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Solace blog

12th February 2016

Getting the right skills to manage public service markets

Recent discussions within Solace have often centred on the kind of leadership skills required in the new changing landscape of local government. Often the new watchword seems to be ‘collaboration’, with our members increasingly taking the role of managing strategic partnerships and stewarding whole places rather than just their own local authority. A key skill too is having the ability to work not just with traditional partners but with the plethora of stakeholders now on the scene.

With this in mind, I recently attended an event hosted by the Institute for Government and sponsored by the Business Services Association. This was the final of three events exploring how the government can develop the right mechanisms and skills to best manage public service markets, responding to the Prime Minister’s ‘smarter state’ speech of September 2015.

The PM was clear that over the next five years there will be increased outsourcing of public services – which will come as a surprise to few – ‘bringing in new providers or allowing new ways of doing things’ and ‘opening up contracts to small businesses’ to drive innovation. The purpose of the event was billed as a discussion on how to ensure the right skills are in place to design, manage and steward public service markets. Clearly, this has resonance for our sector and echoes many of the discussions we have been having with Solace members. What skills and capacity will local areas and their leaders need?

The first speaker was Adrian Kamellard, Director of Commercial Profession at the Cabinet Office, who outlined the ‘Commercial Capability Project’ his department is working on, which aims to respond to the current lack of commercial capacity and experience across the civil service. He described how the intention is to create three levels of commercial specialism for employees, each a benchmark for clear acumen of skills and experience. He suggested that ‘better people’ make better policy, and ultimately better spending decisions (read, savings). Furthermore, they hope that with this professional accreditation-like system, public sector experience could become more widely recognised by the private sector, and that moving into, or returning to, public service would become a more attractive option for experienced senior professionals. The issue of public vs private pay settlements was brought up from the floor at this stage – the Cabinet Office are ‘aware of’ and ‘thinking about’ this issue, we understand.

We also heard from Ian Porée from the National Offender Management System, who, in case you missed it, have been through a huge outsourcing programme in recent years. An interesting point Ian raised was the importance of having a really multi-disciplinary team to oversee this process, and of valuing the in-house experience you already have, to really get to grips with the idea of commissioning for outcomes.

Dr. Jo Casebourne from the Institute for Government (IfG) discussed how the skills here are not all about making that big money-saving deal, but also about having the relationship management skills to really steward an important service. She suggested the public are still wary about outsourcing, particularly where it is unclear who takes responsibility for service failure. This again echoes many of the conversations we have been having within Solace, trying to understand how democratic accountability works in the new and emerging forms of governance we’re seeing take shape today.

The event was chaired by Suzanne Baxter, Group Finance Director, Mitie Group and 2016 BSA Chairman, who throughout was able to offer useful insights into the private sector perspective on the topic; a perspective it would be unwise to overlook in these kinds of discussions of the public sector.

Sadly and notably, the scheduled representative from local government had had to cancel at short notice, which meant a real lack of local government voice, which given the topic seemed a big deficit. That said, questions from the floor from colleagues both from Sutton Council and from the City of London went some way to addressing that absence; between them reiterating the point about the breadth of skills needed for sustained relationships around service delivery, as well as questioning whether speed of change in local government is leading to a loss of such experience.

To tackle some of these issues, the IfG are urging government to consider creating a centre for expertise where learning can be shared across departments, particularly where this relates to high-risk services or projects.

Presumably, this should also span between the central/local. Given that the vast experience and accrued leadership skills of our members is truly our USP at Solace, we would very much look forward to working with IfG on this agenda to benefit the wider public sector.

By Helen Reeves, Senior Policy Officer, Solace