Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Do you know where your smalls are?

Regular readers of my ramblings will know I run two blogs: this one (about leading change and development from a whole systems perspective) and the other about the small & creative ideas that are making a difference in the public & third sectors.

I am posting this - just to remind people of my second blog which now has over 300 ideas for how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local services.

The blog is:
  • Totally free
  • Totally searchable
  • Totally open to more ideas being added!
In these stringent times - there may just a few small ideas in there to help you reduce costs while still maintaining or even improving services.

The blog also stands up for public service organisations 'home growing' their own improvements rather than spending buckets of dosh on consultants who borrow your watch, tell you the time, keep the watch and slip a needle in to carry on drawing blood too.

And this links back to my other abiding interest: leadership. What are leaders doing or should be doing... (apart from not signing cheques for large consultancy contracts that add no value) to foster the necessary levels of engagement / verve / commitment / creativity (even in these austere times) amongst public service staff?

Answers on a postcard - or better still - please post them below >>>


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Procurement: What David Cameron, Francis Maude and I want to make happen

Last Friday, I attended a meeting at the Treasury about SME procurement. It was fascinating, memorable and useful, not least because I got to see David Cameron, our Prime Minister, in person for the first time.

This was the (first?) “SME Strategic Supplier Summit” and it was hosted by Francis Maude who is Minister for the Cabinet Office. The aim of the afternoon debate (which included about 100 representatives of small and medium sized suppliers to the government bodies, as well as press and senior members of the civil service) was to: 
  • Cover what the Government is currently doing to progress SME-friendly procurement practices;
  • Report back on comments received from the SME feedback facility hosted on the No10 Downing Street website;
  • Seek our views on what reforms and actions the Government should be prioritising to make the marketplace more attractive to SMEs
Seated in cabaret style, the meeting began with the PM and Francis Maude entering to open up the debate and make some initial speeches. Baroness Eaton, the LGA Chairman also gave a presentation. A number of key initiatives were announced (see here, hereherehere and here for Government and press reports of them). Also attached is the document we were given to help seed the debate.

The essential message from all the presentations is that the Government is thoroughly committed to making Government procurement more ‘SME friendly’. Their ambition is that around 25% of all government contracts will be with SME suppliers (although one person later questioned whether this was as a % of contracts or a % of value).

People who read my blog will know, I have some strong opinions about procurement! (My humorous rant against the excesses of procurement, my suggestion for what makes an excellent procurement function and the need for more commercial leadership can all be accessed from those hot links.) And so, it was a real pleasure to hear about the Government’s plans to make procurement less onerous and more effective. Moreover, it was great to hear that I am not alone in my views! I was also very impressed that the Minister stayed for the whole afternoon, engaging in the table debates that occurred.

Some selected comments from Francis Maude: 
  • “We will make it easier for SMEs to do business with government: that is an absolute commitment” 
  • “Hold our feet to the fire to make sure we follow through on this” 
  • “Demands for public services are as great if not greater than ever” 
  • “This is the end of the era of big state, this is now the era of the Big Society” 
And very interestingly
  • “We are not friends of the idea of framework contracts”
I am watching this space with interest and I have already subscribed to the new and free one stop shop for Government procurement (Contracts Finder). I would recommend all suppliers and buyers do likewise. I am happy to report that SMEs were involved in the development of this new service (we were told this at the event in answer to my question).

So what now? Naturally, I am a little sceptical, although I do not doubt the verve and commitment of David Cameron and Francis Maude. I am sceptical because I have seen much of this before with the Glover report which seems to have only had marginal impact. (As a small example, I am still sometimes asked to provide paper copies of tenders when this report specifically recommended doing away with this.)

I am also cautious in my optimism because I think there are a number of very big dilemmas the Government has to handle in driving forward on this strategy. They will need to find a way to balance: 
  • The economies of scale with the desire for localism (what might be called the “Sir Philip Green factor”)
  • The desire by central government to control and direct with the desire to develop bottom up solutions from SMEs and third sector suppliers
  • Big business interests (who currently hold many of the cards with some very large contracts) with the small business aspirations of SMEs who want to slice the marketplace in smaller chunks
  • The interests of big third sector suppliers (such as NACRO and Age UK) with small local consortia of SMEs, small charitable bodies and the whole Big Society
  • Procurement professionalism with procurement centralism (and what I perceive sometimes as their ‘control freakery’)
  • Single client/customer focus with a multiple stakeholder ‘whole chain procurement’ approach (see below)
  • Transparency with commercial confidentiality
  • Supporting and developing progressive commercial practices (such as encouraging women owned business or ones that have visionary aspirations for health and safety) with making procurement too ‘politically correct’ and insufficiently concerned with bottom line VFM for the public purse
  • Suspicion with openness, (or how not to see all commercial suppliers as smooth tongued snake oil sales people and more as partners with whom to collaborate openly, even when some commercial suppliers are...)
  • The prevalent idea of submitting one final bid with the (often common in the commercial world) practice of negotiation over a number of iterative conversations
  • Fixed and concrete specifications with ones that recognise complexity and change such that service contracts need to allow for emergent solutions rather than ones fixed in aspic
  • Due probity and essential risk management with bureaucratic and unwieldy demands
  • Methods to provide assurance against corruption with the institutionalising of risk averse and Byzantine processes (I noted that David Cameron mentioned the ‘nobody got fired for buying an IBM’ factor in procurement...)
I could go on (and already this blog post is probably far too long: so thanks for reading to here!) but I will end on one thought. And this picks up on a constant theme of my blog – the need to take a whole system perspective. One point I made at the event, which Francis Maude said was a good one, was the need to involve the end user in the procurement process. I used the example of a soldier sitting for the first time in a newly procured and sparkly tank: the soldier knows immediately that it will not work as well as it should and could have done.
  • How many soldiers (and, of course, many other frontline public service officers) are still never involved with a procurement process?
  • How many of their insights and ideas could contribute ££ millions in savings and other improvements if they were given the opportunity?
  • And indeed, how much more could be achieved if the people who will be receiving the service (the citizens, clients and customers of public services) were also given the chance to offer their ideas?
What we need is (to coin a phrase) “whole chain procurement” that brings people together to co-design and thence procure the services we all need to create a civil society: one that is creative, ambitious and fair!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Leadership: Your 2011 reading list has been delivered!

As anyone who reads my blog will know, I have been on the hunt recently for books, films, poems and whatever that have inspired people about their leadership. I sat down this morning to compile the collected list. I have uploaded it to Google docs for you to download as you wish.

Many people responded including some notable celebrities in the shape of Stephen Fry and Alistair Campbell. In the document (link here) is a list of suggestions from whole bunch of people from local government, third sector and other public services. There is also a smattering of consultants, several of my colleagues and some random contacts from Twitter (these are the @people in the list) and elsewhere.

I am most grateful to everyone for their suggestions and explanations. Thank you. In many ways, the comments and explanations around why a particular book or film made an impact are the best bits. 

Please enjoy and be inspired!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Investing in the Big Society

The Big Society idea has been under scrutiny & challenge ever since it began. Most recently Liverpool City Council have withdrawn their involvement in being one of the four pilot areas for the idea. (BBC news link here). Just a day ago, the outgoing head of the Community Service Volunteers (Dame Elisabeth Hoodless) voiced her concerns about how cuts are destroying the Big Society idea (BBC news link here).

As a consequence I have been following Lord Nat Wei's blog with interest - he is the Big Society 'Csar' who has been promoting the idea from its early beginning. This morning, I was prompted by his most recent post entitled: Local Authorities and Big Society in the Age of Austerity (link here) to respond.

Below is what I have posted on his site - although as of now it is yet to appear:

If the Big Society is about anything, it must be about inclusiveness and bringing people from outside the tent into the inside. In this respect, your partisan opening comment of ‘Labour’s huge deficit’ does you no favours. If anything calling it simply ‘the huge deficit’ would help to build some bridges which the Big Society idea badly needs right now.

I do like and appreciate the Big Society concept, by the way. But I am in this debate as a critical friend as well as advocate. Politics and economics aside, if the Big Society can do anything to mitigate the public service cuts which are being made, then I support it wholeheartedly.

Where I am very concerned is where the Big Society is being invoked, without trial, test or evaluation, as the way in which severe cuts will not really be felt. This is what is happening in Buckinghamshire at the moment where the County Council is slashing (disproportionately) the youth service budget. (See ‘Keep the spirit of Big Society alive’). As far as I can see, they are not investing in the kinds of capacity building you outline. The likelihood is that without enough structures in place, there will be less volunteering in the future, not more.

Certainly the best public services have been engaging their citizens/customers/users/clients for some while – long before the ‘Big Society’ existed as a concept. It is certainly something I have been talking about for many years. (At this event, I talked about the evidence based citizenship: and there more on my blogs at: and here in the context of income generation: So getting the users of a service to do more while saving resources being spent is old – as old as when we began filling our own fuel tanks at filling stations, at least.

Yes, there is a great need to get more users/citizens/customers involved in picking up the litter (to use your example – although better not to drop it in the first place!), and there are huge cultural impediments within local authorities towards doing this more (not least the risk averse culture fuelled by the ‘no win/no fee’ lawyers hanging around on street corners). But all of this will not happen by magic or by merely hoping that the invisible hand of the social market place will result in volunteers and philanthropists rushing into the vacuum left by the public service cutbacks.

Certainly core costs can be reduced further and perhaps part time working could be a way ahead. I don’t know if any councils or other public service agencies are considering this. However, when commercial firms did this to survive the recession, as you cite, they did this as their order books were down. There was less demand on their services or products. The comparison to public services does not work in quite the same way unless you are suggesting that the police say to their public that they are going on short working so please could crimes now not be committed between the hours of 2 and 6 o’clock in the morning....?

Partnerships are also not new. As you know most local authorities have been developing their compacts with their local third sector agencies and have been looking to extend partnership arrangements with them over many years. But to repeat... this requires investment and indeed time. The time is critical as without it trust cannot develop. As you well know, partnerships do not work without trust. Is there the time to develop further trusting partnerships now before the cutbacks begin to really bite?

In sum, yes there is a need to be pragmatic and tenacious about making the Big Society work and I am not in the group of people who are urgently looking for it to fail (from both the right and left of the spectrum). My overriding concern is that the investments in Big Society development are not being bold or strategic enough. There is insufficient recognition that the transition to a Bigger Society and a Smaller Government is one that cannot simply happen. Shrewd investment and good local leadership will be critical