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Time for the council to sort its little local difficulty with Service Birmingham

Time for the council to sort its little local difficulty with Service Birmingham

🕔07.Dec 2012

The public sector is from Venus, the private sector is from Mars.

Or so it seems.

A review of City Council’s contract with its outsourced ICT partner, Service Birmingham, is pretty damning about how the two are getting along these days.

The report, commissioned by the incoming Labour administration and carried out by the Best Practice Group, claims :

there is an inherent risk that unless a core focus for both parties is re-established, the commercial trust between Birmingham City Council and Service Birmingham will continue to deteriorate.

Neither party will benefit from the relationship if this situation is permitted to manifest itself.

In response to this “warts and all” assessment, Council Leader Sir Albert Bore says there has been “a failure of individuals to act in a way that we might have expected of them in helping us to deliver value from the Service Birmingham arrangements.” He apportions blame on both sides; Service Birmingham and the council he took over running back in May.

So how did we get here? The problem between the City Council and Service Birmingham is about cultural misalignment (to use a management consultantism). The two sides have different outlooks which the other party struggles to understand and deal with.

Public sector leadership is governed by the diktats of government, the vicissitudes of fate and the whims of the electorate. Private sector managers coming into this world for the first time often express surprise – if not, frankly, disdain – at the mercurial decision-making which results. They, in contrast, are creatures of process. They like contracts. Stability. Predictability. They work on the basis that once something is agreed it stays agreed.
But public managers and politicians often see this as a lack of small ‘p’ political nous. They expect their private sector cousins to understand that their world often unstable and unpredictable – and one in which accountability and transparency are paramount. Things change, especially once the voters start getting agitated.

So how do you successfully splice the public sector’s ethos with the private sector’s know-how? This, in essence, is the Holy Grail they are striving to find in Birmingham. And failing miserably, on the basis of this report.
Of course all this used to be more straight-forward. In the early days of outsourcing the private sector took up limited chunks of public sector work, inevitably based on providing a routine service cheaper than a council, college or the NHS.

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