Carillion’s collapse should make all councils rethink privatisation

First published in the Guardian Public Leaders network 29th Jan 2018, also published on De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research Unit blog 30th Jan 2018

Bad as it was for the public sector, the collapse of Carillion may not affect local government too badly. But if companies like Serco, Capita or Veolia were to fail, the impact on councils would be much more serious.

Carillion mainly ran large private finance initiative contracts – building hospitals, for instance. But firms like Capita, Serco and Veolia run a huge range of different council services, from IT and HR to waste collection, recycling, street cleaning and maintenance. If they were to fail, the risk to councils would be very high.

It has become increasingly clear that the business model around outsourcing – or managed services in local government speak – is fundamentally at fault.

Local councils have been under ever more pressure over the past decade to cut costs – and one seemingly straightforward way of doing this has been to outsource many services, particularly administrative services.

I first came across this in 2009, when I was working in the organisational development team at a large county council. We were looking across local government to find innovations in improvement and efficiency. Barnet council, dubbed “easyCouncil” for its strategy of providing a “no frills” service, had drastically reduced its headcount from 3,200 to just 322, mainly by outsourcing.

I could see this approach might solve some of the immediate issues councils faced, but I had a gut feeling that it just wasn’t the right thing to do.

To make running services cheaper than keeping them in-house, the only contractors able to put in competitive tenders were the giants, like Capita (in Barnet’s case) or Serco.

My own experience of working for a council with managed services showed that they compared poorly in terms of service and value to in-house services. The most frustrating aspect was that the terms and conditions were set by the service provider, with no flexibility if circumstances changed – until the contract came up for retendering. Councils often don’t have good enough contract management skills to avoid getting locked in to this kind of contract.

This placed unreasonable constraints on councils. One IT service provider, for instance, refused to enable staff to work remotely using their own equipment, even though this would be more efficient and staff were likely to have better quality laptops, such as MacBooks, at home.

It is easy to see why companies see government deals as a cash cow. Carillion, for example, continued to win contracts despite being in dire straits. Political pressure on the public purse means having to go with the cheapest offer.

I also feel uneasy about the fact that these decisions tend to be made without consulting either staff or residents. Handing over large service areas, without having an open dialogue about the potential risks and impacts with the community and local partners, seems wrong. Councils are not just bodies that commission and deliver services, they are a democratic, accountable level of government – and if the 2010 coalition government hadn’t dismantled the Audit Commission, which oversaw local government, we might have seen this coming earlier.

There is an opportunity for councils to learn from this and start reviewing existing contracts. But the truth is that there is no money to take services back in-house. And even if there were, it is an outdated model and would be a backward step, because too often in the past, in-house services have been inefficient too, and often also based on an inflexible approach. No one would benefit from going back to that.

There are other options, such as councils sharing services. Some councils have been working towards this for many years. West Devon borough council and South Hams district council, for instance, haveshared services since 2007. But this does require a great deal of effort and goodwill – and isn’t always easy to implement or even propose.

More could also be done across the public sector as a whole. By working more closely with key partners such as the NHS, councils can aim to pool assets and resources. Moves to do this are already under way in Greater Manchester and there are other examples. In 2016, for instance, NHS England, Public Health England, the Local Government Association, the Chief Fire Officers Association and Age UK published a joint statement setting out new ways to work together to improve public health.

At the very least, councils must learn from Carillion’s demise and develop stronger tendering processes and contract management skills. They must also prioritise working with contractors with a stronger public service ethos – and a greater commitment to service outcomes over shareholder value.

If all that happens, further damage to public services might be avoidable.


Could US Local Government curb Trump’s worst excesses?

Dissent over the US president’s more extreme proposals, including mass deportation of immigrants, may come from state governments and cities.

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders 31st January 2017

What would I do if I worked in local government in the US? What do my colleagues and counterparts over there make of the situation in which they now find themselves?

In the UK, my responsibility working as an officer in local government in recent years has been to do what I could to help the councils I have worked for continue to deliver vital services in the face of overwhelming financial hardship and unrealistic expectations set by national government policy.

In a heavily centralised state like the UK, it is incredibly difficult to circumvent national policy. We have had to focus our diminishing resources on doing things differently to protect the most vulnerable people and communities.

But the US is a federal country, with a very different dynamic between national and local government. Not only do individual states have their own legislatures, but they also have the power to raise taxes. Not only does the federal government have little say over the day to day lives of US citizens, but state law also sometimes trumps (excuse the pun) federal law, if state law affords more rights to residents.

As a result, states handle the majority of issues most relevant to individuals within their jurisdiction. And although the constitution gives ultimate authority to federal laws, in practice, the federal government’s ability to enforce these kinds of laws is often limited, and it must rely heavily on local policies and law enforcement officials. Without state officials to enforce laws, federal law enforcement officials are in a difficult position.

There are about 89,000 US local government organisations with jurisdiction over the lives of US citizens. Any US president wishing to enact and implement a particular policy or enforce certain legislation requires full cooperation from some or most of them.

In 2013, for instance, the use of medicinal and recreational marijuana was legalised in Colorado and Washington. Yet the use, possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

What happens when this kind of conflict arises depends on whether the Department of Justice is up for taking on the uphill struggle of getting states to conform. In this instance, the federal government decided it was not worth the legal fight and has stepped back to see what happens in regard to marijuana laws.

There have been many other examples of this kind of clash, especially where civil rights are concerned. In early 2016, for instance, when the US justice and education departments issued new guidance giving transgender students protection under sex discrimination laws and access to facilities consistent with their gender identity, several states pushed back. The HB2 law in North Carolina prevents cities and counties in the state from passing their own anti-discrimination rules.

How might this kind of conflict affect the Trump administration? Take Trump’s campaign trail pledge to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. This sounds completely unfeasible from an administrative point of view and Trump would also need support for his policy from municipal administrations, which would need to proactively ask immigrants for paperwork if they believe they’re undocumented. The only lever the president has to pressure cities into cooperating would be cutting off or reducing federal funding, a step that would need support from Congress.

Some of the largest and most important cities in the US have already vowed to push back on this policy, no matter what the cost might be. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to do everything he can to fight widespread deportations of illegal immigrants, and mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has pledged not to cooperate with immigration agents. Similarly, mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared that Chicago “will always be a sanctuary city”.

These “sanctuary cities” may not have the power to give people rights, but they have a lot of power of resistance, and are promising to maintain their policies of limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents, as federal government could not compel states to carry out immigration enforcements.

Democratic cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have all also confirmed that they intend to defy the administration and act as a kind of bulwark against mass deportations.

So the famous US system of checks and balances may limit some of the more extreme proposals Trump has outlined thus far.

As a UK local government worker, I for one am encouraged to see that US local government is already leading the way in ensuring the rights and freedoms of their citizens. I wish them the best of luck over the next four years.

I’m outraged at Westminster meddling in council affairs

Councils won’t put up with being told not to boycott unethical companies. It wouldn’t be the first time we have faced down preposterous diktats

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 17th February 2016

Speaking as a local government officer, am I surprised that central government intends to introduce new procurement regulations to prevent councils from boycotting companies we consider to be unethical? No. Outraged, yes, but not surprised. In fact, I’m surprised we didn’t see this coming.

When it comes to localism policy and dealing with local government, Conservative governments have always displayed a kind of cognitive dissonance – constantly interfering in the way councils should or should not organise themselves. Yet they have been unwilling to formalise a written constitution or framework and even dismantled the Audit Commission in 2010, removing any standard way of benchmarking and measuring our performance on a national basis.

This, as well as the bonfire of the quangos, including the regional development agencies, and the drastic reduction in funding from central government over the past five years – all, we are told, in aid of localism and devolution. Former communities secretary Eric Pickles was always so keen to emphasise that councils were now “free” of “red tape”, and could go about their business in any way residents wanted them to. After all, decisions at a local level are taken by directly elected local councillors, who are far closer to their constituents than a minister in Whitehall, right?

Well, wrong, it seems. National politicians cannot resist interfering in local decision-making, and whatever they have given with one hand, they have taken with the other. Pickles always insisted on having his cake and eating it, and then having another one for good measure. Councils had to find millions of pounds’ worth of efficiency savings, and yet somehow he found enough money down the back of the sofa to bribe them into returning to weekly bin collections. This failed dismally, of course, because central government doesn’t quite seem to understand that its job is not to tell us what to do.

I predict that many councils will prefer to face legal challenge than toe this particular line. It wouldn’t be the first time and certainly won’t be the last that we have faced down preposterous diktats.

In any case, given that by 2020 local government will be financially self-sufficient, I don’t see how these regulations can be enforced. If local councils have a mandate – if procurement restrictions are set out in the manifesto of the party in power in any given council and it is wholly local taxpayers’ money being spent on the contracts – central government has no business intervening in those decisions.

When I was a teenager, my father told me I couldn’t spend my pocket money on kickboxing lessons. So I told him not to give me pocket money any more, went out, got a job and paid for my own kickboxing lessons. Money does not equal control, no matter what Westminster thinks.

Why working for the European Commission drove me up the wall

How fence-sitting, bureaucracy and indecision drove one official out of Brussels back to the arms of UK local government

First published anonymously in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 13th January 2015

Having previously worked only in the UK public sector – specifically, local government – I thought a large, multicultural body like the European Commission would be light years ahead in terms of its organisational culture.

But no. I had somehow overlooked the Commission’s foundations in the stodgy, bureaucratic public administration principles of the French civil service in the 1950s.

This was hard to deal with, and seriously jarred with my preferred working style. These are the things that drove me most up the wall when I worked for the European Commission:


I am analytical yet decisive; I like to take decisions based on facts and evidence. This did not bode well in an organisation which seems to endlessly discuss and debate things without ever wanting to make an actual decision.

At times, when I wrote minutes in meetings, I had to call a halt to proceedings to push someone to declare whether or not a decision had been reached. Usually not.

Endless bureaucracy

I like policy and strategy: they reduce the risk of duplication and wasted effort. I thought I would enjoy a place full of rules and procedures, but there’s nopoint in following rules unless they actually add value. Doing things “by the book” because nobody wants to take any actual responsibility for their actions is less attractive.

I am also results-oriented. My motto is: “do it now and get it finished”. At the European Commission I had never seen so many pilot projects in my life, and I was not sure of the point of any of them. It seemed there were no mechanisms to kill a pilot if it wasn’t working, because nobody wanted to admit failure.

Passing the buck

I don’t do work arounds. If I can’t see a clear pathway to achieving an objective, I hack one out with a machete. I’d always rather ask forgiveness than seek permission. Which is why I once had to sit in a meeting and justify why I took action I believed to be simple and straightforward. Apparently, it should have gone through a chain of command first. Urgh.

Lack of clarity

I am clear, to the point of being brusque on occasion, about my opinion. For better or worse, you will never be in doubt where you stand with me. My impression was that the European Commission did not find this a desirable quality for management. I lost count of the number of times I came out of a meeting unsure of whether anything was agreed or not, or whether an idea was accepted or rejected. It’s anyone’s guess whether it was a “yes – yes” or a “yes – no”.

Hierarchical culture

Even more important than the working style is the culture, and no amount of arguments about efficiency and effectiveness will gain any traction if it’s not part of the overall ethos. This is why I feel much happier in UK local government and why I have come back to it. In my experience, councils tend to be flatter and less bureaucratic, there’s more autonomy, more scope to mould your own role, less micro management, and authority is based on knowledge and skills rather than a position in the chain of command.
Having said all this, things are changing within the Commission, and the last six months I was there, I was involved in a programme of culture change – though it didn’t come to fruition quickly enough for me. I was a square peg in a round hole and didn’t want my sharp edges whittled down.