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Sandy Hopkins: Why public service is like scoffing a strudel

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Our customers wake up to find their leisure centre open for their early morning gym session, their bins emptied, their benefits paid, their rat infestation dealt with, and their streets clean. They get on with their day.

With any luck they’ll spare a passing thought for us and think what a great council we are. The council did all that. What a good gang of public servants.

It’s a bit like when you go on holiday. You book your flight and soon enough you’re scoffing your strudel in Salzburg. What an excellent airline.

But it’s not just the airline that gets you there. There’s a long list of different organisations working under different contracts to get you off the ground and safely back on to it.

Behind the scenes many organisations have been beavering away so we can enjoy a continental lunch as we marvel at Mozart’s birthplace.

We think one operator has got us here because it was one click. But it could have been a third-party internet host, a contractor manning security and checking our passports, outsourced inflight meals and maybe even a different air operator to the one we booked with.

And that’s like a council. Gone are the days when public service staff worked in the same building as their colleagues, delivered services in one area and monitored a team under the same roof.

Things have changed – radically.

As the financial strain has grown and customers have become more discerning, public services have had to evolve at speed.

I was originally a chief executive of Havant BC, but we then joined forces to share a management team with East Hampshire DC.

This was challenging, but it meant we could deliver services more efficiently and effectively. We were more resilient and had more choice of experience and resources between the two organisations. But it wasn’t enough.

We had to look at more innovative ways we could do things. We started to take a more business-like approach. We wanted to be more entrepreneurial: more Alan Sugar and Richard Branson.

So we started questioning how things were done and how we could improve. We were delivering services, but perhaps we could be buying and – more importantly – selling.

East Hampshire politicians set us challenging income targets and one way we’ve met these is by setting up EH Commercial Services. This now provides litter enforcement services for eight other councils.

Havant created a joint venture with Norse Group to create Norse South East. This now delivers our waste services in Havant and we take 50% of the profits it makes from other business ventures, putting it back into our services. We have also developed and expanded our products, now selling trade waste to businesses and opening up an MoT Centre for business and consumer use.

All councils have similar back office work going on, so we thought perhaps we could team up to deliver these. We didn’t let geography get in the way and so formed a partnership with four other councils and outsourced this work. It’s not perfect, but over the nine years we aim to save millions while still delivering excellent services.

But our trips abroad aren’t always seamless and neither is the delivery of public services – or that of any other business. When we experience turbulence we have to get things back on the right flight path quickly.

That’s where good relationships come in. It is also the place for good negotiation skills and being able to hold contractors or partners to account, either informally or via good governance and robust contracts.

We all need to know exactly where we’re heading and need to be equally eager to get there on time. This comes down to having a shared vision and good communication, much like flight control.

Negotiating the mixed economy of public service delivery models is complicated. But if local authorities are going to survive and thrive it’s vital. And if air operators can do it the sky’s the limit for us.

Sandy Hopkins, chief executive, Havant BC and East Hampshire DC. She will assume the same role at Southampton City Council in the new year.

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