We discussed how they were using their resources to generate income, which service areas they were best at collaborating in and their experience/role in collaborative ventures.

Together we had a wide-ranging conversation that we have now captured in a findings report, '[media type="link" id=25]'. What is striking is the range of experiences that councils’ Legal Services have in their different parts of the country. Many of the challenges are shared, but the ways of dealing with them vary widely. At the one extreme, just doing the “day job” is a big hurdle, but for others there is a surprising degree of confidence and control over their resources. There were councils that showed that they knew exactly what they were doing and how to respond to these challenging times.

It is this intentionality that holds the key to continued quality service delivery of the legal function in local government. Strong leadership and effective management are essential qualities in senior legal officers and there is encouraging evidence that these continue to be available in councils.

It’s always interesting to look at co-working with others from different ends of a telescope, and there are some things that we have found really valuable when collaborating with our in-house colleagues, with reference to one project in particular.

For the last two years Staffordshire County Council have undertaken a process of creating a joint venture vehicle with the private sector to deliver education support services. The aim was also to deliver economic growth by creating an enterprise building on the council’s expertise and track record. Anthony Collins Solicitors was asked to join the wider project team (including KPMG) to help shape the procurement process and achieve a consensus on how to maintain maximum flexibility within the confines of a clear and consistent framework. In April 2012 the Council launched its OJEU Notice asking for investor partners. At the end of December 2012 the Council signed its joint venture with its chosen partner, Capita, with a view to commencing the partnering arrangement on 1st April 2013.

Working closely with our in-house colleagues effectively as a “unit” coordinated by Jean Evans, the Council’s Head of Legal Services, our role was to prepare and negotiate the legal documentation, guide the council through the procurement process especially in relation to the evaluation of bids and to help future gaze – anticipating and addressing legal concerns likely to develop down the line. We were able to make our contribution fully because the Council did several things really well:

  • the Council (with KPMG) held extensive pre-procurement discussions to establish what the Council really wanted and what might be feasible, enabling “market readiness” by the time the OJEU Notice was launched;
  • the senior management team led by the council’s chief executive drove the process;
  • the roles of project sponsor and project manager were superbly executed;
  • calm and authoritative  procurement skills were deployed within the authority;
  • the Head of Legal Services ensured the delivery of many of the key tasks required to make the contracts work, especially specification writing and property issues;
  • the broader team of officers engaged in taking the project forward in a spirit of open challenge and debate – thereby demonstrating the council’s intelligence in the way it took the project forwards;
  • bidders were engaged with in a manner that stretched their offers;
  • KPMG’s detailed underpinning of the procurement exercise gave the confidence with which to proceed.

Encouragingly, in these times when people can be full of gloom about the impossible, local government is still at the heart of shaping and delivering the possible. Of course there are plenty of hurdles still to be overcome, but positive engagement definitely can yield opportunity.

Collaboration will be the way forwards increasingly for public services to be sustained. It is a space for all of us to occupy and develop.

Mark Cook is a partner with Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP.

This piece also appeared in LocalGov.co.uk on 28 January 2013 - click here to view.