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Strategic partnerships – the keys to a great working relationship

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What are the factors that enable a local authorities and the private sector to work together effectively? Hertfordshire CC’s Sarah Pickup and Serco’s Amanda Carey-McDermott discuss the elements that are proving to matter most to them.

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Sarah Pickup: We must remember that procurement rules are not there to stop us from doing the right thing. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and it’s important that we find ways not to be constrained so that we can develop flexible contracts that allow us talk openly and share expertise in finding the best solutions. So I always like to sit down around a table and work out together what you need. It’s by sharing thoughts that service commissioners and providers can truly work together in developing and implementing the best ideas.

“Creating an environment that’s responsive to innovation…”

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Amanda Carey-McDermott: Too often, people are constrained by imagined barriers. We found the competitive dialogue process, while lengthy, to be extremely useful in identifying common ground and opportunities to really make a difference. Because of the size of the budget involved, Adult Social Care was an obvious place to look for innovative technological applications to save money. Working closely to bring the council’s care expertise together with our own in technology and processes has been the cornerstone of the innovative programme we’re successfully delivering together.

“Developing and maintaining mutual trust…”

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Sarah Pickup: I think that our experience with Serco overall shows that the fundamental thing to get right is the structure of the relationship in the first place - ensuring that the contract really allows you to work in the most appropriate way and to do the things that you want. Get that right, and so much else follows. After all, my job is to get the best possible value out of the public pound and good outcomes, which can call for robust discussion – the better the relationship, the more robust this can be without harming the positive way we work together.

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Amanda Carey-McDermott: The quality of the relationship extends beyond just that between the council and Serco, to other providers as well. For example, we have to work closely with the likes of Goldsborough, which is the council’s enablement provider, ensuring that all our processes interrelate properly. The same is true with @UK, the company providing the technology for the e-marketplace that goes live later this year. It was to support these important three-way relationships that the council put in place the Partnership Integration Board, which tries to ensure that all the right people from all partners know each other well enough to catch anything that could go  wrong. It’s proving to be a really effective approach, and there have been no major issues that we’ve not been able to deal with.

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Sarah Pickup: Co-location also has a very important role – we have council, Serco and Goldsborough teams all sharing the same offices and working together at all levels, not just in the senior management team. This helps people to engage with one another on a daily basis to solve problems together, helping them to really understand the pressures that others might be feeling and bring down barriers between teams.

“Responding effectively to unforeseen issues…”

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Amanda Carey-McDermott: A key factor here is engagement, and not just at a senior level. We saw Hertfordshire put in a tremendous amount of effort in explaining to its staff why it was necessary to do what had to be done. It gave them the chance to think through opportunities, and while some decided to move on, many also volunteered to transfer. So people are in a good place on the whole, and that has certainly made a huge contribution to the overall performance. Obviously, human nature being what it is, there are frictions – particularly at pressure points like the transfer of Mental Health services this year, but you have to accept these will happen.

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Sarah Pickup: There was a time when I wouldn’t have supported what we are now doing with partners, but the point came when the council’s entire leadership recognised that to genuinely be the ‘Council of the Future’ we had to enable people to access services in new and very different ways. Bringing everybody along with us has been an extremely important part of doing this properly. As a result, both Serco and ourselves have made a strong effort to involve all Adult Social Care staff in regular business progress reviews - with us focusing in detail on the social care aspects on the one hand, and Serco presenting business process maps on the other.

This partnership approach has been so different from the traditional ways of doing things - where I would say what I wanted and the provider would go away and come back with what they thought I wanted. Such an approach could only too easily result in me saying: “That’s not what I meant.” That way of working cannot happen anymore – particularly in this climate, with its growing demographic and economic pressures and it’s in no one’s interest for this sort of thing to fail. Both the council and Serco have a lot on the line with this – of course, there are potential risks when going for new solutions so all sides need to maintain a sharp focus and put in their best efforts to mitigate the risks involved.

Sarah Pickup, director of Adult Social Care at Hertfordshire CC and president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. Amanda Carey-McDermott is Serco’s partnership director for Hertfordshire CC.

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