There are some interesting results in a YouGov survey of senior bureaucrats from a hundred local councils, carried out for Interserve. In many ways it challenges the assumption that it is council officers, rather than councillors, who are the ones resisting radical measures to improve value for money.
There is good news about the rapid progress being made in finding savings, while maintaining or enhancing services.
An overwhelming majority of the Council executives interviewed (82%) believe that outsourcing has a role to play in the future. They estimate that 26% of council services are already delivered through outsourcing – up from 20% only a year ago. They estimate it will rise to 32% in two years time.
38% went so far as to say that no service was unsuitable for outsourcing. 81% said outsourcing to a commercial partner had been successful – against just 2% who had found it "not at all successful." The outsourced services are mostly judged to have delivered better results, not only in terms of cost, but also in quality and customer satisfaction.
About half the outsourcing has been to the private sector with the other half to charities or other local authorities.
What seems to me to be a less impressive, is that councils expect a 15% reduction, on average, in the size of their built estate. For larger councils the projected figure tends to be much higher. That suggests that the total municipal footprint will be shrinking rather more than 15%. It needs to. This is not just a matter of reducing running costs, but of selling surplus buildings to reduce debt and thus interest charges – which is so often what a huge chunk of our Council Tax goes on.
Given that so often outsourcing is found to offer the best deal, why is not adopted more widely? The survey asks "What are the serious barriers to outsourcing in your council?
The response says:
Local political concerns remain the key resistance point – picked by 11 of the 19 Labour controlled councils versus only 15 of the 53 Conservative controlled councils and 17 of the 26 councils not controlled by any of the three main parties.
It is not surprising that the Labour councillors are resistant. They have an ideological hostility to the private sector and often rely on public sector unions to pay for their election expenses. But what are we to make of council officers recommending outsourcing, but Conservative councillors thwarting it due to political timidity? Certainly they should be thrashing through the contract details, including the penalty clauses. It is also true that there will always be an element of risk. And they can expect angry demos from union and left wing activists. What they don't seem to face up to is that the alternative of slashing services and hiking Council Tax also carries political risks. Those anonymous 15 Tory councils need to find their bottle.