Merging back office functions is often talked about vaguely as part of the search for savings. It’s similar to efficiency savings – sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster councils will be putting this in to practice in an early high-profile case of sharing services: they will be merging education departments. Leader of Westminster Council Colin Barrow has indicated that while the move is a high-risk one, it will mean the same service standards will be delivered for less money. Stephen Greenhalgh, Leader of H&F also reckons it's a blueprint of more for less.
The move has drawn some criticism, though. According to the NUT, it risks making under-performing schools worse. There are also accountability concerns. Paul Dimoldenberg, a councillor in Westminster, said:
"Parents who want to complain about their child's education will not know who to complain to."
At a guess, they can probably complain to the new department. This is the first genuine attempt to share significant back office functions - and again, politicians from all parties have mentioned these kind of savings, at least as a concept, as a way to avoid hitting the frontline. As Cllr Barrow said, it's a bold move but if they can produce big savings whilst maintaining standards then it could establish a guide for other councils around the country looking for more efficient ways to deliver services. The councils can obviously expect a backlash from unions, but it's good that they aren't frightened of changing from the status quo.
Blackburn council are also making bold moves to merge their management structure with the local PCT, while there are also examples of smaller authorities like South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse, or Richmondshire and Hambleton sharing Chief Executives. It's this kind of thinking that will help local government adapt and make savings.