A recent blog post on the Kahootz site upon the topic of “Developing shared services in the public sector” that I viewed as the result of a Twitter follow set me thinking about sharing in the context of the history of local government in the UK and why it can be problematic. Many of the precursors of local government services such as workhouses, waterworks and transport bodies were quite feudal in their manner of operation – the Poor Law Acts of 1597 and 1601, along with the Act of Settlement of 1662 placed responsibility for the collecting of poor relief and the management of the poor with the parish – the lowest common division. As society developed and towns grew bigger this became an issue of scale and in 1696 Bristol was allowed to have a joint workhouse for itself and the nineteen neighbouring parishes, following an Act of Parliament. By the Acts of Settlement the poor were still consigned to their parish of origin, rather than being supported in the one they might have lived in.
It is this historic parochialism compounded by structuration, to use Giddens’ term. and an equally archaic accounting system that left us as ‘functionalism’ was conceived from the mid-1800’s onwards that different agencies claimed responsibility for different services with an increasingly complex bureaucracy managed by people whose place in the hierarchy was determined by the role in this bureaucracy.
Looking at the list of shared services provided by Kahootz/the LGA one can only ask why weren’t these always delivered or shared in this way? Obviously, the answer is because the service was somebody’s pride and joy and they weren’t going to let go. Some services, or practices, remaining within local control can have benefits, such as one’s associated tightly with other practices – development control, whilst it has some democratic responsibility is one such but refuse collection and recycling can obviously be carried out more efficiently on a bigger scale.
Disentangling functions are regrouping them back into logical service practices is a fine art, which continues to be overridden by the political dogmatism and determination to see savings and has similarly been demonstrated by the failure of some outsourcing exercises. Shared services will be successful where the structuration is pragmatically unwoven, but will fail where, despite any political force, the interweaving is historically and socially embedded.
As to Kahootz, there is a need for good communications from the start with all involved but it doesn’t matter what tool you use if you don’t keep in the loop the people required to know. I have seen ICT practitioners left out in the cold before now, and brought in only to explain some difficulties that can only be overcome at the expense of any saving. Have a communications tool by all means, but use it wisely.