17 January 2003
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? With changes in local government needing new skills, Doug Pigg explains why it's time for public private interface management.
The Government is committed to its modernising agenda for local government and to the associated improvement in public services. However, with the rapidly developing approach to policy-led procurement, emphasising the need to focus not simply upon outcomes but also upon the processes that bring them about, it is time to reassess the delivery.
The emphasis is now on the Corporate Performance Assessment (CPA), which establishes the Government’s view of a local authority’s policy direction and the degree to which resources are focused on these priorities. Already, discreet service-based best value reviews are being replaced with overarching reviews in areas of weakness identified by the CPA.
The CPA is establishing a corporate style culture within local government, with a clear policy focus. This will require councils to decide what they will resource, and the politically more difficult decisions of what they will not resource.
There are already moves towards services being managed by a ‘thin client’ that effectively, economically and efficiently manages service delivery to support policy objectives. This, in turn, will reinforce the Government’s objective of establishing a mixed economy of provision in local government through a variety of procurement methods, including public private partnership (PPP).Central Government is using the CPA and the Local Government Modernisation Agenda to shape local government’s structure, culture, procurement and delivery processes into a model that it believes will:
- be in touch with the people;
- give vision and leadership to local communities;
- convince stakeholders that local authorities are the legitimate arbiters for their local area;
- act more quickly, responsively and accurately to meet the needs and aspirations of the community;
- improve the quality of people’s lives;
- achieve a mixed economy of provision; and
- provide high quality services.The last four of these objectives provide the key to unlocking the potential of PPP, of which the private finance initiative (PFI) is just one procurement option, to facilitate the required continuous improvement in service delivery.
This complex, and continuously changing local government environment of multi-layered, politically influenced service development and delivery can only be managed successfully with real co-operation between partners. But co-operation requires mutual trust and a shared understanding of the outcomes, which can only be achieved through effective management.
The management of the interfaces requires an understanding of local government culture, the language that it uses, and the changes that are taking place and needs the support of a combination of service expertise, project management skills, good communication and ambassadorial skills.
In addition, accepting the technical skills as a given, the ingredients for success must also include an understanding of the cultural, political and technical environment on both sides, along with an ability to cut across tribal boundaries within and without the authority.
Even so, there will still be a need for access to leadership that understands and can balance short term and long term, local, regional and national issues as well as ensuring that actions support the agreed community’s priorities. Likewise, it will mean developing the skills and resources to influence others in delivering the community’s priorities and providing training and guidance on the new ‘inclusive’ skills needed for the community-influenced service delivery.
Within this new corporate culture the complexities of procuring services for a politically dynamic client will require a new relationship skill that I will call Pubic Private Interface Management (PPIM).
The reasons for developing the skills of PPIM are simple. Most technically based service providers are developing expertise in the 'place based skills' of project management, regeneration, asset management, the environment, planning and procurement. So, development of the proposed PPIM skills - in support of local government and its increasing externalised supply chain - provides a natural business progression that builds on these existing and developing strengths.
The PPP structure, financial and legal frameworks are now well developed and available. The need is now to develop the PPIM skills that can bring together the consultancy support mix and manage the delivery of services across this complex, but defined, public private interface using the existing personnel’s highly developed project management skills.
The Association of Municipal Engineers (AME) has recognised this need and is developing its own strategy to provide a professional, non-competitive, learned society forum in which the public and private sector can come together to develop the skills needed for PPIM. It will also use its seminar programme to support PPIM, sharing knowledge, developing mutual understanding and establishing contacts that can only be good for municipal engineering in the public and private sector.
The AME’s forum will develop the softer communication based skills required by the new culture and service mix changes. The future for PPIM is to use these softer skills to enhance municipal engineers’ technical strengths through networking, management development, consultation, co-ordination and expert procurement, all in support of the new ‘thin client’ enabler.
It is the ideal time for this approach. As local government moves from the development of public private partnership working to the mainstreaming of this method of service procurement there is an opportunity to market the strengths of technical officers and technically-based providers delivering support services across a risk-managed operational interface.
But they will need to adjust their style and culture to come to terms with the new partnership way of working, with its need for consultation, debate and compromise.
The PPIM market is rapidly developing within local authorities as they adapt to a mixed economy of service provision, and has further opportunities as the Government brings the modernisation agenda into the heart of the civil service. This determination to modernise local government and, eventually, central government should not be underestimated. The internal capability and capacity weaknesses are quickly becoming apparent and the need for PPIM, and its supporting 'critical friends,' is urgent.
So a strategy that builds upon the AME’s divisional network should create a win-win opportunity for all those that participate in this new initiative. It will help to evolve a group of ‘critical friends’ in the public and private sectors and enhance relationship management by improving local knowledge, assisting everyone to deliver services that are in tune with the identified needs of communities. It will also offer a further advantage to the CPA.
The Audit Commission bases its CPA and best value reviews on evidence based assessments. This approach relies upon identifying evidence based good practice which, in turn, relies upon a networking to identify and disseminate the evidence. The AME will investigate the practicality of a database of evidence-based good practice from the public and private sectors, a resource that will encourage networking and sharing in order to directly contribute to improved CPA service ratings.
However, if the PPIM is to really succeed then its market will require support by generalists with good political and communication skills that understand the local government market and the changes that are taking place within it. Self-selection - by joining the AME’s PPIM initiative - will identify those with the generalist and communications skill needs, and training can then provide the understanding required in this rapidly changing local government culture.
These changes offer exciting times for local government, its service providers and the AME. So if you want to make progress and escape the rule that says: ‘if we always do what we always did we will always get what we always got,’ then here is the opportunity. For those who want to be part of it, the AME is the new forum and PPIM is the new skill.
Doug Pigg is the vice-chairman of the Association of Municipal Engineers and director of public services at consultants, WYG.