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Local authorities must collaborate to survive

Councils need to seek opportunities to work with their peers if they are to take advantage of digital transformation at a time when budgets are squeezed

The standalone local council spending its scarce IT resources on dedicated projects and systems for its own locality in splendid isolation is surely a dying breed.

Similarly, those councils which persist in procuring their own equipment, consumables, services and products should be on the list of endangered species.

Councils don’t have to be in formal shared services arrangements, such as One Source – between Newham and Havering Councils in London – or the Local Government Shared Services Partnership in the regions, to benefit from great economies of scale and efficiencies in the way they spend local taxpayers’ money.

There are plenty of ways and means to collaborate and achieve great efficiencies in spend, better outcomes for customers and more opportunities for staff.

Local councils spent more than £2bn per annum in 2012 on IT systems and services. With many councils engaged in transformation programmes, this spend is likely to be nearer £3bn a year.

Even just 10% saving on that spend offers £300m in funds that could be directed to much needed investment in technology – for example, to provide improved care for the elderly.

In addition to the financial savings, the requirement for common IT platforms can often make or break service integration projects across the public sector – council with council, health with local government and so on. 

It would be great to be ahead of the game and if common platforms were in place before the service integration project kicked off, that’s one less issue that affects the success of such initiatives.

Why is it not happening?

There are a number of factors that prevent greater collaboration. We don’t build in enough time when reviewing contract renewals and new IT contracts, for a start.

We get obsessed about the unique characteristic of our own organisations rather than taking an agile approach and focusing on the 60% that we have in common, where we could procure and implement together for quality outcomes across local government.

Procurement rules are perceived as a barrier for collaboration, but often it is our interpretation of the rules causing the problem. Increasingly there is more openness and flexibility in frameworks and catalogues that we can use off the shelf, or build together if there are gaps not supporting our digital needs.

If you work in local government, are you willing to be one of those leaders who seeks ways to provide IT differently?
Sean Green, Tower Hamlets council

Sometimes it’s simple laziness – it’s complicated having to work with stakeholders in other organisations. Building networks and relationships across local government IT and the public sector is limited and often focused on pilot projects.

When such collaboration does take place, too often it’s organised around traditional committee structures or informal conferences which, while useful for knowledge sharing, don’t typically lead to tangible outcomes and changes in the way we work together.

Organisational politics and regional sovereignty mean people don’t want to give up their power in decision making or control of budgets. Our individual areas of expertise may be seen as less important to our organisation when sharing and collaborating.

A report from BT in 2014, which included a survey of local government managers, identified several IT-specific issues – 80% of respondents said data sharing was a barrier, 81% pointed to lack of time and resource and 85% highlighted incompatibility of IT systems.

What can be done?

Four years ago, human resources and consulting firm Hay Group came up with some insights gained from researching successful collaborations, which are still relevant today.

Hay’s research said strong mutual understanding was needed for both parties. While discussion around practical implementation is important, fundamentally success or failure hinges on the competencies and commitment of those at the top, and the freedom they have to deliver the necessary cultural shift.

The research said organisations need to invest time in building trust and joint understanding with those they collaborate with. They should define a shared understanding of the outcomes for their users and how this will be achieved, and consider what is in it for the other organisation(s) and seek mutual victories.

Good partnerships look for shared language and terminology to describe the issues and the solutions as a way of breaking down barriers and getting everyone on board.

Behaviour, culture and trust

A 2015 report from the University of Birmingham Institute of Local Government came to similar conclusions. Researchers found that behaviour, culture and trust are far more important to success in collaboration than the structures through which people work.

Collaboration is voluntary and particularly prone to procrastination, especially if projects meet complex challenges. The report said organisations need a clear strategy to avoid a loss of momentum, especially during the startup phases.

Collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. Both practice on the ground and academic work on collaboration underpin the view that it is driven by people with very particular skills. National bodies – and local government collectively – can do more to develop the collaborative skills, according to the report.

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We can hope that extinction of the council that revels in its sovereignty and splendid isolation is surely inevitable, especially with post-Brexit pressures and increasing demands on council budgets. If local authorities don’t change quickly enough then central government is more than likely to impose changes.

Collaboration can be as simple as skills and knowledge sharing to increase capacity between councils to deliver joint projects, through to joint procurements and bringing together teams and budgets into more formal shared services networks.

There are some great opportunities to collaborate in new digital investments and innovation labs which should be high on the list when seeking partners for collaborative working.

It is down to those in leadership roles to make the difference.

Make collaboration a key goal

If you work in local government then ask yourself, are you willing to be one of those leaders who seeks ways to providing IT differently? Or are you a bystander, passively contributing to the longer-term failure of your organisation in how it delivers on value for money promises to customers? 

Make collaboration one of your personal goals and a goal of your team. Use your influence to make it a priority objective for your organisation.

At a national level, the Department for Communities and Local Government should measure councils and other public sector bodies on the extent to which they can demonstrate collaboration, highlighting and celebrating those that do it well.

Let’s see successful organisations partner with those that are less mature in their collaborative behaviour to help them accelerate their approach to better and more productive partnerships.

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