It is official – the UK’s nine Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnerships will cease to exist, at least in their current form, after 31 March 2011, as central government funding comes to an end. Some of these organisations – which have supported councils with best practice on efficiency and procurement – plan to continue, but not in their current shape or scale. This, we’re told, is necessary to save money as a part of the deficit reduction programme. Some add it’s part of the government’s localism policy – encouraging decision making at a local level.This sounds plausible, and is reminiscent of the creating of Executive Agencies in central government the early 1990s. This was going to empower people to make changes and remove the hand of “Whitehall” from decision making. Now it is about centralisation.
Whatever one’s personal view of RIEPs, they do perform at least one essential role. They act as a catalyst for change. If the public sector is going to get anywhere near the levels of cashable savings it needs from its procurement expenditure (up to 25 per cent reduction), collaborative working is crucial. By this I don’t mean putting yet another framework contract in place for everyone to ignore, but introducing commercially proven techniques, including supplier relationship development, large-scale e-auctions, shared multi-agency contracts, standardisation and cross-sector category management teams. All good stuff and, of course, supported by Green, Gershon, Jay, Rayner and others who have all made the same recommendations to UK prime ministers dating back to Thatcher in 1979.
It is not that collaborative working does not work, it’s simply missing key ingredients. First, have the catalyst in place to identify and start the collaborative opportunity, and second, the ownership of top managers prepared to commit their organisations to taking part in suitable programmes, even if it means overruling their own staff or upsetting a current supplier or outsourcer.
In local government it is the RIEPs, or something similar, that are the only impartial organisations capable of acting as a catalyst to get the multi-agency collaborative exercises off the ground. The overlap of common suppliers, contracts and the levels of commodity purchases in all regions are major opportunities for making large-scale cashable savings.
The RIEPs have built good decision-making networks of senior managers that can act as the delivery agents. They are essential to remove the barriers and objections always there to oppose collaboration, whether it be the requirement is different or, even worse, why contract standing orders don’t permit collaborative working/shared contracting.
There is a maxim in the public sector: ‘When something starts to work, close it down or reorganise it’. This is about to happen again, to the RIEPs. Who will alert ministers to the opportunity that it is about to be thrown away?
* Ken Cole SPS Consultancy Services, and procurement adviser to Capital Ambition