Barnet’s approach to tackling austerity has seen it hit the headlines in recent years. If you cast your mind back to 2009, we were dubbed easyCouncil, and we made headlines again in 2013 after putting pen to paper on a ten-year deal with Capita.
However, with these contracts comprising just 10% of our total budget, and our environmental, children’s and adult social care services delivered in-house, the idea of Barnet being ‘the most outsourced council in the country’ has always been more rhetoric than reality.
I believe that, in local government, our core purpose is to deliver great outcomes and good public services for residents and businesses. In Barnet, we have chosen the best-placed delivery partner for the job – whether that’s in house or a private, public or voluntary sector partner.
A good example is our Welfare Reform Task Force, a multi-agency solution, which has been active since 2013 and has focused on incentivising positive behaviour change among residents affected by the Government’s changes to state benefits. Analysis shows that the Task Force returns £3 to the public sector for every £1 invested through reduced welfare spending and more efficient co-located multi-agency services. The Task Force has also helped get nearly 1,000 people back into work.
We are also applying this successful way of working through our BOOST jobs team, which focuses on getting people back into work in two of Barnet’s most deprived wards, where unemployment is highest. Since it was launched in 2015, the programme has helped find employment for more than 300 people.
In October 2016, we completed a review of our Customer & Support Group (CSG) contract between Barnet and Capita, which deals with customer services and the council’s main back office services, including HR and payroll. The review showed that since the contract began in 2013 we have saved more than £34m and is now costing us £6m less per year. Resident satisfaction with customer services has also increased from 52% to 76%. We have achieved success with our development and regulatory services through a joint venture with Capita to create a new company, Regional Enterprise Ltd (Re) which is growing income across these services.
Our partnership with industry experts Cambridge Education, which launched in April 2016, was formed to deliver our education and skills service with guaranteed savings of £1.9m per year by 2019/20, while providing opportunities to invest and grow the service.
The Barnet Group, a local authority trading company, not only manages the council’s social housing stock, but also provides care for people with learning and physical disabilities and has now created a registered provider arm to build new social housing units.
Our adults team has invested significant time and energy on practice improvement to build a strength-based approach, promoting independence and reducing demand for services. Along with investment in things like telecare, this is starting to have a real positive impact.
In addition, we’ve recently overseen the successful relocation of our environmental services operational facility. The move to our new Oakleigh depot has freed up vital land for housing development at the former site in Mill Hill, where hundreds of homes are already being built.
Reflecting on the last few years, the most important thing for me is never to forget what working in public services is all about. Commissioning is not a theoretical exercise, and developing new models of delivery is not innovation for the sake of it. People care about the quality of our services and the outcomes we deliver and this has to remain central to what we do.
Avoiding a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality between the council and its partners is also crucial if things are to work. Although we may have different employers, we are all working towards the same purpose: to serve Barnet and the people who live here. We keep working on initiatives to develop shared staff values and culture as this is so important.
Building strong relationships with our partners has been vital, particularly when it comes to communication. The reputation of us and our partners are now inextricably linked, but ultimately accountability for delivery lies with the council, as it should. That means taking ownership across our service delivery model when things go wrong, as well as right. We are committed to transparency and we publish quarterly reports on all our contracts for the public and our elected members to scrutinise.
I am often asked what my view is on the council as a commissioning organisation. My response is that commissioning is not about organisational form, structure and bureaucracy. It is about the best outcomes for residents and about planning well for the future. It is about reimagining how public services can best meet the aspirations of residents and businesses for the next decade and beyond.
Local government doesn’t always get the credit for the fantastic work that is done across such a broad range of services, and we should be ambitious about the impact we can have on our local areas in the future, however uncertain that future may be.
John Hooton is chief executive of Barnet LBC