UK Council CEO on Public Sector Collaboration
SSON recently caught up with Kevin Dicks, Chief Executive of Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Council in England, to gain an international perspective on transformation and sharing services in the public sector.
Kevin is the Chief Executive of Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Council in England. In 2008, the two councils started a 12-month trial to see what efficiencies could be made through sharing services. Nearly four years later, the majority of services are being shared.
The two districts are very different communities: Bromsgrove is rural and affluent – around 83.9 square miles with a population of around 92,000; Redditch is urban – a new town. "If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere," Kevin explains.
The programme was initially designed to gain quick wins, sharing services around elections and community safety – not necessarily making huge financial savings but setting the foundations for what Kevin describes as a fundamental part of the process: creating trust between the two councils. As the 12 months and a number of projects progressed, it became apparent there was room for further development. The medium-term wins included our IT implementation - we saved over £100,000 between the two councils; Closed circuit television and lifeline, which is a telecare service (an alarm service for people who are more aged) saved us about £150,000," Kevin said.
"Towards the end of the 12-month project we put a full business case together that made clear that we could share all of the services, even given all the differences between the two areas – sometimes just between Redditch and Bromsgrove, sometimes even across Worcestershire. So here we are, 4 years later, and we have shared the majority of our services now shared."
This isn't the first time that someone has tried to share services, so we wanted Kevin’s insight on what he thought was key to the long-term success and support he has now achieved.
He explains: "I had the full backing of the leader, particularly here at Bromsgrove, to spend as much time as I needed in Redditch to make this work. It has to be said it was predominantly focused on me in that first 12 months – it was a case of building confidence in me as a person, but also proving to people that the wheels wouldn’t fall off with me splitting my time between two councils, and that council business would continue as normal.
"I spent a lot of time in Redditch initially, with all the stakeholders that I needed to work with, a lot of time quite rightly was also spent with staff so that they could get to know me, and I could get to know them and the services (in Redditch) and why they were delivered in such a way. Also, and this is probably one of the most crucial things, I invested time with elected councillors – getting to know them and building that trust."
I also invested time with the management team there to get their engagement and trust, as well as with the public. I would go to any meetings they invited me to – even informal meetings – just to outline the vision, what we were doing and why, and reiterating every time I had the opportunity that it wasn’t a formal merger of the two councils politically. It was about trying to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services for members of the public. So lots of individual time needs to be invested to make this work - I think you can’t underestimate that! It’s also about being clear about what you’re trying to achieve and why."
Of course, it’s not always plain sailing. Working within the public sector brings restraints with it. The project was first implemented before the majority of public sector cuts had been made in the UK. Within Bromsgrove and Redditch there’s been about a 28% cut in government funding; this is just one of the obstacles the project had to overcome.
"There are two or three issues really. I think one of those is elected member perception, because in contrast to the private sector, we have got elected councillors who are quite rightly democratically elected to serve their public and as such need to understand and agree with what we are trying to achieve and why. We probably need to go through more hoops than a private sector company would.
"If we’ve got a key decision here to try and share a service, we’d have to take it through both corporate council bodies to get that decision, so we have to do everything twice. We’re trying to rationalise that now, but it does take a little bit longer.
"Obviously, staff engagement and keeping them on board is also essential as is the consultation around sharing services, and working with the unions. And, of course, in the UK at the moment we’ve got the impact of the public sector budget cuts so the focus for the union is actually making sure we do everything appropriately, so we have to spend lots of time with the unions to make sure we’ve got them on-board and have addressed all their concerns.
"We’re quite pleased we started this journey back in August 2008 and took the time to build that trust . If we were starting now, because of the budget cuts, I don’t think we’d have as long."
There is a long way to go and, as Kevin explains, it starts from the top. "The austerity measures that the public sector is now having to face can actually help as it gives people a focus to make this work – more so now than ever before and it stops organisational bureaucracy and barriers from getting in the way.
"You need leadership from the top to actually make shared services happen, to drive it forward and to remove those barriers and stop people being organizationally precious about things. I don’t think, given the current economic climate that we’re facing, that we can afford to allow those things to get in the way."
If you are part of the public sector, and want to drive improvements through your organization, be sure to stay ahead on shared services strategies: find out who is leading at Shared Services & Process Improvement for Higher Education, Healthcare and Government, in the US; or the Public Sector Transformation Forum in Australia – both running in November. Also, don't miss the UK's Procurement Transformation Summit – this is where a lot of attention will be focussed in the future.