A problem shared…

shared services - mike gill

A recent article by David Walker in the Guardian looked at the chequered history of shared services and focused on former Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude’s legacy – which in short is not a great one. Essentially Maude hailed shared services as a means to avoid duplication and cuts, but as we know such an approach is certainly not always as straightforward as it sounds.

Just out of interest I looked back at a statement Maude made back in 2012. In very straightforward terms, he set out what he was trying to achieve and why it was a good idea. He said: “Sharing services simply makes sense. There is absolutely no need for departments and arms-length bodies to have their own back-office functions, and duplicate efforts, when they can be delivered more efficiently by sharing services and expertise. Plus it will save the taxpayer half a billion pounds a year. That’s why we have taken action and fundamentally changed the way central government departments share their services.”

So here we are in 2016 and there is still some way to go then…..

Walker’s article claims that, often, outsourcing firms don’t go to the effort of finding out how public services actually work. And that benefits are been oversold. And shared services are often presented as ‘an item of dogma’ rather than a solution. The particular example used in the article related to Whitehall but the theory can certainly be applied across our vast array of public services.

But is it fair to say that many private sector firms are ‘clueless’ about how politics affects public services? And that they don’t really appreciate how the public sector works?

Well in some cases (particularly some of the high profile failures often cited) it probably is fair. But as with everything I’m sure you could find good and bad examples. I know of many examples of partnerships and contracts that have been running for many years in all parts of the public sector which have delivered great improvements. And many that have not. But you could also find many services that have been isolated from genuine exposure to scrutiny for many years that would benefit from sharing their delivery with others.

It also helps to understand the whole picture and the complexities associated with any given project – and there can certainly be many complexities! Whilst private sector business can be complex, they tend to involve an entirely different model involving things called ‘customers’. Customers generally have some form of choice. Not always but generally.

The nature of public services means there is not often much if any choice – particularly in the provision of statutory or regulated services. Going to a neighboring local authority because its Council tax is cheaper is not an option. Nor is it possible to submit an application for social benefits to another government body as there is something of a monopoly there. So using terms such as customer and choice often don’t really mean that. Often there is not choice in receiving services, particularly statutory (and therefore often unpopular and unwanted) services.

And unless both public and private sector partners are clear about the nature of their chosen sharing service and the environment in which it exists, you will continue to have a real mixed bag of success and failure. I would go further. Even if partners understand each other better, there is still an even chance chance of success and failure.

So I would suggest there is a lot more work needs to be done to reach a point where shared services can be hailed a success. As time has shown, it will take more than the Government’s now outdated Next Generation Shared Services Strategic Plan (remember that anyone?) which itself highlights recommendations that were made in the Gershon Review way back in 2004.

So lets not throw out any babies with out with their bathwater. Examples of genuine and cohesive working partnerships in the private sector are not that common either. Most partnerships start with an intent to better ones self interests. Public sector interests differ from the private sector but even public to public interests differ. So environment, ethics and values need to be better understood if shared services are to be understood.

In my many years of working in the public sector, I feel sufficiently emboldened to say there are as many sharks in the public sector as as there are in the private sector ocean.

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