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The power of tendering

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Change is good, or so they say. Certainly we in the public sector are now testing whether this is indeed a truism writes John Wynn.

Across the public sector local authorities and other public, or quasi public bodies and their contractors are looking at how to transform their organisations to meet the challenges made by reductions in central government funding.

In Birmingham we began the transformation journey early, just over five years ago. Without that early engagement with the change process we would have struggled to react appropriately to the approximate 30% cuts in funding we must manage over the previous year, this year and coming years.

All must play their part in ensuring that the City delivers the appropriate services required by its citizens, businesses and other stakeholders in an economic and efficient manner.

Legal Services, as part of this, has committed itself to assisting the City in delivering a £5 million reduction in legal expenditure and a £1 million increase in additional revenue. A good start was made in the first year with a £2 million reduction being achieved along with an increase in additional revenue.

Birmingham is not the only local authority treading this path, with several achieving recognition in the press for their efforts. The challenge we all face, certainly in terms of legal departments, is the ability to generate income whilst maintaining the service to the client (in our case the city).

The service provided by my staff to the City is excellent (as recognised by many awards and quality standards we have achieved i.e. ISO:9001 2000,LEXCEL Practice Management Standards, Investors in People and Investors in Excellence). We must therefore deliver the same standard both internally and externally in a trading environment. This challenge must be added to our commitment in terms of savings.

Equally important are the values of my staff and myself in delivering our services. We are, first and foremost, public servants, committed to delivering excellent value for money services to the public sector as expressed in our mission statement:- "To work with lawyers and other colleagues in the public and ‘not for profit’ sector within Birmingham through the ‘One Place’ Project for the mutual benefit of all involved while also providing the best quality reactive and proactive legal service to Birmingham City Council, and with other local authorities through the Income Generation Team".

It is with that in mind that we welcomed our appointment to NHS Panels for Employment, Contract and Commercial and Other law, accessible by some 70 NHS Trusts. The ethos at Birmingham has always been to work in collaboration and in partnership with the public sector.

We have a highly skilled workforce within Legal Services and where we can, we wish to add value to the arrangements already in place within the wider public sector by offering high quality, low cost legal advice and assistance. Across the City Council we are interested in developing the agenda for greater partnership working between public sector agencies. Through such working we can deliver better and more efficient services and working practices.

You will therefore generally not see us attempt to work for the private sector. However, we hope that in working with other bodies in the wider public sector we will be able, not only to generate greater savings across the public sector (we start from a lower cost basis than our private sector competitors with fixed and flexible pricing structures which reflect that), but to add to the value of shared working across the wider public sector which colleagues are already achieving.

Where does this lead us in the future? To a confident public sector certain of its values and effectiveness working together to meet aligned outcomes required by our stakeholders and, in the case of legal, with strong integral resources, effective value for money and, most crucially, integrated and engaged in the delivery of these outcomes.

ACSeS_6th_Publication_250pxIs there a place for the private sector in all of this? Certainly. The Legal Department of Birmingham City Council consists of 250 full-time equivalent staff who will shortly be moving into dedicated, state of the art, modern offices in the City Centre. The department is led by myself, John Wynn, Assistant Director of Legal and Democratic Services. Lawyers work in dedicated specialist legal teams and have a wealth of experience between them, coming from both private and public sector backgrounds, some of which have acquired national reputation in many disciplines. We now compete with the private sector in areas where we can provide the same quality service at a more cost effective rate. But this leaves areas of work which we in Birmingham, despite our size, would not seek to replicate.

As I have said previously “We all have to evolve through this period, and that includes the private firms that operate in our sector as well as ourselves.” But in such change I confidently expect the private sector firms with whom we work to adapt to carry out certain roles they already do and to evolve even better ways of working with us.

In one sense what is happening in the public sector in legal services is symptomatic of what is going on in the provision of legal services generally. Some legal services are becoming more commoditised and commoditised services are often best provided by those with quality of service, coupled with a low cost base. Public sector, in house teams will therefore play their part in the changes that are now shaping the profession for the coming years.

John Wynn is Assistant Director of Legal and Democratic Services at Birmingham City Council

This article first appeared in 'A Passion for Leadership & Going Beyond Austerity, published in November 2011 by the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS).

To order or download a copy from the ACSeS website, please click here.