Three separate conversations in a week.
All with senior Local Government staff.
All decrying the ridiculous position they find themselves in – again.
The cause?
The great Local Government pyramid scheme.

The following takes a look at how it works and how we’re now starting to see the top of the pyramid crumble.

Driven by the need to save £££, Local Government directorates are asked to identify savings for the budget. Directorates struggle to find savings, by the way, as most of the ‘easy wins’ are long gone. The identified savings are then included in a long list of proposals (you can find them on every Local Government website around February time when their budgets are approved).

The identified savings aren’t enough though, and pressure is exerted to raise the savings target.

The next problem is that savings proposals are quickly developed, aren’t stress tested and the reality is that due consideration just isn’t given to how the savings are actually going to be delivered. It’s a fact that there is enormous, unfounded faith in the belief that if a savings proposal is included on a spreadsheet, it will be delivered. Spoiler… it probably won’t be.

So… the savings are approved during the budget process and they become baked into next year’s directorate budget. The savings targets are turned into dashboards and monitoring reports and, by about June, those dashboard starts to turn red. It becomes clear that the list of savings, developed to get through the budget process, aren’t being delivered (‘but they were on a spreadsheet, how can this be true?!?’).

What next? Recovery plans are developed. It’s now necessary to recover and deliver the savings that haven’t actually been delivered – ‘in year pressures’. And then, yes you’ve guessed it, the budget process starts all over again and directorates need to find even more savings.

But here’s the rub. The process does not change. The same merry dances starts again. The undelivered savings shift into the next year (because changing the year always makes them deliverable, right?) and new savings lists are developed on top. Throw in the challenge of rising demand in key areas of Local Government expenditure (children’s social care, adult social care) and it’s hardly a surprise that we’re starting to see the pyramid crumble.

Authorities have burnt through £billions of reserves to prop up undelivered savings. And we’re now seeing the consequences. Yes, Northamptonshire has been terribly run (see our previous commentary here on their false belief in silver bullets), but review the independent audit and you can see this writ large. Multiply this across almost all Local Authorities and you can begin to see the scale of the challenge.

The most infuriating part of this zero sum game is the money wasted on grand plans (often propagated by the Big Four) of structural change (lest we look at the fun being had on accountable care organisations…), ‘commissioning councils’, and the outsourcing of the problem (gifting the savings to outsourcers…).

But. Amidst this traversety we are starting to see some Authorities make some bold decisions… recognising that they have a problem that requires a different approach. They want an honest appraisal of how they can save and are prepared to invest in the medium-term to make those changes happen. This takes honesty. Pragmatic leadership. Creative procurement of partners. The ability to shake councillors into seeing the problem is now, not in the never never. Fighting over crossing patrols is not where their attention should be. There has to be a realistic sense that spending £20k on a report is not the way to address a £20m, £30m or £40m budget challenge.

For some Authorities, we are convinced that the pyramid scheme is collapsing. Direct control will increase. And those Authorities, rather than blaming austerity, should hang their heads in shame.

Get off the pyramid scheme, take control, and ask yourselves the difficult questions.

There is much to commend the Civil Society Strategy. For one it has a natty ‘down with the service design kids’ #civilsocietystrategy infographic diagram (see left).

The use of grants as a viable alternative to complex contracting arrangements; strengthening the role of the Social Value Act across government in the commissioning process; and the targeted use of dormant bank accounts funding to support financial inclusion and employment… all sensible in theory.

‘However’ (we came really close to using block capitals and underlining here!)

The strategy is full of compacts and covenants and leadership groups. More wishful words and chin stroking, nodding of heads than tangible deliverables. There’s also a liberal sprinkling of existing funding commitments and initiatives that have already been announced, not a new trick by any means, but it’s still irritating. A number of the initiatives also stray dangerously close to interfering with the role of local government – funding Community Organisers?! Our greatest ire, however, is directed at yet another government strategy setting out how they will establish ‘two new organisations’… to deliver financial inclusion and youth employment focused interventions. It shouldn’t need to be said, but establishing new organisations or structures rarely proves to be the answer to deep-seated social policy challenges.

We can plot with reasonable accuracy the organisational trajectory:

  1. Establish a new organisation to fanfair that is independent from government
  2. ‘NewOrg’ hires expensive people from a relatively closed group of industry insiders
  3. NewOrg is an immature commissioner creating poor value for money
  4. Independent audit demands more public scrutiny and accountability
  5. Change of governance is imposed to move the NewOrg into public control
  6. NewOrg is desolved and subsumed within a Whitehall department.

One only needs to reflect on where NCS is on this journey. The answer? Work with the market of existing providers (Money Advice Service anyone?); work with local government; use specialist fund managers like Rocket Science to administer funds at low cost and high impact; use existing Whitehall frameworks to speed up the commissioning process.

A new organisation should always be the last resort.

So, it’s yet another frustrating white paper. The greatest impact will be if the principles behind the civil society are slowly trickled down into the decision making of commissioners.


We’ve been supporting Local Authorities to integrate public services since 2013. Our aim is to bring together the previously disparate worlds of welfare to work; Local Authority targeted services; FE/skills; and health services to better meet the needs of residents facing multiple and complex barriers to work.

The principles are simple and well-rehearsed.

By bringing different parties together to jointly problem solve at a place level, we should be better able to sequence the right support, in the right order (it’s almost impossible to get someone into work if they’re in severe debt, at risk of losing their house, and have anxiety issues). We’re also looking to design a service that it is more cost effective, and doesn’t just leave the problem solving to one provider in isolation.

Local Authorities should be the best placed body to bring other organisations together and coordinate them locally – helping to bridge the divide (mistrust?) between different providers and stakeholders. But, as we work with both City Regions and Local Authorities, the rhetoric is easy to say, but rather more difficult to implement at scale.

Our reflections on the critical success factors needed to deliver successful integration:

  1. Strong local leadership – with the drive and personal characteristics to bring partners together
  2. Start small and operational and secure some quick wins – don’t go down the grand goverance route… instead create the conditions for local operational leads to make a difference
  3. Don’t underestimate how long it takes for each sector/provider to understand the issues and challenges faced by residents with complex needs
  4. Get the balance right between operational and strategic – so that recurrent issues/challenges are escalated and addressed (access to mental health services is the current priority across a number of local authorities)

We’re very happy to share further thoughts with any organisations looking to develop an integrated service for their residents.

We’re currently doing an evidence review for a Combined Authority, and one stat (of many) stood out and made us reflect on the changing structure of the business development workforce. Of about 77,100 new jobs in the Combined Authority area created in 2012-16, c47% were accounted for by ‘atypical’ work (i.e. self-employed, freelance, contractor, temporary etc).

At first glance this seemed a significant and surprising share of jobs growth. But reflecting on business development, since 2010, we have seen many public service providers slim down their internal business development resource and shift to a blended model of in-house and external support.

What are the drivers for this change in strategy?

  • Good business development people are expensive, so it’s better to reduce your fixed overheads and shift to more flexible resource.
  • The big ticket pipeline is precarious – multiple delays across multiple departments and an unstable government means a long term investment in business development is difficult to justify (case in point is the recent business development redundancies at two of the largest outsourcers).
  • There is an increased need to bring more specialist skills (bid writing, bid management, commercial model development, solution design) to the table, as procurement processes have matured (or become more complex!).

But what about the business development folks that are now self-employed, freelancers, associates? A good proportion of the brilliant business development people we’ve worked with over the years now fall into this atypical camp. They enjoy the binary nature of the work (less politics, good job done = more work); the flexibility to choose who they work with; the good day rates; and the ability to do varied, interested work with clients that suits their interests.

It is probably also true that they enjoy jumping off the ‘bid carousel’,  so often a trait of large central bid/proposal teams. So it’s a win-win right? It can certainly feel like it, but perhaps we’re looking at the gig economy through the lens of the well paid gigs. What about new people entering the business development profession? Ten to fifteen years ago, organisations were recruiting and training up graduates (that are now industry leaders) and that is frankly very difficult to achieve within the atypical model. It will be interesting to see how the next generation of business development professionals achieve their career progression.

A number of us (admittidly over a few glases of rose in the sunshine) have been trying to articulate in simple terms what makes clients choose and buy consultants. Our acute, razor-sharp insight suggests the following:

a) Be nice. People buy from people they want to work with.

b) Be effective. Deliver the outputs requested by the deadlines agreed.

c) Be bright. Bring brains and creativity to complex problems.

d) Don’t be a dork. This is really a subset of a), but is characterisised by humility, humour and honesty.

And that’s it.

There’s a Venn diagram in there somewhere I’m sure. If you’re nice, effective, bright (and not a dork) then we’d love to hear from you, as we seem to be expanding despite our best efforts to go cycling, climbing and generally enjoy this sunshine.

It is entirely predictable, yet entertainingly pointless, that the recent appointment of the new Director of Children’s Services (DCS) in Rotherham has come under criticism for the role’s pay packet.

There is no harder job in local government. Councillors don’t like to spend money on children’s services because they’re not vote winners compared to bin collections, yet if something goes wrong, the DCS is in the firing line… from all sides. The budget challenge facing children’s services (in Rotherham and nationally) is unsustainable; demand is going up, yet budgets are being squeezed. And the scale of the challenge in Rotherham is acute (for obvious reasons) – and the media criticism that draws unfavourable comparisons based on the population size of the neighbouring authority is fatuous in the extreme.

Furthermore, in Rotherham the new DCS faces a number of difficult challenges. First, to sustain the changes introduced by Ian Thomas (@Ian_C_Thomas) and his team at a time when the budget challenge to 2020 is significant. Second, to manage both the large population of looked after children and reduce demand coming into the system. Third, to integrate children’s services with the wider range of local authority and health services in the Borough.

So, it’s a difficult job in challenging times, in a place where children are at the heart of the Borough’s vision over the next five years. If that doesn’t warrant a good pay packet, I don’t know what does.

It was a slightly surreal experience switching from riding some of the toughest cols in the Alps over the last weekend, to exhibiting, networking and listening at the AELP conference. Some reflections as we wait for the train North.

The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) appears institutionally immune to the feedback and insight of both its customers and service providers. Millwall’s ‘everyone hates us and we don’t care’ springs to mind. I’m struggling to think of another public service market in which the notional commissioner treats the key market actors with an attitude bordering on contempt. One wonder’s if Boris Johnson’s F*** Business was not a slip of the tongue, but unwritten government policy.

To be honest, it’s only a surprise that Chris Grayling hasn’t got something to do with the botched reforms, given the blunderbust nature of the changes; the lack of informed reasoning; the poor engagement with the market; and the frustration of every major stakeholder in the room. It is something when Ofsted is being hailed as a voice of reason in the chaos – although credit where it’s due as Paul Joyce of Ofsted did deliver probably the most well-thought-through presentation of the two days.

Some positives are the progress in devolved areas – with AEB being tendered in the Autumn (probably October); that creative new providers are emerging with different delivery models (LearnBox are a great example); that the new inspection framework will be evolution not revolution. There is also impressive advocacy and leadership being shown by AELP itself, with Mark Dawe providing a strong voice for the sector, and also through innovative membership services like the recently launched online assessor course.

As with Brexit, one can’t help thinking that sense must prevail – but sense and today’s skills commissioning overlords appear to be strangers in need of an introduction. Let us hope that next year’s AELP conference reflects on a year of progress rather than frustration.

The ‪@SheffCityRegion ‪#SCRMayor elections take place today. Here are our final 10 ‘quick thoughts’ on the Top 10 do’s and don’ts for the incoming Metro Mayor in the Sheffield City Region.

  1. Please don’t talk about buses. Whilst it’s one of the few devolved powers, it’s a bit of a joke compared to the major investment needed in rail and road infrastructure.
  2. Take the fight to Chris Grayling. His Ministerial career has been a litany of failed reforms (Work Programme? Probation Service?) – don’t let this happen to transport.
  3. Build on the ‪@theoutdoorcity brand – a main differentiator between ‪@SheffCityRegion & neighbouring city regions. A city in a national park! Rotherham is 70% rural! Attract international adventure events (build on ‪@ShefAdvFilmFest) – promote economic impact of outdoor sports.
  4. Build consensus with LA partners in Yorks behind closed doors. We need to inject maturity & considered thought into ‪@SheffCityRegion & One Yorkshire proposals – presenting a strong and united front with government. This is how Greater Manchester delivered devolution.
  5. Push ‪@educationgovuk and ‪@DWP to secure the funding and powers ALREADY agreed as part of the 2015 Devo Deal, working with other Metro Mayors.
  6. Don’t build a competing bureaucracy. Work with the existing ‪@SheffCityRegion team, LA teams and the wider public service infrastructure. Yes, things may take longer, but you will build consensus, trust and understand the reality of what does and doesn’t work locally.
  7. Avoid the temptation to use the big four consulting firms. Circling like vultures, they have got fat off the back of Greater Manchester’s devolution, particularly in health and social care.
  8. Deep seated poverty is a problem in ‪@SheffCityRegion. The disability employment gap is a persistent stain on otherwise strong economic ESA claimant levels are basically static, despite national programmes. Focus on local action to improve disability employment rate.
  9. Make increasing productivity the Mayor’s legacy. Use the Mayor’s office to promote investment in skills; use the Apprenticeship Levy; invest in R&D – create a forward thinking, aspirational city region able to compete with world competitors.
  10. Give ‪@SheffCityRegion a voice – that isn’t ‘me too’. We must stop being the quiet city and looking north and west for inspiration. The Mayor’s office can build confidence, establish a clear case for further devolution and create something more than the sum of our ‘competing parts’

We’re delighted to announce that we have agreed a new partnership with Parkhouse Bell that will enable their clients to access management consultancy services, directed and delivered by 50 Degrees.

Parkhouse Bell has always delivered added value to its clients, in addition to a market-leading recruitment service, providing insight into international best practice models, and delivering a range of consultancy services.

This new partnership enables Parkhouse Bell to connect its clients to services from our delivery portfolio, including:

  • Strategy and Policy Development
  • Business Development
  • Transformation
  • Service Design
  • Commercial and Performance
  • Communications and Engagement

Parkhouse Bell is an international executive search, recruitment and consultancy organisation, operating in the UK, Middle East and Australia. They specialise in the Education and Skills, Employment Services and Healthcare sectors and provide world-class solutions that enable employers to flourish and candidates to maximise their career potential.

Matt Wells, former Parkhouse Bell CEO, has moved into a new Senior Associate role at 50 Degrees and will be responsible for overseeing all consultancy projects delivered through the partnership. Matt will also remain a member of the Parkhouse Bell team, acting as an Advisor to their senior management team and Board.

50 Degrees has worked with Matt Wells, and Parkhouse Bell, on a range of projects over the last decade. They are rightly respected for their sector insight and knowledge and we are delighted to be working in partnership with them. We will certainly be recommending their services to our clients.

Commenting on our new partnership, Parkhouse Bell founder Helen McAnally said, “This partnership will enable us to offer an even broader range of services to our clients. We thought very carefully about the right organization to partner with, and are excited to be working with 50 Degrees. They are an organization that not only delivers results, but also share our single-minded focus for delivering an outstanding customer experience.”

In the second in our comment series on the Sheffield City Region (SCR) mayoral elections, we’re going to focus on one particular theme, skills and employment, and consider what the Mayor’s big skills and employment priorities should be.

Over the last few days households across SCR have received the mayoral election guide. It details the runners and riders and their big pitch to voters. Understandably light on any detail, the candidates express their high-level priorities – the what, not the how. A number of the candidates highlight the importance of delivering growth and building a 21st century workforce, but beyond the soundbite, what should the new mayor prioritise when they come into power?

Their start point should be the Devolution Agreement, which sets out in (very) high level terms the agreement made between the local authorities in the SCR and Government in 2015. To summarise, it describes a phased approach to the devolution of some elements of the skills budget, not including Apprenticeships or European Social Fund (ESF) provision, and a co-design approach to employment programmes with DWP.

Secondly, the SCR policy team has produced a detailed strategic economic plan, which sets out the challenges facing the region – particularly productivity, job creation and skills development – and the priorities needed to address them, outlining a number of programmes already in place (such as Skills Bank, and a health-led employment trial). This has been further supplemented by additional analysis into particular issues such as skills shortages. Collectively, it’s clear that there is no shortage of understanding of the issues and potential solutions.

So, the Mayor has a formal agreement with the government setting out skills and employment actions and a detailed plan, with analysis, of the issues and priorities; and a mandate to deliver. So… what then should the Mayor focus on?

1) Preparation for a long and tortuous fight with the Whitehall leviathans of DfE and DWP to deliver the existing devolution agreement, let alone additional powers.

Our view is that the Whitehall departments responsible for skills and employment do not want devolution. They do not trust local authorities or city regions, and will use every trick in the book to delay, stifle and prevent devolution.

The Work and Health Programme commissioned in 2017, written into the devolution agreement as a co-design approach, was a classic case study in DWP obfuscation, confrontation, and false promises. SCR was treated as an arms-length stakeholder. And DWP have used the SCR/One Yorkshire political context as a reason to suspend an employment pilot designed to get more SCR residents into work – again written into the devolution agreement. The Mayor must:

  • Unlock the funding from DWP to enable the city region to commission the employment pilot
  • Collaborate with other metro Mayors – regardless of political colour – to present a united front with Whitehall so devolution is seen as a positive, rather than an irritating distraction

2) Capitalise on the delayed devolution of skills funding to the city region, and work with other metro Mayors to push for more devolved powers

If DWP is bad, DfE is worse. It is with no surprise that the devolution of Adult Education Budget (the funding which covers post 19 provision, excluding Apprenticeships and ESF programmes) was delayed, not just for SCR but across other metro regions. Thrown into the ‘too difficult’ box for another year and now due to start in 2019 and, whilst badged devolution, the reality is that the majority of the budget will need to be spent on delivering pre-agreed, national skills entitlements. This gives very limited scope to shape provision to meet local needs (detailed further in IPPR North’s excellent report into devolving technical education to cities).

Attempts by other city regions to propose ring-fencing levy spend on a geographic basis, or using apprenticeship levy underspend to fund other locally defined projects (e.g. advice and guidance) have been met with short thrift by Government. Our sense is that the apprenticeship boat is one that has sailed – albeit in the wrong direction and with a big hole beneath the water line – with a belligerent focus on quantity not quality. Reform’s recent skewering of the Apprenticeship Levy is well worth a read.

Given this difficult context, what should the Mayor’s skills priorities be?

  • Use the Mayor’s office’s influence to drive up apprenticeships in the public sector – a large employer in SCR and so far demonstrating woeful take up of new apprenticeships.
  • Promote a stronger collaborative approach between employers, the city region and providers, so that despite the national restrictions, provision is better tailored to local skills demands. We advocate the New York Career Pathways model, which seeks to build a sustainable and robust pipeline of local talent to meet local job needs through industry specific collaborations between schools, providers, commissioners and employers. It is a replicable model, ideal for SCR.

3) Continue to target the most vulnerable groups living in deprivation in SCR

Whilst employment rates are strong, and economic growth is positive (Rotherham is the fastest growing area in Yorkshire and in the Top 10 nationally), too many of SCR’s residents remain economically inactive. Latest ONS figures (December 2016) highlight that there are 111,500 workless households in SCR (18.7% compared to GB average of 15.1%), with 55,000 children growing up in workless households. The number of people in SCR on the main sickness related benefits (Employment Support Allowance / Incapacity Benefit) is also significantly higher than the GB average, 86,280 (7.4% compared to 6.1%). The Mayor should:

  • Use the influence of the Mayor’s Office to ensure that nationally commissioned programmes such as the Work and Health Programme are working for the region, ensuring that resources are deployed in SCR to support local residents into sustainable and meaningful work that pays
  • Develop proposals for the successor programme for ESF provision – the Shared Prosperity Fund – devolved to meet the specific challenges facing the most vulnerable in SCR

4) Work with the Schools Commissioner and local authorities to apply consistent pressure on schools to increase education attainment

The rate of improvement in attainment at both 16 and 19 in SCR has not kept pace with either national averages or international competitors. 44% of SCR’s young people still leave school without the requisite five good GCSE’s, including English and Maths. A fifth of these young people have still not achieved this level by age 19. Only just over half of 19 year olds achieve level 3 and this is seven points below the national average. The recent Northern Powerhouse Partnership report into the North-South divide in education is well worth reviewing. It must be a ‘non-negotiable’ that education attainment in the region improves and that the Mayor is a figurehead for raising aspiration in schools – particularly in the most deprived areas of SCR.

We could go on, but we’ll leave the comment there for now. Over the next few days we will share further thoughts on the wider themes emerging from the candidates, and consider some of the longer-term priorities and considerations for the Mayor.