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Strategic Partnership in Crisis. Dexter Whitfield Centre for Public Services May 2005. Methodology. Analysis of information on the SSP held by the Bedfordshire County Council UNISON branch.

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Strategic partnership in crisis

Strategic Partnership in Crisis

Dexter Whitfield

Centre for Public Services

May 2005


  • Analysis of information on the SSP held by the Bedfordshire County Council UNISON branch.

  • Analysis of Audit Commission Best Value and Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) and OFSTED Local Education Authority (LEA) inspections.

  • A search of Bedfordshire County Council’s web site for reports and minutes of the Council, the Executive, Strategic Partnership Management Board, Scrutiny etc.

  • Semi-structured interviews with a cross section of staff and trade union representatives.

  • A review of reports and technical notes published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s (ODPM) Strategic Partnering Taskforce.

  • Bedfordshire-relevant material from research reports and surveys on SSPs by the Centre for Public Services.

The partnership
The partnership

  • Between Bedfordshire County Council and HBS Business Services Group Ltd (Terra Firma - equity investment group).

  • £267m 12-year contract starting June 2001.

  • Local authority services - information technology, financial services, human resources, school support services, communications, management of outsourced contracts.

  • HBS has similar contracts in Lincolnshire, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes and Bath.

The promises
The promises

  • A Regional Business Centre in Bedford to win additional work and create new jobs.

  • A 45 seat Customer Contact Centre for all services.

  • Investment of £7.8m in new IT, including integrated resource management system, SAP.

  • £6.9m investment to improve accommodation.

  • High quality and competitive support services to schools.

  • A review of training facilities and a National Centre for Excellence in Education.

  • Improved services to achieve upper quartile Best Value performance.

  • An annual reduction in service costs of 2% (about £900,000).

Impact on services
Impact on Services

Service delivery problems

  • Performance down in the 4 Best Value Corporate health indicators.

  • No evidence of Regional Business Centre or new jobs.

  • Quality of school support services in decline.

  • National centre of Excellence in Education constantly delayed.

  • Council incurred considerable additional costs and unclear whether original savings target met.

  • Only part of £7m investment in County Hall spent.

  • “The strategic partnership is not delivering improvement in services” - District Auditor, January 2005.

    HBS achievements

    Customer Contact Centre and SAP implemented

Additional evidence
Additional evidence

  • “The strategic partnership is not delivering improvement in services”

    Annual Audit and Inspection Letter, District Audit, January 2005.

  • Failure to publish Council 2003/04 Accounts on time partly blamed on arrangements with HBS.

  • “The Council has not yet been able to gain capacity from its strategic partnership”

    Comprehensive Performance Assessment, 2004, Audit Commission.

Impact on jobs
Impact on Jobs

  • 550 jobs transferred to HBS in June 2001.

  • HBS employed new staff on different terms and conditions- sometimes big wage differentials.

  • Two-tier workforce and Best Value Code of Practice on Workforce Matters does not apply because contract started before March 2003.

  • HBS refuses to sign local or national recognition agreement with UNISON and other unions.

  • HBS poor record in communicating with staff.

  • Some services now being transferred back to the council from HBS.

Strategic lessons
Strategic Lessons

  • Sharpen critique of partnerships - they are essentially large contracts but with a contractor in a powerful position inside the local authority.

  • Get the message across to Elected Members and the trade union membership about the limitations of partnerships.

  • Demand that the Scrutiny Committee(s) fully monitors and assesses the implementation process and all aspects of the partnership.

  • Ensure that Strategic Partnerships and PPPs are democratically accountable and transparent.

Alternative to partnership
Alternative to Partnership

Original UNISON position:

  • Council should acquire hardware, software and expertise/training as and when required on ‘best in class’ basis.

  • A phased qualitative implementation of ICT involving staff and user organisations.

  • Staff remain council employees.

    Advantages - builds council capacity, minimises risk and reliance on one contractor, better employment conditions, greater staff involvement, phased process learning lessons as it progresses.


  • The partnership contract with HBS should be terminated.

  • Council should adopt an incremental approach to ICT based on testing and using best-in-class suppliers.

  • In the interim period HBS should :1. negotiate a recognition agreement locally/nationally with UNISON. 2. eliminate the two-tier workforce with HBS agreeing to voluntarily abide by Code of Practice on Workforce Matters. 3. agree to full participation and consultation with staff, UNISON and other trade unions.

  • Comprehensive evaluation of contract - evidence from elected members, staff, trade unions, schools and user organisations.

  • Improve the governance and transparency of the partnership.

  • Public debate about the need, role, cost and plans for a National Centre for Educational Excellence.

  • UNISON and other trade unions should be fully involved in the service review process.