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Collaborative Advantage: Working with Partners for Better, Cheaper Services

Collaboration can bring many benefits to public sector organisations, from cost to improving services; but what are the steps to a successful collaborative approach?

By April Slattery

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Collaboration is providing a crucial way for local authorities to cope with ongoing pressure on technology and operating budgets. There are challenges to getting it right but successful collaboration can offer huge advantages in gaining access to expertise and controlling costs as well as getting better value from commercial partners.

The Local Government Authority estimates savings of £643m have already been made as a result of council use of shared services.

The benefits of working this way include access to a wider pool of skilled staff. Many technology projects struggle because of the shortage of skilled staff, working with another authority can help overcome that barrier. Almost as important as human capital is actual working capital – bringing together budgets can create savings of scale as well as opening up tendering processes by attracting commercial partners which might not bid for smaller contracts.

Almost as important as human capital is actual working capital – bringing together budgets can create savings of scale as well as opening up tendering processes by attracting commercial partners which might not bid for smaller contracts.

Collaboration brings challenges

Of course bolting together disparate departments brings its own difficulties. Managing complex projects is tough enough if everyone is one place.

For collaboration to work properly it is vital that management and reporting structures are crystal clear and known and understood by everyone involved. Ensuring ownership of the separate parts of the project will stop it going off course.

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There also need to be clear and transparent ways to avoid over-burdening one partner rather than the other. All parts of government are working at or even beyond capacity so demands on time and resources must be carefully assessed.

All of this requires a deep understanding of the cultures of the organisations in order that they can develop a real working relationship and that the collaboration is not just seen as an extra duty to be avoided where possible. It also means an accurate understanding of your own, and your chosen partners’, skills, capacity and management style and ability.

Steps to success

Successful projects depend on up-front investment of time and money to make sure both partners are in the right place before any project is started. This might include spending on technology platforms to enable closer collaboration and sharing of data and applications. But it also requires spending time on finding a shared vision of just how the project and its objectives can develop, while still leaving room for flexibility as requirements and the environment change.

Getting the right governance in place is also better done at the start of the collaboration rather than halfway through.

Alan Mo, research director at Globaldata, said: “For large-scale and formal projects it is essential that partners start on an equal footing and that you don’t assume buy-in from everyone will be automatic. Everyone wants to be a buyer, not a supplier so the ‘build it and they will come’ approach just won’t work in local government. You need to ensure that the different needs of different partners are met by the project and that those needs are reviewed over time as they change. All of this needs to be embedded in processes and not just led by one individual who may leave or change responsibilities which often endangers the ongoing success of the project.”

Learn from the best

There are a wealth of examples of successful, and unsuccessful, local government collaborations to look at before you make the jump.

The LGA re-launched its interactive map of current shared services projects in 2017. It is a fantastic resource which you can search by business process or by area. You can even download the complete data-set in order to find a potential template. All projects include contact details for the project leader to quickly get the help and advice you need.

The LGA also offers a Productivity Experts programme to provide mentoring and external help to local authorities. These advisors have already found £150m in savings following work with 90 councils.

The scale of collaboration varies from large scale projects like Xentrall which began as a collaboration between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington Borough Councils to jointly provide back office functions. These include general ICT services, design and print, human resources and payroll, finance and tailored services for academy schools. Xentrall aimed to achieve savings of over £7m over ten years but has almost doubled this to expected savings of £13.6m. At the same time Xentrall has also improved citizen and staff satisfaction, and won national awards, over the same period, its ten-year contract is expected to be renewed.

A smaller, more focussed example is the collaboration between West Oxfordshire, Cotswold and Forest of Dean District Councils, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury Borough Councils and Gloucestershire County Council. They successfully bid for £400,000 funding from the Department of Communities and Local Government to establish a joint unit to counter public sector fraud.  This involved creating a data matching system to spot issues in information shared by all partners which aims to provide not only cheaper combined services but potentially much greater savings by detecting fraud which was previously missed by individual systems.

Another example is provided by a combined disaster recovery system being set up by Bolsover District Council, Derbyshire Dales District Council, North East Derbyshire District Councils, Amber Valley Borough Council, and the Peak District National Park Authority. This aims to make savings of £75,000 per annum by providing a central disaster recovery centre using an under-used facility with back-up generators in North Derbyshire.

Whatever the scale of the project the key lessons are the same:

  • The political will to innovate requires leadership from the top.
  • Make sure that partners have a shared vision of the project, how it will be run and developed over time.
  • Have a clear view of cultural differences and work with staff to ensure everyone ‘buys-in’ to the project.
  • Measure the success of the project to make sure it stays relevant to all partners and provides not just cheaper but also better services to citizens.
  • The first place to look is the LGA website which has examples real world examples and templates to follow.
  • Use the experience of your peers and focus on delivering the best services will ensure your project is one of the successes and not one of the failures.
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