What have we been up to?

It’s been a while since we’ve posted a comment piece or provided an update on what we’ve been busy with.


Well, we’ve been deep in the world of solution design and business development, particularly bid writing. And let’s be honest… we defy anyone to write an even halfway interesting piece on the mechanics of putting a bid together. That said, we’ve seen that a few people have tried (and failed).

In short, we decided to spare you the detail… and there’s been plenty (more post-it notes than a branch of Staples).

By way of a quick overview though, in case you curiosity has gotten the better of you, we’ve been working with a range of clients to develop strategy and submit tenders, covering a range of key public services, including:

  • Probation Service
  • European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF)
  • National Citizen Service
  • Devolved Adult Education Budget
  • Prison Education
  • Secure Schools

And, for good measure… we’ve been doing a bit of market-entry strategy work; sales and communications development; reviews into key policy development areas; and some policy work covering low pay and low productivity.

So, don’t worry. We’re still busy.

If you’ve been missing our insightful comment pieces, we apologise… and we’ll be back on the case in the New Year. In the meantime, you can get your fix via our Twitter feed @50__Degrees where, for reasons that we can’t really remember anymore, we set ourselves the challenge of creating 50 amusing/informative charts in 50 weeks. Check our #50Degrees50Charts. Honestly, some of them are pretty funny… they’ve been re-tweeted and everything.

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 EMPTY 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.”