Enable - Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council

An enabling partnership that goes beyond the contract

Margaret Rawding, Head of Corporate Finance and ICT at Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council, explains how a partnership based on trust and flexibility is the best way to deliver long term value for money in challenging times.

Partnership is the key word here. When you’re choosing a partner you need to know they think like you. It isn’t about whether you like them as people; you need to know whether, given the same critical information, they would take the same decision as you would. On the flip side, if all you want is a contractor to deliver a fixed set of objectives with no judgement required, that’s far easier to source.

Back in 2008, we were clear that we wanted to find a partner; an ally who could deliver but also work with us to develop policies relating to services and take a far more holistic view of what we are trying to achieve. In Arvato, we found a like-minded organisation. The risk with any outsourcing partnership, particularly in the public sector, is that it becomes just about cutting costs, driven by a procurement process that doesn’t look ahead at how you enable real improvement and deal with change.

Challenging the contract

Shortly after starting our 10-year publicprivate partnership with Arvato, the Government’s Spending Review was announced. We quickly realised the unprecedented pressures this would put on the new relationship. While the overarching objectives remained the same, the circumstances under which these could be achieved, had completely changed.

The contract as it stood was designed to deliver value for money, but we needed to be more flexible in our priorities so we started to work together on a change agenda. Sefton and Arvato had to make difficult decisions, but we did so with a common purpose; in the interests of our long term commitment to doing what’s right for the businesses and residents of Sefton.

We worked together on the best way to achieve what was needed, rather than what was in the contract. This was only possible by evolving from a conventional ‘them and us’ contractual relationship to a much greater partnership of equals. We collaborated on one change after another, building up a pattern of behaviour and ultimately trust.

Focusing on the big picture

I want what we achieve to focus on far more than just the actual processes; it has to be about shaping services that can improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable residents in the borough.

We know that while Arvato is an expert in the services, the team also gets the bigger picture. There may be situations where two different service lines could work together – for example if a resident is struggling to pay Council Tax, it’s likely they are also behind on their rent. Our aim is to look at the situation holistically and flexibly work out the right approach, rather than maintaining the silos.

When we look at what is achieved, we don’t get too hung up on the individual KPIs. I would rather ask ‘what are we going to do better or differently next year’. To really improve, we constantly need to be shifting our approach so that we are focusing on the future, not fretting about the past.

Mutual trust is key to delivering more with less

The ability to reach compromises, accept and make changes that are in everyone’s best interests is critical. This can only be based on a relationship of mutual trust and understanding, rather than simply what a contractor has promised to deliver under a fixed contract.

It boils down to developing a relationship with the right partner willing to flexibly manage and refocus resources to meet changing priorities. There are still no signs that the financial pressures will ease off, but if more outsourcing engagements were structured in this way, I believe the public sector would be more able to effectively deal with new challenges.

Key relationship facts

The contract

  • 10-year public-private partnership signed in 2008
  • Providing services to a diverse borough including 280,000 citizens
  • Services: customer services, revenues and benefits, payroll and transactional HR, accounts payable and ICT, transformation and change


Sefton's requirements

  • Significant revenue savings
  • Improve performance to the top quartile
  • Job security
  • Work to stay in Sefton
  • Capital investment

arvato's commitments

  • 10% reduction in costs from day one
  • Guaranteed service improvement
  • Investment
  • Staff development
  • Growth
  • Innovation

The results

  • In the last two years, the partnership has delivered an additional £1.6 million of contributions on top of the 10% day-one savings
  • The partnership has continued to balance performance, achieving KPIs and rising volumes whilst delivering priority services for its customers
  • Customer satisfaction has reached an all-time high averaging 91.2%