips and guidance on making sensible savings.”

I was of course intrigued by the document and gave it a thorough read. What I discovered was a set of guidelines that are quite frankly insulting to the intellect of executives and Councillors in most councils. In this post I want to highlight three key issues with the document and explain why Pickles’ “50 ways” are not alone going to drive the kind of savings that are so sorely needed in local government.

1. The Suggestions Have Already Been Recognised

As I read through the “50 Ways to Save” I gradually became aware of a plain reality — the suggested measures are already recognised (and in many cases implemented). I am not aware of a single local authority that has not already recognised Pickles’ suggested initiatives.

A clear example of this is the very first suggestion: to share back office services. Pickles claims that “over a third of all local authorities do not share any services at all”, but what he neglects to mention (or perhaps realise) is that those local authorities are already going to great lengths to implement shared services if possible.

To go back to my original overarching point that Pickles’ “50 Ways to Save” suggestions have already been recognised, I have been made aware of many Central Government departments that aren’t implementing many of the suggestions (despite Pickles’ claims that “the Department for Communities and Local Government is practicing what it preaches”). The lesson for Central Government should be clear — let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

2. Ongoing Contract/Project Management is Ignored

Local authorities are being encouraged by Central Government to “seek out private sector strategic partners who can help you deliver better savings for less.” However, there is little practical and effective guidance from Central Government to local authorities on how to manage these relationships on an on-going basis to ensure maximum value is being driven through the life of the contract, despite the fact that ongoing effective partnership management is a potential treasure trove in terms of driving efficiency and cutting costs.

One key measure that could save local authorities significant sums is for Central Government to provide support (i.e. funding and/or advice) for strategic vendor contract and relationship management after contracts have been signed. This recommendation has not even been identified (let alone addressed) and would save billions of pounds in project scope creep across all local authorities in England.

But that’s not all. In our experience the private sector gets strategic vendor relationships and IT vendor relationships wrong far more often than local government does. Should one really turn to them as examples to follow?

3. Practical Advice is Thin on the Ground

Finally, I would like to ask Mr. Pickles what practical support Central Government is providing to local authorities so that they can overcome the politic and financial barriers to effective shared services. There will always be exemplars as there are in any sector but the majority need practical support and real world examples of best practice in action that they can follow.

The Key is in Correct Implementation, Not Fire Fighting

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Best Practice Group is a private sector independent advisor that works to drive maximum value from major outsourcing and IT relationships to both public and private sector organisations. However, we firmly believe that our experience is of greatest value when we are helping to build an organisation’s own capacity and value so they do not need to rely on us in the future.

A great deal of what we deal with are hangovers of poorly executed contracts and the result of partnerships that got off on the wrong foot — our wish is far more to help implement successful partnerships than help repair or dismantle faulty ones.

Photo Credit: Senior Living