What price efficiency? Local govt event looks at riding out the tough times ahead
29 March 2010 | By Luke McLeod-Roberts
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With local governments facing major cuts over the coming years, the legal departments of these entities are under increasing pressure to drive efficiencies.
But as The Lawyer heard from delegates at The Lawyer Local Government Legal Services Conference, rarely is the solution as simple as just cutting legal staff.
As Michelle Buttery, head of legal at West Mercia Police, put it: “You’re talking about organisational restructuring and change; and from that you’re going to have to deal with HR casualties and employment issues, among other things. We’re saying that you’ll have to grow legal services to deal with that structural change.”
Colleagues agreed that they need to focus on initiatives such as partnering and sharing of resources between public sector bodies, technology upgrades, outsourcing and getting smart on recruitment.
Partnering is arguably one area in which great gains can be made. The legal functions of local government bodies of the same political colour are less likely to see each other as potential competitors than those of rival political parties, or private practice for that matter.
One of the clearest examples of this is in the case of the Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (K&C). When K&C’s former legal chief Gifty Edila left to take up a post at the London Borough of Hackney in 2008, K&C approached the neighbouring authority of H&F about taking its legal head Michael Cogher for 50 per cent of his working week. Cogher assented to the arrangement because it maximises the use of scarce skilled resources, avoids extra recruitment costs and billing wars and was expected to save around £80,000 a year. It is also expected to help with succession planning, because competing commitments require Cogher to delegate more to his respective teams.
The fact that both councils are Conservative-run and are geographically proximate helped facilitate the dual role, but Cogher argued that there have still been major obstacles in terms of culture, logistics and harmonising IT.
“At Hammersmith everybody’s on first-name terms and the cabinet meetings take five minutes, but at K&C people refer to each other as Mr and Mrs and members do express their views in cabinet meetings. Those from outside London won’t appreciate the difficulty of travelling the one and a half miles between K&C and Hammersmith. London miles are different from other miles,” he joked.
Nevertheless, as reported by The Lawyer (22 March), the set-up has been considered sufficiently successful to warrant the two organisations looking at further areas of collaboration, including sharing employment and litigation.
This is something that colleagues elsewhere want to see more of. Lois Howell, head of legal at Medway NHS Trust, said that despite the health service having a “statutory obligation to collaborate”, it “probably does less of it than local government” because of less variety of expertise among the in-house teams. “When the NHS wants advice, it goes out to the local high street, which distresses me,” she told the audience.
Another reason why partnering is relatively limited in the public sector is because legal heads worry they might be doing themselves out of a job. “We all know ’collaboration’ is a spectrum, with ’takeover’ at the other end,” said Buttery at West Mercia Police. “[This] may present an obstacle to those wanting to look at collaboration in the wider sense.” She was sceptical herself on the benefits of mergers, adding: “There’s a myth that economies of scale and merging departments into one uber-department releases costs, but it isn’t always the case.”
However, Buttery believes that there are some relatively painless fields of cooperation. “Training’s an easy win in terms of cost savings,” she argued.
It is often IT that drives cooperation, claimed Martin Ryan, programme director, regional improvement and efficiency, at the Association of Northeast Councils, adding that improvements in this area, such as creating a library of shared precedents, can reap benefits.
But Howell at Medway NHS Trust thinks that in a political battleground such as the NHS it is not that simple. “If you think investment in back office functions in local authorities is difficult, try thinking about the NHS, where [the choice is between] an extra lawyer or two incubators for the intensive care unit,” she said bluntly.
Nevertheless, Northamptonshire County Council’s new head of corporate governance Penny Osborne emphasised that legal heads needed to be proactive and seize the initiative. “The pace of change is very rapid in the public sector,” she argued. “I don’t think all of us will necessarily have a home there in the future.” She believes it is necessary for local government heads to get the right in-house teams in place. “You need to know where you are and who you can turn to,” she asserted.
Osborne uses psychometric testing to assess the roles that potential recruits are likely to play in her team, highlighting the importance that they are “risk-averse, emotionally [intelligent]” and that they have ”political nous”. In interviews she asks them uncomfortable questions, such as, “What would you do if a client wept?”, the responses to which she claimed are “quite revealing”. She wants them to be able “to understand who is on the rise and who is not. Lawyers need to look at where resources are and where they are moving to - this influences the advice they give.” Morale should not be held back either by a lack of resources, she stated. “I just keep them sweet with chocolate and biscuits and smiles,” she quipped. “Maybe some way down the line [there’ll be] profit sharing as well.”