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Developing a commercial edge in local government services

Published by Paul O'Brien on Monday, December 3rd, 2012 at 09:02 am

More and more councils are emphasising the development of commercial strategies and skills in order to hold services together and give them a fighting chance in the current age of austerity.

Some commentators may view local government, innovation and entrepreneurship as unlikely bedfellows. But I see evidence all over country that a commercial culture is expanding and flourishing amongst council staff.

As budget cuts bite, managers are looking to alternative forms of income generation to offset reductions and spread overheads. APSE’s recent State of the Market survey on parks and grounds maintenance showed, for example, that 82% of authorities are looking at reconfiguring charges, with 38% selling services to the private sector and 46% to other public bodies. Whilst some decorative work and general maintenance may reduce due to austerity measures, these services are adapting and innovating to survive.

Stockton Council has drawn in almost £2m over the past few years from a diverse range of funders to support its parks regeneration programme. Wakefield is sharing specialist quad bikes with police partners. Sefton has received over £400,000 from the PCT to create outdoor gyms. Nottingham has acquired £3m lottery funding. Lewisham has used a mobile app to increase its trade waste income. And Tower Hamlets has made one of its top park facilities available for hire for weddings, civil partnerships and children's birthday parties.

So where are these public sector entrepreneurs? APSE’s recent research with De Montfort University on ‘Municipal Entrepreneurship’ found they exist across every authority. They fall into four broad categories. Catalysts scan for new opportunities, understanding the value of innovation and entrepreneurship. They are normally chief executives, senior or operational managers. Stewards are convenors who ensure collaboration and interaction to allow creative thinking. We found elected members, senior and area management teams playing this role. Mediators manage and resolve conflicts in the process, arbitrating between different stakeholders. They are normally operational managers or elected members. A fundamental fourth role was also identified, that of Deliverers, who focus on outcomes and improvements in service delivery. Deliverers can be senior management focusing on the bottom line, project managers or senior executives ensuring financial gain, or elected members trying to protect services for communities.

Many authorities have already begun to develop commercial strategy and skills. Chief executives will be ensuring that they continue to foster and develop this culture at corporate and service level if they wish to encourage the creativity necessary to offset budget cuts and become more self-sufficient financially.

This article is based on a recent column I did for MJ magazine.



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