As part of the preparation of the Localism Bill there was a submission to the parliamentary committee on the outsourcing of the planning function in Local Authorities. As well as setting out advice, there was an example of best practice from New Zealand. I have set out below a small excerpt from that best practice guide.
Determine what the council wants to achieve by outsourcing. Before starting, clearly identify:
• Why the council is considering outsourcing?
• What services does the council need to outsource, and to what extent?
Knowing the 'why' and 'what' will provide a clear basis for selecting a contractor. Consider these issues in a strategic assessment:
• Does the council still want to be outsourcing in 12 months time?
• What are the future workload predictions? Consider historic trends, economic outlooks, and projected growth. Is it necessary to outsource the entire consent (planning application) service or would partial outsourcing be sufficient to manage peaks in resource consents? Consent volumes are also related to the plan provisions. Consider whether the plan provisions are likely to change in the near future (through either plan changes or the review process).
• What outsourcing options are there? Will outsourcing to one or more local suppliers create unworkable conflicts of interest, or remove necessary consultant options for the community?
• Does the council need particular technical skills or an increase in general resources? Would it be better to increase in-house resources, rather than outsourcing? Will 'in-house' skills be lost or can 'in-house' skills be enhanced?
• Will the use of an external contractor create tension within the planning department, or with other departments of the council? What type of work does the existing staff want to retain? Staff may wish to retain the more challenging and complex applications to enhance their professional development and maintain job satisfaction.
• What are the views and expectations of the council's managers and politicians?
• Does the council need to consult internally and/or externally? Does the community want the council to retain services in-house?
• What management structure and systems will be implemented to ensure a smooth transition of processing consents between council and contractors?
If we were seeing evidence of a strategic assessment and a carefully considered approach I might feel a little more confident in the process. I haven’t seen any evidence yet but it may be hidden away in those One Barnet Board minutes that we are not allowed to read. If this strategic assessment does exist then the council should be sharing it with the key stakeholder, residents and staff. However, I have a horrible feeling that the outsourcing exercise is purely driven by political dogma and many of these questions simply have not been asked let alone addressed. If that is the case then I for one will not be surprised when it all goes wrong but I will make sure to remind councillors who is to blame - them