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Solace blog

15th April 2016

One for all and all for one

Recently, there have been a number of reports in the press regarding a joint procurement that I am involved in. One article, in particular, has stood out for me:

Five councils from different parts of the country have agreed a ‘revolutionary’ procurement deal in a bid to save more than £50m over nine years.

The joint deal will see five councils – Hart District Council, Havant Borough Council, Mendip District Council, South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse District Councils – use their collective purchasing power to outsource a range of corporate and facilities management services. (From LocalGov 11th February 2016)

The press coverage then got me thinking…

There was wide use of superlatives (unique, revolutionary, ground-breaking and innovative to name just a few), but I had to ask myself, why did the journalists choose to use them to describe the joint deal?

Yes, the procurement is very unusual: it brings together five councils across three counties and up to 85 miles apart with a ‘virtual’ client team covering a wide range of services being provided by two different companies.

And yes, it probably is unique, as it is the first time Local Government has done this and as such, it creates a ‘model’ which other councils can easily adopt and follow whilst saving lots of money.

But I still have to ask the question why: why is it so unusual?

Back in August, when discussing devolution, Mark Rogers pointed out that we are missing a trick – Local Government should be ‘hunting as a pack’, rather than seeking to compete against each other and allowing others to ‘divide and conquer’.

Similar issues and themes were raised at last year’s Solace South East Branch Conference, when we looked at competition and collaboration and how many Local Authorities (including Fire Authorities) were now going head to head, competing against each other, for the same business.

So at a time of ever-increasing financial pressures, why isn’t local government pulling together as a single sector to get things done? Indeed, whilst I may be revealing my age now, some of you, like me, will remember the advert with Victor Kiam (I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company). Local Government has that sort of buying power but we rarely seem to use this power collectively.

The experience of the five councils would show that one of the reasons this collective buying power is so rarely used is: it can be difficult!

Agreeing the principle of collective procurement was easy, surprisingly, and so was the agreement on the single specification across all councils. And even the agreements about sharing the benefits and savings equally across all councils, getting a successful Transformation Challenge Award Bid in, as well as appointing a consultant to support the process, were similarly pain-free.

What has been something of a revelation, however, is the difference between the five small district authorities: the way in which we communicate with our staff, unions and elected members and even how decisions are delegated.

Also, the key to the joint procurement is the alignment/harmonisation of policies and procedures – suffice it to say, some of the authorities are ‘policy heavy’ whilst others are ‘policy light’.

The level of work has been immense and it really can’t be underestimated, particularly for one of the smallest local authorities, such as Hart.

So would I recommend others to follow this lead?

The theme for this year’s Solace in the South East Conference (21 and 22 April) is “the future belongs to those who prepare today”. Tickets are still available for the event – to book your place, you can download the registration form here, complete and email it to The five councils’ procurement is just such an example of preparation for the future. As Chair of the Branch, I’d be happy to chat to anyone about the joint procurement…

…but [spoiler alert] not only would I do it again, I think it has helped the partner councils to focus on delivering quality public services to our residents. This is pertinent at a time when devolution is testing (or even shredding) some long term relationships between local authorities and between different tiers of government. Many councils seem to be navel-gazing and fighting rearguard actions to preserve the future of their own organisations, and perhaps this can be at the expense of what is really important – what residents need and what they want us to deliver.

If we can shift our focus away from who is providing the service and more towards the importance of public service and the sector as a whole; spend less time worrying about how we are different and instead challenge ourselves to innovate; and use the wealth of common objectives and experience and our buying power; then we can build better services right across the sector. This was the approach taken by the five councils. We will reap significant rewards, including the added value achieved from shared learning.

We have opportunities to improve and to be more efficient. If we can seize them, we may then survive as a sector – remembering the old adage – “one for all and all for one!”

By Patricia Hughes, Joint Chief Executive, Hart District Council and Chair of the Solace South East Branch