Case study

Libraries Unlimited: the journey from investigation to establishment

The process of becoming a mutual from investigation to establishment from the perspective of Libraries Unlimited.

Libraries Unlimited logo
Libraries Unlimited logo

Setting up any new organisation from scratch is not easy, and when the organisation needs to be extracted from the council and involves transferring over 300 staff and 50 properties into a new legal entity, it’s particularly complex. Having got the go-ahead from cabinet following an options appraisal and business case process, Libraries Unlimited managed the implementation in 2 main stages: business planning and transition.

The aim of the business planning stage was to:

  • ensure the new organisation had a rigorous 5-year business plan that gave confidence to all parties that the venture would be sustainable
  • set up the legal structure of the organisation
  • determine the heads of terms for the commissioning agreement and other legal documents

At the close of the business planning stage, approved by cabinet once more, it moved to the transition stage, which dealt with all of the practical elements of moving the library service across to the new organisation, including the detailed preparation of the legal agreements.

A partnership approach between the libraries team – essentially acting in the interests of the new organisation – and the wider Devon County Council team was essential. Given the complexity, PRINCE2 and Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) techniques were used to manage the process. This included having a senior officer with influence across the council as the project sponsor/executive and a programme board with the major interests represented at a senior level.

Meeting regularly and having the right people round the table for each decision that was made ensured everyone was bought into the process, shared a common goal and was up to date with progress. It was challenging at times, but holding off the point of separation between the new organisation and council as long as possible made the process of spinning out easier and meant that the decisions made were right for both groups.

Having the right resource each step of the way was really important. During the business planning stage, the project board recognised the need to bring in independent advice around how to set up a new independent entity. Mutualisation was a completely new thing for the council to do and it was recognised that the in-house expertise was suited to the council environment but not so much to a Public Service Mutual. Consequently it tendered for business, finance, legal and marketing support.

Working with its advisors, Libraries Unlimited learnt new skills along the way which it hadn’t needed as part of the council - for example how to write a business plan, financial planning and analysis, and recruitment of a board of trustees. It also required the input of the whole library management team and council support services, providing information, ideas and decisions on strategic direction, finance, property, IT, service delivery and more. Resource-wise, it was challenging to pull it together in a timely fashion because everyone was working on it on top of their day jobs - but it was essential.

The independent legal advisors effectively took on the role of the organisation before it was established - from recommending the most effective and efficient legal form based on the local situation, to registering at Companies House, to negotiating Heads of Terms. An independent voice here was really important. There were specific technical areas where expertise was not available inside the council, for example actuarial advice on pensions liability and VAT advice.

A designated project budget to buy-in such support was an important enabler. At the start of the project, the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals Support Programme had temporarily closed to new applicants because of the impending General Election. Fortunately, Devon County Council had a change budget for major projects that would deliver savings and this funding was used instead.

During business planning, Libraries Unlimited was also preparing for the transition stage. Essentially this meant writing a very long to-do list! Having a qualified MSP Practitioner in the team to form the many tasks into projects really helped it to see a way through and allocate resources in a controlled way. This prioritised what was essential for the transfer of the service and what could wait until after the transfer date, and also allocated responsibility for different areas of work to individuals across the libraries team. Lots of people took on areas of work that were new to them simply because a safe pair of hands was needed to deliver it. However, this had many benefits: they were motivated to deliver to a high standard because they were:

  • able to contribute meaningfully to the project
  • trusted with the responsibility
  • able to gain new knowledge and skills

In summary, resourcing will no doubt be a challenge, but allocating funding to buy in the skills you know you don’t have, keeping lines of communication open across the authority to access the skills and knowledge the authority does have, and making good use of your whole team to spread the load, makes the complex task achievable.

Published 28 March 2017