Date: October 30th 1974
Venue: The 20th May Stadium, Kinshasa, Zaire
At stake: The heavyweight championship of the world
One of the most eagerly anticipated and talked about boxing matches of all time ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. George Foreman, strong and aggressive did his talking in the ring, Muhammad Ali, braggadocio pugilist did his talking everywhere.
Ali had a plan to beat the strength of Foreman which he executed to perfection. For seven rounds Ali took all the punishment Foreman could muster seemingly ‘on the ropes’ and beaten, yes, he had landed some well-crafted punches, but surely nobody could withstand the punishment Foreman had unleashed.
In round eight the tables were turned, Ali had soaked up all Foreman could muster and knew it was time to pounce, five punch combination, left hook, right hook, Foreman KO’d and Ali’s ‘Rope-a-dope’ strategy was complete, the punched out Foreman unable to respond having given his all for the first seven rounds.
Since 2008 whether it has been your own ‘Thunder in Thanet’ or ‘Murmur in Merthyr’ Local Authorities have experienced a relentless onslaught of austerity, forced change and difficult decision making.
Whilst there is a glimmer of a thaw in the ‘numbers’, productivity is rising and unemployment is falling, the onslaught continues apace in Local Government and with social care and health budgets continuing to be under upwards pressure and education budgets for the most part protected some authorities are having to find up to 40% real cuts in budget from those areas where it can reduce budget. Only in the last couple of months Welsh Local Authorities have received their latest revenue settlement which cuts an average of a further 5% off their revenue budgets.
In a long term climate of austerity it is completely understandable that any Local Authority should scrutinise their plans to balance the budget and make every effort to gain the most for their citizens out of every pound, but, I would argue that the time for more of the same inward looking re-cutting of the budget will not bring long term success just like Foreman and his seven rounds of haymakers. Local Authorities must craft their own ‘Rope-a-dope’ strategy and make it to their own eighth round with enough fight left to win the bout.
We all know that public bodies do manage similar services. A simple look at passenger transport tells us that our health services need plenty of non-emergency transport both taxis, minibuses and in some cases scheduled bus services, our Local Authorities contract exactly the same types of services to get children of all abilities to school and to get social services clients to day and activity centres and citizens around our boroughs. Our police and fire services in common with our Local Authorities run large fleets of vehicles (both emergency and non-emergency) and yet the instances of sharing either fleet or garage maintenance facilities is disappointingly low. There are efficiencies available here if only they can be unlocked.
If we look at the way housing benefit and council taxes are managed these are for the most part standard processes and could be managed much more centrally and with huge economies of scale, whilst retaining a smaller local presence, only the most parochial would argue against this.
So why do these things not happen? Is it local politics? Is it senior officers in our public services not wishing to do these things? Is it because it is too difficult? Is it because of issues of sovereignty, local employment or non-contiguous public service boundaries? The truth is that it is any and all of these things and more besides.
So should central government step in? We can see that the Williams review will imminently announce a new shape for Local Government in Wales, who knows what this shape will be, several things are for certain:
1. There will be less than 22 Authorities in Wales in the future;
2. The new Local Authority boundaries will be at best a compromise rather than a ruthlessly logical solution;
3. The transition to fewer Local Authorities will drive efficiencies and economies of scale but will take at least 3 years to complete.
Will boundaries be set such that the NHS, Fire, Police and Local Authorities can rub shoulders efficiently? I think unlikely.
Will the requirement for savings in the existing set up be put on hold in the interim? I think definitely not!
So can the private sector offer a solution? The trend for large scale outsource ‘partnerships’ seen over recent decades have in many cases stretched the patience of senior officers and members either because the relentless upwards pressure on costs following the initial honeymoon period was unpalatable, or, because the ability to influence the service provided either to improve quality or in more recent years to reduce the cost has been too inflexible. The very areas where Councils have needed to save money (for example Environmental or Central services) have felt too arms length and inflexible, Local Authorities can see the benefit of long term outsource contracts in terms of pound notes but they struggle with the reality of large scale outsourcing.
The private sector has a big part to play here, they must offer more flexible arrangements that meet the developing needs of the Local Authorities they wish to work with, but, they can be the catalyst to realise some of these hard to get at efficiencies that must be achieved. Who better to assist in collaborative models than the private sector? Provide the incentive to deliver collaboration and it can be achieved; can a private sector operation bridge the political gap between our public services collaborating? I think the answer is yes, we can take the politics and geography out of the equation and whether it is brokerage assistance between public bodies, an outsourced arrangement with clear targets on collaboration efficiency or a joint venture, surely better to let a real partner plough that furrow for you whilst at the same time tying them in to sharing the benefits that arise?
This could be a powerful additional tool in your armoury as you strive to balance your budgets in to the future. The private sector will provide the innovative models of engagement needed if public bodies outline the broad requirements.
So the question for me is clear, who do you want to be in the eighth round? George Foreman having thrashed about for seven rounds expended all your energy and resources, punched out and defeated or Muhammad Ali victorious having calmly soaked up the pressure and executed your own carefully planned ‘Rope-a-dope’ strategy?
Author: Brian Cotter, Director, EDGE public solutions