23 June 2005 | Anusha Bradley
Local authority purchasers have raised concerns over the extent to which plans to improve service delivery will challenge their operational autonomy.
Their worries come ahead of an announcement, expected this week, of the 40 local councils that are to take part in a series of local area agreements (LAAs).
LAAs will streamline many local authority operations.
Speaking last week at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) and the Society of Procurement Officers' (Sopo) annual workshop, Tim Byles, Norfolk County Council chief executive, said it is a "critical issue" whether service delivery collaboration gave local authorities more latitude for purchasing or compromised their independence.
"LAAs will have all authorities working together to save with efficiency and effectiveness."
But, he added, it could challenge local authorities' autonomy. "How we work through that is a critical issue."
He cautioned that while collaborative purchasing would bring economies of scale, it could also push local suppliers aside.
He urged delegates to ponder what they could each do to make efficiency savings work.
Liz Welton, vice-chair of Sopo, told SM economies of scale could be a disadvantage to small or ethnic minority businesses.
Dorset County Council joined a pilot LAA programme in March 2005. Policy officer Dugald Lockhart said its focus was more on improving service delivery than efficiency savings.
However, he added, through the joint commissioning of services under the agreement it was possible to achieve both.
Whatever the outcome, authorities will have to work together. Martin Sykes, executive director of the OGC's smarter procurement directorate, told delegates the best chance of achieving "stretching targets" was through collaboration and aggregation. He said it had to be sustainable and look beyond 2008.
"We are expected to make a third of the efficiency savings. The profession has been put in the spotlight. This is our chance to show what we can do now and in the future."