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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Shared services conference

I was speaking at the Holyrood conference on shared services in Edinburgh today.

Sir John Arbuthnott gave an overview of progress in the Clyde Valley initiative. A number of sensible collaborative projects have made reasonable progress. The problem is that the big ticket item was support services, despite Sir John's advice that this should not be the focus. He rightly said that back office services are very important and there are not massive savings to be had.

The presentation from Glasgow focused on the need to take cost out of the back office to protect frontline services. It was unclear how much of this was real savings rather than simply cost displacement. Lots of impressive looking activity statistics, but how much of that is dealing with failure demand? I was less than impressed with the idea that the recipe for success was to, "stick with it through thick and thin". Sounds like let's ignore the evidence when it doesn't fit with our preconceptions.

The speaker from the English LGA demonstrated the wide range of shared working models. The claimed savings figures looked pretty unimpressive and probably pretty dodgy as well.  A later speaker highlighted the NAO report on Whitehall shared services that came in well over budget and delivered a reduced level of service.

There were some interesting case study presentations from the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland, Fire and Rescue and Stirling Council. There was some honesty about the difficulties in delivering shared working and what had actually been achieved so far. The NHS speaker emphasised that working in partnership with the trade unions was vital, arguing that they add value to the process. All speakers agreed that shared services was only one tool and not appropriate for all.

My presentation sought to turn the focus from top down solutions to a view of service delivery from the frontline perspective. While UNISON is not opposed to collaborative working, we are against large scale back office factories driven by the 'here is one I prepared earlier' consultants. International and UK evidence shows that this approach rarely delivers the promised savings or quality of service. I gave a number of examples of how claimed savings are often simply cost displacement from central services to operational departments. I backed this up with  a UNISON Scotland survey produced for the APSE 'The Front Line Starts Here' booklet. This shows how operational staff now spend hours each week undertaking administrative tasks.

Richard Kerley made similar points about what works and what doesn't, based on a wide range of studies in the UK. Like me, a qualified supporter of the system thinking approach.

In summary, one of the benefits of Scotland's collaborative public service model is that shared working should be easier to achieve. However, that is not the same as centralised shared services. We should design service delivery from the user up – not with consultants from the top down.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the most interesting part of your presentation at the conference was the survey showing just how much time front line staff now spend doing administrative duties. Richard Kerley made similar points.

    In my authority the Director of Finance makes fanciful claims of savings by reducing support staff. However, the reality is that higher paid professional staff are simply doing these tasks themselves. Looks great on his budget line, but we just deliver less at the front line of service delivery.