This week, the Cabinet Office is hosting a series of events as part of ‘Public Bodies Week’ to launch their annual directory and strategy for public bodies. It’s an opportunity for leaders of public bodies and government officials to discuss key challenges and opportunities facing the public sector. Of the wide-ranging topics in discussion, there are two key messages that stand out so far and that’s the importance of effective transformation and collaboration.
The UK has over 300 public bodies that deliver essential public services, with a gross spend of over £200bn, and public body reform is a crucial part of the government’s programme. The discussions this week are packed with important, cross-cutting challenges, such as Brexit, regional growth, diversity, digitalisation and commercial capability. Many of which chime with issues on the minds of members of the Public Chairs’ Forum (PCF) and Association of Chief Executives (ACE), leaders of public services, who are contributing to panel sessions this week.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto pledged to drive regional growth by relocating some public sector workers to new centres across the UK. Putting this into practice, one day of Public Bodies Week was hosted in Birmingham on Tuesday, where Sarah Harrison, vice-chair of ACE and chief executive of the Gambling Commission, and Mick King, PCF member and Local Government Ombudsman, shared their positive experiences of leading public bodies based in Birmingham, Coventry and York.
Transforming the way organisations work is about shaking up working practices – so the link between transformation and relocation is clear. For the Gambling Commission and Local Government Ombudsman relocation has been an opportunity to improve their service delivery by connecting more closely to the services they regulate and bringing new people, skills and innovation to the organisations. Challenges were recognised such as the need to maintain effective collaboration with the corporate functions of the centre. However, both Sarah and Mick reinforced the overall benefits of being based outside London, and the value of PCF and ACE as effective ways to connect with the centre and other public leaders.
Relocation should only be attempted in cases where there is clear benefit for the services being delivered – as one attendee said: “it’s less about where we work but how we work”. This is where digital, diversity and commercial transformation programmes play a fundamental role. Public bodies are key players in fulfilling the government’s aim to create a world-leading digital economy and meet the commercial operating standards across the civil service. But in reality not all organisations possess digital and commercial experts, and public bodies are therefore eager to engage with the expanding support from the centre to drive these programmes forward. The benefits of these programmes are obvious so the emphasis isn’t on why but how. PCF and ACE are already engaged with Adrian Kamellard from the Government Commercial Profession and Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, on supporting their respective commercial and diversity agendas and working to improve service users’ experience whilst delivering policy objectives more effectively.
Clearly, it’s exciting to be part of government in these unprecedented times. Predictably Brexit stands out as an area of concern and is a key discussion topic this week. A recent survey carried out by PCF, ACE and the Institute for Government found that many public bodies, particularly regulators, expect changes to levels of funding, staffing, increased workload or legislative and regulatory reform. Certain powers will have to be absorbed back from the EU, with new systems needed to administer services and enforce regulations. At Tuesday’s event, Professor Roger Cashmore, the chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and PCF member, gave a striking overview of how these challenges are affecting his organisation and the nuclear industry more widely.
It’s more evident than ever that the 2010-2015 focus on contracting the public body landscape is over. This year the Minister for Cabinet Office stated that up to 20 new bodies could be formed as a result of Brexit. While, in addition to the nearly £700m of additional funding that has been provided to support preparations to the leave the EU, the chancellor’s budget last week set aside a further £3bn. What is not yet clear is how these funds will be allocated across departments and their delivery bodies and, with the outcome of Brexit negotiations still uncertain, whether this will be sufficient. Nevertheless, departments will need to work closely with their public bodies to understand the implications of Brexit and allocate funds accordingly to emerging risks and opportunities.
As Sir Amyas Morse, auditor general of the National Audit Office, said on Tuesday, a “lack of coordination often produces suboptimal results”. So, this week allows leaders of public bodies and government departments to put their heads together. With the vote to leave the European Union heightening the need to be responsive, adaptable and transform how public bodies work, it’s no great surprise to see many of the themes discussed this week, but partnerships between the centre and public bodies need to be fostered to implement the government’s programme. PCF and ACE recognise that public body reform is a long-term strategy, not just a week. So we will continue to act as a channel of communication between public bodies and central government, and provide our members the opportunity to revisit these cross-cutting issues, share best practice and access peer support as these programmes are rolled out.