Article written in short story format and first published in the ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in Autumn 2006. This is the third and final item in the ‘Holy Grail of Local Government’ series.
The Holy Grail of Local Government III:
Made to Measure
‘If you do not trust the person you are working with you should not be in the partnership.’
From ‘Procurement Through Strategic Partnerships’ by Mike Britch, Managing Director, NPS Property Consultants Ltd at the ACES Presidential Conference, Nottingham, September 2005
I sensed bad news from the body language. We were huddled together on the front row seats of the cavernous Assembly Room in Kendal Town Hall on that damp, grey January morning. Barely twenty in number, we comprised the entire staff of the Council’s Property and Design Services Groups. The Chief Executive sat facing us in the gap between the front row seats and the edge of the stage. Alongside him sat the Managing Director of NPS North West Ltd, our intended new employer. They had slipped out from the Cabinet meeting still taking place in an adjacent room. The Chief Executive rose to speak. I was wearing my new suit to impress my new boss and felt like I was dressed for a wedding. It should have been a wedding – a marriage of those employees to the new company. Instead it seemed that I had stumbled into a funeral by mistake.
In the 1970’s I worked for Lancashire County Council. That was a happy and exciting time and I used to enjoy going to work. My colleagues, all excellent surveyors, were dynamic characters with a healthy sense of humour. The office rocked with laughter at the practical jokes that were played. Worryingly, some of those jokers are now in high office around the region but their secrets are safe with me (Martin, Bill, Keith, Roger and Graham). Bricks secreted in briefcases, travelling expense cheques cashed for carrier bags of coins, knowledge denied when the Police rang to check identities for Police Station rating surveys. We all fell victim to them from time to time so we learnt to be wary.
I had been invited to a wedding and made the mistake of telling my colleagues that my wife had instructed me to get a decent haircut. In those days I had a fine head of hair. The office consensus was that I should go to Mr Andrew’s Hairatorium in Preston town centre so I booked an appointment. Upon arrival the young woman receptionist greeted me with the words:
‘We’re all ready for you’.
My suspicions were aroused. Questioning revealed that I had apparently telephoned not more than ten minutes earlier to say that I’d be in a hurry and to request that they be ready to bleach my hair blonde as well as cut it.
When I explained what had really happened the young woman said,
‘It’s a pity to waste the preparation. Would you like some blonde streaks putting in it instead? With your colouring it will look extremely good.’
She was charming and I was young and foolish so I agreed. They sat me down, washed and cut my hair, stretched a giant condom over my head and plucked out clusters of hairs through holes randomly peppering its surface. Those isolated clusters were daubed in peroxide and baked under a hair drier for 15 minutes whilst all the women customers watched me and smiled. The finished effect did look quite good but cost me a surprisingly expensive £7.50. Back at work my colleagues thought it was hilarious that I had at least gone along that far with their joke, particularly as I was not known for splashing out on such frivolities.
Upon arriving home that night I called at my parent’s house to pick up my wife and met my father in the garden.
‘What do you think of that for £7.50, Dad?’ I asked as I twirled in front of him.
‘Not a bad price for a suit, lad’ was his comment, completely ignoring my expensive haircut.
‘No, not the suit, the haircut.’
He laughed, shook his head incredulously and carried on mowing the lawn. It gave him hours of amusement to recount that conversation at family gatherings over the coming years.
‘Can you believe it? £7.50 for a haircut? I thought he’d bought a suit for that price. He must be made of money.’
He had a point. Even now, thirty years later, I only pay a fiver for a haircut and that includes a £4.50 search fee.
For the past twelve months the Design Services Manager and I had sweated blood to achieve the outsourcing to NPS North West Ltd. We both believed in the proposal and had helped to convince all the staff in both Groups to vote in favour of it. Cabinet had ratified the principle last July and since then a complex financial exercise had been carried out to reach a deal on all aspects of the transfer to the new Company. A Partnership Agreement had been drafted, a Service Level Agreement prepared, terms and conditions for staff settled, pension transfers set in motion and all manners of practical arrangements put in place for transfer day. No stone had been left unturned in an effort to obtain that final Cabinet approval in that adjacent room.
‘There’s been a last minute snag. We hope it’s just a delay and not a disaster but you won’t be transferring in two weeks time as planned.’
The new suit that I was wearing had hardly been out of the wardrobe since I’d bought it. I’d been saving it to wear for the new job with the new company. It had been acquired the previous summer on my holidays in Leicester. Yes, Leicester – two nights at the Holiday Inn (but not a sign of Bing Crosby anywhere). Well holidays are another frivolity when you could be decorating. Staying in Leicester is no different to going abroad when you observe the fascinatingly diverse cultural and ethnic mix that passes below you as you lean on the balcony rail in the Shires Shopping Centre. My wife and I had gone there to visit our youngest daughter. Her ‘partner’ works at the Next HQ in Leicester and, along with other staff members, he had first opportunity to purchase the sale goods before they were shipped out to Next shops across the country. He’d taken my wife along to the warehouse and she’d bought the suit for me. It was flawless and fitted perfectly – a big improvement on my usual careworn, local government attire and just the image to project in the private sector.
‘The problem is with the pension transfer arrangements. The Cumbrian Pension Scheme is in deficit and the Council needs to determine the financial impact of transferring you as fully funded before the Cabinet can approve the transfer of the staff. It puts the deal at risk and there’ll be a delay whilst we quantify that risk.’
At the first opportunity after arriving home from Leicester I’d donned the suit and gone to see my father. He was in his 80s by then but still going strong.
‘What do you think of that for £7.00?’ I asked as I twirled in front of him.
‘What are you on about?’
‘The suit – I got it for £7.00 in the Next sale. Fifty pence cheaper than that streaky haircut.’
After thirty years I’d finally lived down that incredulous shake of his head.
I’d been in the pension scheme longer than thirty years. I’d been counting down the months to retirement since I’d turned fifty. I still liked the surveying work but had found that local government was no longer as enjoyable as I’d found it in the 1970’s. I’d become jaded, lacking in enthusiasm, increasingly cynical. Then NPS had come along. Suddenly I’d found myself looking forward to the move to the new company. Suddenly I was putting in extra effort to make it work. The gloom had lifted. I felt rejuvenated. I’d started to think that this could be my last great challenge. Thoughts of retirement had been postponed indefinitely.
I sat and listened to the Chief Executive. For a moment I was stunned. My focus deserted me. Only one thought ran through my head:
‘I’ve invested in a new suit. Will I get the wear out of it if all this falls through? What will my father think?’
Several briefings earlier the Chief Executive had said ‘Trust me’ when announcing the prospect of changes for many of us. He hadn’t promised that those changes would be popular but he had said that where possible the wishes of the staff would be taken into account. Property and Design Services (PADS) had already started on the search for the Holy Grail of Local Government. We’d found something in Wigan by way of Norfolk that seemed to be the answer – a new way of working – a way of achieving savings for the Council without reducing the quality of the service and without adversely affecting the staff, yet still remaining viable. As we trooped silently back to the office it seemed that the outsourcing to NPS had been snatched away from us at the last minute.
When I look back on that day, strange as it may seem, I’m pleased that it happened. Not because I enjoyed the experience at the time, but because it turned out to be a very valuable one in the search for the Holy Grail of Local Government. Such a search was never meant to be easy and things had been going too well up to that point. This set back only made the prize more desirable and the parties more determined. The events that followed served to convince me of it. Over the next few weeks I had the privilege of watching a true public/private partnership in action for the first time in my career and from a ringside seat.
There were no recriminations, no blame on either side. The problem was solved quickly and simply and jointly by the two men who had sat in front of us. Actuaries were contacted, fees were paid, a revised deal was agreed, new recommendations accepted and staff were kept informed of every development along the way. Within two months, on 1 April 2006, 20 staff from PADS transferred to NPS North West Ltd. They went willingly with the approval of the Members, the co-operation of the Management Team and the support of Unison. Not many years earlier such a proposal would have been met with suspicion and resistance from most of the parties involved.
At first nothing seemed different. The same people were in the same place doing the same work in the same way. Behind the scenes a new relationship was being forged, based on a partnership in which the Council will benefit from guaranteed savings on its existing costs and the Company will have a thirteen years contract for the Council’s property-related work. The staff will have the security of the basic workload and protected terms and conditions whilst benefiting from the opportunity to grow the Company by seeking out additional clients and income streams. The more it grows the more the staff will benefit and the more the Council will save.
Changes will become noticeable in time. PADS will move to new offices in Kendal. Invoices will be sent for work done. Reports will have the Company logo on them. However, the basic service will still be there to support the Council as it always has, and it may be even better than before.
So the quest was over. But what is the Holy Grail of Local Government? Is it a new way of working? Is it an escape from the constraints and bureaucracy of Local Government? Is it an opportunity to grow and develop a company whilst having the security of a guaranteed contract? Whilst these are desirable, in reality they are just some of the benefits. The Holy Grail of Local Government is something more valuable than that – something that you cannot measure or put a price on. It is something that should have been there all the time but had become lost or misplaced or buried for a while. I witnessed it being resurrected in the weeks that followed that damp, grey January morning. Mike Britch was right at Nottingham when he’d said:
‘The principle quality as far as I am concerned is trust.’
It was a pleasant experience to see trust returning through that process.
Recently I called in to see my father. Almost the first question that he asked me was:
‘How do you like the new job lad?’
I smiled. I had my answer ready for him.
‘It suits me just fine, Dad. It suits me just fine.’