There are too many public sector organisations in the United Kingdom. Most, like my two district councils, were designed in the early 1970s, when the physical size of paper databases and armies of clerks limited organisational reach.
Therefore, two major tiers of councils were created in England — 45 county councils and 296 district councils — all with chief executives, workforces, civic offices and other duplicated costs.
Since then the world has been transformed by technological advances. Not least the development of micro computers, global databases, email and the internet. Plus “lean” business process re-engineering and HR/management techniques have evolved to promote increasingly efficient organisational practices.
The result is that a handful of organisations could now provide all the local government services to England more economically and more effectively. The annual saving to the UK taxpayer would run into billions of dollars, which could be re-directed into higher priority services such as health or international aid.
So why has this not happened? Why has this archaic structure not been replaced, merging organisations into bigger, unitary organisations? The answer is politics — both nationally and locally. And due to office politics (“turkeys at Christmas”) every bit as much as elected, official politics.
Mergers are more commonplace in the private sector because the business case, the bottom line, is less prone to human/political considerations. The public sector needs to grasp this concept, squeezing more public benefit from each tax dollar.
Short of all-out organisational merger, the next best option is to merge parts of identical organisations. In my case, five district councils with no previous collaborative track record have secured 20%-plus net cost reductions and significant service improvements by leaving the ’70s behind.
Time travel is not easy nor painless! Apathy, inertia, ego, sabotage, jealousy, paranoia, distrust and incompetence have all been drag factors which we needed strategies to overcome.
Any partnership — be it corporate or marriage — succeeds or fails because of the people involved. And people are often unpredictable. At times the project has been almost a soap opera with friendships waxing and waning, heated arguments sizzling the air before clearing and moving on.
I’m happy to share the highs and lows of our story at the Local Government IT Summit, offering tips and warnings, so you can hopefully enjoy the excitement and even bigger prizes, with a little less of the pain.
Steve Bishop speaks at the Local Government IT Summit in Sydney on June 22-23