Council Black Arts

Councils can at times be an absolute bastion of little (and not so little) cottage industries; the home to departments that are created just to support, run and fund each other. But in recent years due to the desire of councils to outsource services many of these self sustaining industries have found a fertile breeding ground outside the town hall. Basically because councils have created such complicated processes and procedures in many of their areas of work then they have turned basic tasks into something of a “black art”.

Take for example the area of procurement (or purchasing or commissioning or whatever buzzword for “buying stuff” that you want to use). If a real person wants, for example, a wall built they ring a few builders and ask for quotes. In the world of public service however that approach would never do.

Council black arts are such a dark and impenetrable area now that the cottage industry problem resurfaces. There are teams of people within councils who have to spend time training potential providers how to apply for contracts (to build the metaphorical wall). Events take place on a regular basis that bring together council officers all representatives of private and third sector organisations. where the officers are able to explain in detail how their processes work so that others can apply to carry out work.

Such is the scale of the black arts now, new businesses have also been set up designed to “help with public sector tenders”. These businesses promise companies to help them win more tenders by understanding better the language, jargon and processes used. Now I might be wrong but if there is enough money in the system for businesses like this to succeed then perhaps councils have built too much waste into the system and there is also too much money sloshing around not being spent on services.

Essentially service design looks something like this. Council officers are paid to create a maze of procurement processes, these officers then have to train others internally how this maze works, events are then held for external providers about how to navigate the maze, consultants are able to also offer training and make money on this navigation process. The external providers then spend time and money completing forms and trying to navigate their own route through the maze. Council officers and members then spend even more time unpicking the maze to see who has found their way through it best. Then finally the contract can be awarded. Meanwhile all those who have navigated the maze “incorrectly” have to try harder next time as well as feeling that they have wasted their time and money

Is it just me or is there just the tiniest bit of waste in this system? And all this before a single penny has been awarded to deliver a service.

Such is this culture of black arts, many smaller providers are ruled out of the running almost straight away. Such is the complexity of the system, contracts must be more expensive than they need to be, and contractors waste huge amounts of their time left, right and centre. People are employed to carry out the work to create these black arts when they simply aren’t necessary; in short it becomes a job creation scheme that means the service loses out on funding.

These processes aren’t of course limited to procurement. It happens in many areas. The formula remains the same though. Create enough of a black art that those outside the particular service do not fully comprehend how things work, that way processes, services and training can be developed to create a wonderful self sustaining cottage industry. It’s a business model to end all business models. Fair play, I’m sure the Dragon’s would invest given an opportunity.


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