Eleanor Cooksey writes:
I had the opportunity to attend a public sector conference last week where my colleague Alex Oliver was giving a talk about our recent research on the Big Society. The focus of the conference was to examine the strategic challenges facing those who manage our public services – people, as we kept being told, who will need to ensure they can deliver more for less – much less – in a time when budget cuts are going to be considerable.
A variety of speakers touched on different aspects to this overall challenge, but one recurrent theme which struck us was the idea that ‘small is beautiful’. Let me explain more what was meant by this – picking up on the three examples:
- Small government – This goes without saying: departmental budgets are to be slashed by 30%.
- Small and medium-sized enterprises – Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, highlighted that 25% of government contracts will be awarded to SMEs (in terms of volume).
- Small customer base – Many services will now be commissioned and delivered at the very local level. Andrea Hill, Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council, described how, instead of tendering an unprofitable rural bus route, the service was delivered by a Demand Responsive Transport scheme, which can include people using their own cars.
If some things are getting smaller, it begs the question of what’s getting bigger. There is an obvious answer: ‘Society’.
However, there are some other ‘bigs’ implicit in the ‘smalls’ outlined above, which challenge the notion of ultra-responsive, locally-driven operations. John Collington, Head of Government Procurement at the Cabinet Office, talked about the need to consolidate the existing 16 government procurement frameworks into a smaller number. With possibly less choice at the very top and a plethora at the bottom, one of the challenges will be to ensure all decision-makers, at whatever level, feel confident they understand what their customers want and need, and are able to navigate this range of choices to deliver it effectively – for less.