Government impact on services
In the UK, we are all unfortunately still in the grip of austerity, imposed since the ‘financial crash’ of 2008/9. This issue is almost universally felt, including for local authorities who have lower budgets at their disposal, whilst servicing increased populations and managing increased expectations. Whilst Brexit is occupying our immediate thinking, the underlying financial position hasn’t changed.
In local government, ‘Place’ based services, such as environmental services and other infrastructure-orientated services have been particularly hit as ‘People’ based services, such as adult social care, have been stretched by increasing, and more complex needs.
Is this scenario going to improve? Unlikely. Many commentators believe that we are now entering a period of sustained change and that the situation will no longer be able to revert to how it was before. Thus, we must make changes to adapt to the new paradigm and get on with it.
Mindsets are also changing both in local authorities and the communities that they serve. There is a sense of change, a frustration in maintenance of the status quo and a new capability, based on technology (especially smartphones), to get involved and participate in the dialogue. There are different approaches that can be made to adapt to new lower budgets and to our new mindset. All of us, in our communities, can accept lower quality urban services at less frequent intervals. We could, but we don’t want to. Our new mindset encourages us to speak out, to comment and demand positive change.
Collaborative innovation is key
Is it possible to deliver more and better services for less money? Is it possible to engage with this new mindset at the same time? A compelling answer is collaborative innovation. In this context, innovation could be used to make changes to business models, products, services etc, to allow the same or better outputs for less whilst listening to engaging those interested in the debate, notably the citizens.
Procurement from the (UK) public sector covers services worth over £200 bn annually, according to the House of Commons Library and local authorities, specifically, weigh in with a sizeable spend of £60 bn every year (Local Government Association). If innovation could be leveraged on the transactions for this volume of services, we would enable us to move in a better direction very quickly. Additionally, if we are able to engage, more than just ‘inform,’ those citizens affected by those services, we could embrace their thoughts, ideas and concerns too.
Is it that simple? Perhaps not but we should have strong grounds for optimism. I have recently been part of a ‘task and finish’ team, working for the National Advisory Group for Procurement for the Local Government Association (LGA) in the UK. This is the group that defines standards and advises local authorities on how they go about buying goods and services. Our group asked a number of experts their views and a number of key themes emerged in the ‘
Encouraging innovation in local government procurement‘, as follows: There is sufficient legislation, sufficient templates, practises and tools available for local authorities to procure differently and to enable innovation as a matter of course. Senior leadership within public bodies ‘gets’ innovation and supports its use and there are many great examples of clever organisations; large and small, delivering new value, relevant to the services whose budgets are under the microscope.
Innovation – positive or negative?
So, we appear to have the desire and frameworks to allow this, so what are the barriers? It would seem that, culturally, innovation has a bad name. Innovation is perceived to add risk and cost and is not embraced as part of a procurement process (at least, not always from the start) but may be offered a cameo role towards the end. Are there new skillsets required from our local authority procurers to welcome innovation in procurement and to understand the potential that the rush of new technologies, globally, enables?
Procurement is a world of specifications. Perhaps we should be talking about ‘outcomes?’ What do we wish to achieve in the procurement? What is the end state? Thinking this way, could introduce an increased diversity of suppliers or encourage existing suppliers to think differently to adjust to the new world and think of new ways HOW to solve the problem or secure the outcome. The successful delivery of a specification, however, may or may not deliver the outcome depending on how aligned it is to the outcome.
Implementing solutions through collaborative programmes
A recent collaborative programme in Sheffield, called Sheffield Smart Lab, involving the city council, the Ferrovial Services Centre of Excellence for Cities, Amey and the two universities, brought exciting new global talent and novel solutions to address common local problems; those of ‘Supporting people to live independently’ and ‘Energising the city centre’ by describing the issues or ‘challenges’ with the topic as well as the desired outcomes whilst avoiding detailed specifications.
One quote that struck me, in the process of the LGA project, that is a useful response when told that procurement of innovation is too difficult or ‘can’t be done’ is as follows – “The risk of trying a new thing, is small compared to the waste of money and cost of continuing on, as we are.”
We have the opportunity, whilst under pressure from our finances and embracing the creativity of our communities, to deliver excellent innovations; to create because we have to, get involved because we want to and solve because we need to. The crew of the Apollo 13 space mission in 1970 worked together and solved difficult problems because they would have crashed if they had not. Can we use our current crisis to be similarly inventive?