Expert commissioning from the perspective of Suffolk County Council
Intention and decision to externalise
After an extensive public consultation in 2011, Suffolk County Council (SCC) decided to externalise or ‘spin out’ the library service to give the community a voice in its governance, whilst ensuring that SCC discharged its obligations as the statutory library authority. SCC took this decision after a service review and an options appraisal on possible different delivery models.
By December 2011, the council had decided on an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) as the most appropriate form for the new organisation which was available at the time. A needs assessment also identified the council’s responsibility as the statutory library authority as:
[being] legally accountable for a “comprehensive and efficient” service, and for the strategic direction of the service.
It recommended that SCC:
Employ in-house sufficient library expertise within its strategic commissioning functions to ensure that its providers comply with the statutory duties that they are providing on the council’s behalf. It will commission the library service, through a grant agreement with the library service body, delegate the budget, via schedule of payments, and a set of agreed targets and measures to be achieved. It [will have] regular monitoring sessions with the library service.
The IPS became Suffolk Libraries IPS and the service was divested on 1 August 2012.
What was externalised, and what retained?
SCC took the decision early on that any externalisation of the service must be reversible, and that it should retain ownership of the infrastructure. This comprised:
- IT infrastructure and devices
- mobile library vehicles
SCC’s continued ownership of the infrastructure has not stopped Suffolk Libraries from making savings in this area. Savings can still be found by Suffolk Libraries IPS employing local contractors to maintain the internal decoration and repair of the buildings, including the use of suitably skilled volunteers. Similarly SCC’s ownership of both the staff and public computers does not stop Suffolk Libraries IPS from procuring more innovatively. The commissioner’s job in both cases has been to both act as a point of contact for other council colleagues in property, IT and procurement services to address questions, and also to act as an advocate for Suffolk Libraries to be trusted to deliver on these projects.
Part of the role of the commissioner has been to ensure that, where changes to the specification and contract price have been proposed, there is sufficient understanding of the effect on the service; and whether there is a need for consultation if there are material changes to the service delivered.
What the expert commissioner is responsible for
While the IPS ran in shadow to the council, the commissioner led the TUPE process as the outgoing employer, presenting the plan at a series of meetings to which all staff employed by the service were invited. In parallel, the commissioner followed up on queries received via the face to face meetings, email, phone calls and an online Frequently Asked Questions wiki.
The commissioner also took a leading role in the contract negotiations, especially in development of the specification for library services, and associated key performance indicators (KPIs). Much of this work was done 1:1 and collaboratively with the CEO of Suffolk Libraries IPS. While CIPFA library measures were included in the KPIs, the opportunity was taken to build in a level of stretch. The intention was to make KPIs less transactional and more case study based and to focus on outcomes that demonstrate the service’s contribution to adult social care and broader SCC priorities.
Although the contract was for an initial 5 year term, and Suffolk Libraries IPS has recently chosen to exercise its right to extend this for a second 5 years, the contract must be actively and expertly managed. The commissioner leads on the annual contract price and specification negotiations, and briefs the specialist cabinet and shadow cabinet members throughout the year on how SCC is discharging its statutory duty, and how libraries fit into the council’s strategic plans.
KPIs are reported quarterly and annually to the council. The commissioner is responsible for analysing these, offering feedback to Suffolk Libraries, and suggesting areas for improvement, as well as presenting a highlight report to Adult and Community Services (ACS) management team. The commissioner also undertakes library visits to make a first-hand judgement of how individual libraries are performing and to sense-check the data Suffolk Libraries provides.
Both the SCC cabinet member and the commissioner have an observer place on the Suffolk Libraries IPS board. While the cabinet member may have other pressures that prevent attendance at every board, the commissioner can ensure SCC has a consistent presence.
Because reversibility was built in, and the council owns much of the infrastructure the commissioner acts as advocate and negotiator with Property and IT.
The commissioner must also continually assess, manage, and accept the financial and reputational risks inherent in delivering the service through an external organisation.
After horizon scanning, locally, regionally, and nationally, the commissioner engages in, and sometimes initiates, discussion with Suffolk Libraries on strategic issues and opportunities arising from library and non-library related initiatives.
They work with colleagues in SCC’s planning team to ensure that there is a level of request under Section 106 and Community Infrastructure regulations for improving and developing library services in the area of housing developments in the county, proportional to the size of development and the existing facilities at the local library. Money is held by the council and released to Suffolk Libraries for use, once the business case has been mutually agreed.
In Suffolk the commissioner’s role is combined with responsibility for the Information Advice and Guidance function for Adult and Community Services and Children and Young People’s services under the terms of the Care Act and Children’s Act. There are obvious synergies between the 2 roles, particularly where information must be provided in hard copy or face to face as well as online. Libraries provide both a physical network of access points, and staff skilled in providing information and guidance.
Outcomes to date
Outcomes to date include:
- an anticipation and avoidance of legal challenge, allowing SCC and Suffolk Libraries IPS to concentrate resources on strategic planning and delivery
- championing a more cost-efficient, lighter touch approach to provisioning goods and services, where Suffolk Libraries sometimes acts as SCC’s agent, acting within procurement legislation
- an open and transparent approach to finance, where the commissioner has access to the same level of financial data as the Suffolk Libraries IPS board
- skilled relationship management which has achieved a level of co-operation and trust between SCC and Suffolk Libraries not available in a limited contract management relationship
For the future
It is expected that:
- in light of expected continuing budgetary pressure on councils, there will be further negotiation on the balance between SCC’s ambitions and requirements, and the ability of Suffolk Libraries to deliver them within the library contract price
- there will be further and ongoing challenges and a rethinking of the ways that a 21st century library service can be delivered