Get your popcorn orders in now!

This is going to be fascinating to watch:

Now Suffolk county council is taking an even more radical approach to public sector reform by proposing a \”virtual\” authority that outsources all but a handful of its services.

The Tory-controlled county\’s \”new strategic direction\”, set for approval tomorrow, could see virtually every service outsourced to social enterprises or companies. The aim is to turn the authority from one which provides public services itself, to an \”enabling\” council, which only commissions them. The council hopes offloading services could shave 30% off its £1.1bn budget, as part of the government\’s drive to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Although councils have outsourced chunks of their services before, these proposals are regarded by experts as the first time a local authority has considered not directly providing any services at all.

Services would be offloaded in stages. While some \”early adopter\” services could be outsourced as early as this autumn, the rest would be divested in three phases from April 2011. Libraries, youth clubs, highway services, independent living centres, careers advice, children\’s centres, registrars, country parks and a records office are among the first services that could be divested.

Ultimately only a few hundred people could remain directly employed by the council, primarily in contract management. At present, the council employs around 27,000 people, 15,000 of whom work in education, which is set to be taken away from local authority control as the government converts schools to academies and free schools. Many of the remaining 12,000 could face either redundancy or be transferred to a social enterprise or the private sector.

I don\’t know whether this is going to work, you don\’t, the council doesn\’t and nor do the unions.

Which, of course, is why they should go ahead and do this. Because if it does work, \”work\” here being defined as offering the same or better services for a 30% cut in the bill, then we\’ve just found out something hugely valuable. That we can in fact deliver these public services at a 30% saving in the bill.

That 30% saving could be used to cut tax rates: it could be usde to provide more services. Which happens isn\’t the important point though. What is that important point is that we want to undertake the experiment to find out whether it actually works.

A 30% increase in efficiency, in productivity? Who wouldn\’t want that?

Well, OK, maybe the people being made 30% more efficient aren\’t going to be all that happy about it but then just as we don\’t and shouldn\’t run the market side of the economy for the benefit of companies but for consumers so we shouldn\’t be running the public services for the providers but for the consumers.

And for the consumers the same or better at 30% off is a wondrous deal.

8 thoughts on “Get your popcorn orders in now!”

  1. Doesn’t that still leave the council with all the useless non-jobs like five-a-day coordinator and community engagement supervisor and communications and media outreach worker..?

  2. I’m with Tim. This experiement needs to be run, even if there is a chance it might fail. Without experimentation we can never improve.

    Sadly the Unions, socialists and all the other Luddites would rather impose a one-size-fits-none solution and then bury their heads in the sand.

    As for the Real Nappy Officers and Five-a-Day Co-ordinators, I suspec they’ve been given their P45s already.

  3. I agree with Josh. It’s one thing to devolve running the services – the key is to devolve actual responsibility. Otherwise you end up with a system where the contractor gets away with providing a terrible service, because it has users not customers, and responsibility falls not on the contractor but the council. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. OTOH the perfect should not be the enemy of the good – so many council services are appalling right now, and the challenge is only to get them better (or cheaper) not to compare them to an idealised socialist vision.

    I think a large part of the problem is that although market feedback may not work well, neither does democratic feedback. For example, a local council’s child protection services are far more important than what kind of recycling pickup it runs. But child protection generally only affects the most marginalised and vulnerable, whereas we all encounter the recycling or the local parks or whatever, and so that’s what we vote on. Looked on that way, the tragedies caused by our social workers are ultimately due to a failure of the political system.

  4. As you say, some good may well come of this experiment. It may well prove the very exact opposite of what you are dearly hoping for.

    And it probably will too. Let’s revisit this in a few years . .

  5. Why would that be a good thing Nick? The good thing would be to know one way or another. However, if it turns out that we CAN save 30% surely that is even better than finding out we cannot save 30%?

  6. I work (!) for a local authority so you may encounter some bias here…

    Anyway, Salem’s points are interesting in that people only seem to be interested in the services that they use/affect them – everything else is a “waste” and “too expensive”. The pressure will be on to award contracts to the lowest bidder.

    This is fine up to a point but do you really want Children’s Services in the hands of the lowest bidder? How about your local Environmental Health inspections? etc. etc.

    The difficulty will lie in that what remains of the Council will become a Contracts specialist (and so far, none of them have shown any great skill in running contracts). Salem’s point, with contractors answerable to the Councils contracts specialists, not to the end users, the temptation will be to cut costs (and corners) rather than improve services.

    I have no doubt that done successfully, a saving of 30% could be achieved but I suspect that you’ll find that although some services improve, a lot more deteriorate.

    Also, I’m tempted to say that some services are far more suitable for outsourcing than others. Refuse, Park’s/Green Space management, IT Services etc are realtively easy. Building Control, Special Educational Needs etc. are the sort of thing that are probably more trouble to outsource than any benefit they may bring. Basically, trying to outsource everything is probably bonkers.


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