Let’s get a few things straight first. Despite the national headlines, Suffolk is not outsourcing all its services to the private sector. We are not planning to reduce to 500 staff. Nor are we designing a council that just lets contracts.
What we are doing is “divesting” our services into the community. We have a very bold vision about transforming local government and broader public services. We are planning to dismantle the complexity and bureaucracy of the county council to make it simpler, smaller and cheaper.
We will be encouraging employees to move outside the council into new types of enterprises. These enterprises, whether they be mutuals, charities, social enterprises, partnerships, management buy-outs or companies, will be able to act more flexibly to meet customer needs at a very local level. We will be shifting the identity of the council from the provider of services to consumer advocate for Suffolk residents.
This is not an ideology: it is a carefully developed, practical alternative to meeting the dilemma of reduced public sector funding.
About 18 months ago we predicted the spending crisis and developed a vision to transform public services by joining them up to reduce duplication and make them more straightforward for customers and cheaper for tax payers. This isn’t just a county council vision. It’s an ambition shared by the Suffolk Collaborative (a group of Suffolk-wide chief executives developed as our forerunner to Total Place). The district councils in Suffolk are meeting this ambition by pairing up management structures, and in one case creating a single political structure.
The county council’s ambition is to reduce costs by 30% while strengthening community capacity to build social capital and individual wellbeing. We also need to make our changes while promoting economic wealth in Suffolk - without it there will be no money to pay for the type of society we want. That’s why we are encouraging new forms of enterprise to stimulate the local economy in Suffolk and not inviting just one national private sector partner to provide services.
A year ago the council agreed this new strategic direction. On 23 September, it approved a model that would divest services, strengthen democracy and build communities. It is an enthusiastic embracement of “Lesser Government” and “Bigger Society”.
Our audacious goal does not have a blueprint. Nor does it have a fixed timeline, although we do want to divest our first services by April 2011. We don’t believe a top-down centralist approach will work. What we seek instead is organic change, co-created with the voluntary sector, with communities and with staff. It will be different across different services and in different communities to match the different needs and different cultures of towns, villages, hamlets and urban neighbourhoods in the area.
We know that Suffolk has numerous examples of “Big Society” already happening quietly in our towns and villages. These are being led by social entrepreneurs who have started new charities, businesses and not-for-profit organisations. We want to build on that foundation in a way that makes communities feel more in control of local services.
We also want, through personal budgets and direct payments, to give our customers more financial control. And as a market maker we want to create cheaper alternatives to council services to give our customers more choice. This will radically change the relationship between the council and the residents of Suffolk, and it will give them more control. This is what we mean when we talk about Lesser Government and Bigger Society.
There are six good reasons why Suffolk is pursuing divestment:
- To reduce the overheads of being in a large organisation.
- To change the identity of the council from service provider to community leader, consumer advocate and market maker.
- To create more localised and joined-up public services.
- To hand back responsibility to our residents and communities.
- To unlock staff creativity, know-how and experience to design more relevant and flexible services.
- To create an economically more efficient model of assessing value in public services by financially empowering users and paying providers by results.
This is the reality of the new model Suffolk is pioneering. As chief executive I am lucky to have politicians with the strategic vision and courage to embrace an honest conversation with Suffolk people about the need for a very different approach to meet the challenge of an age of austerity.
I, for one, will be ensuring our ideas are developed at pace so we can minimise the need for front-line service cuts to close the inevitable budget gaps in the next couple of years. However, as an advocate of public services I will also be seeking to minimise the risk and to involve our communities to achieve the best outcome for Suffolk people.
Andrea Hill, chief executive, Suffolk CC