I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking recently about what the “real” purpose of my employer is. In common with many other public sector bodies, we’ve outsourced bits of our support and front line services (and others were already in private hands by default). When we do this, however, we both lose and gain something: it’s not always a good idea (it seems, or maybe we just don’t do it very well each time) as we seem to be sort of “hollowed out” and we lose influence. If people have a problem with the way the roads are surfaced, do they talk to the council responsible or do they talk directly to the company that resurfaces the roads?

In this sort of climate it is tempting (and I have succumbed) to envisaging this kind of process taken to its logical conclusion. If a council commissions all of its services, what is it for? This thought experiment has led me to start considering local (and maybe central) government as a platform business that exists to

  • understand the needs of people and places under its care
  • search for funding opportunities that might help with those needs
  • curate a set of service providers and help to ensure the markets for each are broadly functional
  • provide a set of levers for those with a political mandate to push in order to deliver on political priorities
  • provide intelligence to all so that commissioning decisions can be undertaken intelligently.

So what we might refer to as “the council” becomes quite small really and is a hub – centred around a platform containing

  • expertise in the funding landscape, performance management, public engagement, (big P) Politics and data
  • a business intelligence toolset and competencies to crunch all the available data
  • a web channel that ties services together (in a service-oriented architecture style of thing)
  • document/records management that provides an archive of policy, actions and decisions
  • Master data management (ensures we don’t double-count people or places in our calculations, and ensures joined up case management)
  • Data warehousing (performance management, demographic, needs data on the full range of services)
  • middleware to join processes up.

There’s perhaps some political (big P again, sorry) dynamite here in that it might be seen to imply privatisation or outsourcing on a massive scale (on the scale recently attempted – and abandoned – by some other councils such as Suffolk) but I need to stress that it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It does, however, necessitate a *logical* split between those bodies/teams/people/partners that commission services and those that provide those services. The split occurs because the service provider has a different business model to the commissioner.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the vast majority of commissioning is done by actors outside of the council: we have personal budgets for healthcare, politicians have local budgets, other authorities or public/third sector bodies may fund developments, even the private sector might utilise this platform to commission work.

[Although my focus is on local government I wonder if this approach also extends to central government. Both exist to do broadly the same thing, just on a different scale, both currently depend on partners and service providers to do the majority of the work, and both are relatively poor at commissioning as opposed to service delivery. Maybe, maybe not.]

If we are a platform business, then that model dictates that we build for scale and reuse, in a service-oriented style. And why should each council build its own platform if we are all doing the same thing?