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A new vision for the future - Thought piece - Jane Eckford - 17/04/18

A new vision for the future - the fall of Carillion earlier this year has been dissected at length. Jane Eckford argues it’s time for a new debate on how the public sector works with the private sector.

I’ve been picking over the structure of this article for some weeks. This wasn’t envisaged as an article at first I was just aware of a growing discomfort that feels like grit in my shoe, a perpetual niggle and an occasional urge to shout out loud at the television.

The collapse of Carillion has been dissected at length and there have been many iterations of “Public Sector Good/Private Sector Bad” or vice versa.

On the other hand I have observed that the Fourth Estate has not quite captured the sheer complexity of public sector leadership challenges, particularly in local government. It is very easy to fall into the trap of considering local government services as a set of standalone silos, without an understanding of the impact of any decision on each of the other moving parts. It’s an understandable perception but it is insufficiently nuanced. Local government after all is a unique model of place-based governance and service delivery, thinkers AND doers.

Funding challenges and additional pressures from an ageing population have seen further reinvention of local government. The policies of central government, which from 2020, will no longer distribute funds through Revenue Support Grant to even out regional disparities, have spurred further creativity, commercialisation and combination.

It seems self-evident that good business builds on sustainable foundations, which provides repeatable income and therefore employment. Local government has the design tools to commission purposefully from the private sector already within its own grasp. Our procurement and commissioning power allows us to contract for, and insist upon, value and service outcomes. The most successful businesses, in turn, understand the customers they serve and invest in research and future solutions to ensure longevity and reliability. Together public and private sector provide new capabilities and innovation.

The recent National Audit Office report on the financial sustainability of local authorities confirms the existence of no long-term financial plan from Government. This surely reduces the appetite and capability in both public and private sector to plan for or manage risk and opportunity in locally bounded places over the long term.

While the press act as observers, stimulating artificial divisions between public and private sector, our local communities understand that their separate success is inextricably intertwined.

And the instinct of people is to behave collaboratively to solve challenging problems.

In the month of the NAO report, the collapse of Carillion, and severe winter weather, we saw people working across sectors and boundaries in collaboration for the common good. Examples include NHS staff sleeping overnight in hospital to ensure patients in Sunderland received the care they need; small businesses, farmers, and individuals coming together to help emergency services reach isolated homesteads or to feed drivers stuck on the high Pennine routes; and an SME in Sheffield reaching out to employees of Carillion to offer them employment – local businesses ensuring financial security for local skilled people

I have had a great privilege of a public sector career operating within many different organisational models, from Unitary to Metropolitan Councils, from Scottish new towns to shared services, from a ground-breaking co-sourced public-private sector partnerships, to private consultancy working across public and private sectors. These models have generated significant outcomes for our places. Many of those achievements have been discussed at length elsewhere. Many were born of their time, delivered within the timescales, and then dispersed. But all have transferable lessons.

There are many tangible examples from my own career experience to illustrate that public-private sector partnerships can yield positive outcomes for people and places.

The Scottish New Towns ‘New Town Model’ created new communities from greenfield sites, as overspill from cities such as Glasgow, focusing on stimulating industry and manufacturing, to provide employment for the families moving into the new housing being built at pace. The SNT’s were supported by successive governments with the private sector benefiting from social cohesion, skilled workforce and opportunity brought about by the public sector corporation boards and local authorities working together. Eventually the SNT’s oversaw their own dissolution and divestment of their assets, and the skills of those extraordinary teams dispersed.

The first public-private sector partnerships were also game changes. People forget that the private sector took risks engaging in partnerships in which they frequently provided cost savings and increased capability upfront - reducing risk to the public sector partners, and providing a “high quality technology, highly skilled people” model where there was no previous blueprint but which informed successive target operating models thereafter.

The joint ventures also committed to bringing more jobs to cities such as Liverpool, having created a technology and skills platform on which services to other organisations could be provided. One of a whole array of continuous and well documented improvements included the identification of an additional 20 million of benefit entitlement into the community, created from improve citizen focus and insight, and a reimagining of revenues and benefits processes. Barnet LBC which has been an early herald of the ‘graph of doom‘ have just announced the positive achievements of their partnership with a private sector partner.

Advising into private sector bid teams I have been impressed by the innovation and flexibility of highly skilled technical and finance teams to create new service solutions, and to make an investment into the extensive research and development which goes into making ideas real.

Some recurring themes in each of these hybrid models of working would include; alignment behind a common purpose (perhaps using different language for different stakeholders); a single door or platform providing access to a multiplicity of service providers; a forensic customer focus; a strong sense of a locality; and understanding of how funding flows through the interconnected functions of local government; a confident public sector ambitious for its place; a resilient private sector investing in emergent technologies; and a commitment by both to working together through challenges over the longer term. There is also a pragmatism about start-up and dissolution as new models of working are identified.

My conclusion is an observation that the greatest leaders of place – and we can all be leaders whatever our public service role – have always harnessed the private sector capability with dedicated public service, to achieve growth and cohesion. The greatest innovations come from collaboration and vision.

Perhaps it’s time for a different debate? What is our best vision for the future and how do we harness all contributions to achieve it?

Jane Eckford is a public servant and leadership mentor.