Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Cornwall Council: The Masterplan

Cornwall Council is wondering whether to sell its putative management skills to other local authorities. The idea is the Council would run a payroll system for a Scottish authority, manage the personnel records of an East Anglian police service, or perhaps mastermind repairs to Spaghetti Junction. To do this they’d team up with private industry, and submit bids answering other councils’ invitations to tender for packages of work. The carrot for Cornwall Council is preservation of its own jobs and services, and for the industrial partners, profit. Presumably every local authority in the land has begun to think along the same lines, but for the moment let that pass.

If Cornwall Council looks for work outside its own borders, Cornish people will experience a decline in services even more severe than the current mess. You don’t identify possible business opportunities in five minutes and depending on the complexity of the prospect, forming proposal teams to submit bids for work can take months. Once the bids have been tendered, usually in competition with other would-be suppliers, often clarifications are called for by the customer and sometimes even rebids are required. These activities can become seriously costly and as a bidder it's hard to predict the overall financial exposure, doubly so without a previous track-record. Always there's the question too: what else could have been done with the money?

Cornwall Council isn't guaranteed to win a single scrap of work. Then again, customers' budgets may be slashed or axed; in that case there'll be no work awarded. During troubled economic times slimmed requirements become more likely, particularly in the area of say, local authorities.

And woe betide Cornwall Council if they tangle with industry. Apart from some bought-in senior management most of the Council’s office ‘workers’ are time-served, without the faintest appreciation of the profit motive which drives the private sector, and without the fangs to fight. If joint bid teams are formed the Council will be easy meat for industry’s hard-headed negotiators, dragged into positions of responsibility for any coming work without equal decision-making, and allotted the crummy end of the workshare itself. Industry will ring-fence its responsibilities while the Council will be set up for a fall if bids are lost, or if work is won but makes a loss.

By the by, this initiative comes from a Council whose financial affairs and alleged profligacy are currently the subject of national scrutiny. Today we learn that last year, £3,274 was spent on directory enquiry calls. I spent zero, because I’ve heard of Google. A further extravagance was £220 on dialling the speaking clock: “Oh please let it be nearly half-past-three so I can go home.” Small sums maybe, but what message do they send?

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