How to ensure back-office collaboration brings benefits rather than problems


By John O’Halloran, CIPFA Advisory Practice Lead

The shape of the police sector has shifted over time, looking fundamentally different today than it did ten years ago. This has largely been a direct response to the era of austerity. A decade of ever-reducing resources demanded extensive programmes of transformation across the sector, as forces worked to reduce costs and make savings in ways that did not impact on the quantity and improved the quality of front-line policing.

A common way of achieving this was through increasing collaboration with other forces. Police forces could achieve efficiencies by coming together to create shared service hubs that took care of back office or corporate functions for a consortium of organisations. Such shared service arrangements have become common over time, with some police forces even sharing their back-office functions with other public sector bodies, like the local council.

Creating shared services can have substantial benefits. In procurement for example, such systems can drive productivity and reduce costs. There are a number of reasons why procurement as a function is particularly suitable, including:

  • commonality between forces in the items to be procured;
  • existing methods of procuring goods and services that transcend individual forces;
  • common procurement rules and regulations across police;

That is not to say that creating hubs for a group of forces is straightforward. There are a number of considerations that need to be made to ensure they do not create more problems than they solve:

  • Robust communication from the start

Effective collaboration is based on trust. Creating new systems is not always comfortable, and often involves multiple parties sacrificing their own independence for the sake of common objectives. Honesty and the ability to compromise are vital to success. The needs of individual forces may have to come second to the goals of the collaborative initiative. It can be challenging for organisations to balance this against internal demands and priorities.Creating a shared, realistic vision

  • Creating a shared, realistic vision

A shared vision around what any project is intended to achieve is essential for a successful collaboration. But this shared vision must be based around the benefits to the whole, rather than to each individual constituent force. Realistically, there are going to be challenges around initial investment in the project, and there may sometimes be imbalances in costs and savings. But viewing the benefits to all partner organisations as a whole will support focus on the benefits of combined savings and enhanced service provision for the public.

  • Well understood and effective governance arrangements

Governance structures that exist across organisations can be difficult to manage and sustain. We’ve all experienced the challenge of getting multiple senior people together regularly! Key to successful governance of shared services is agreeing the purpose of the governance body and building a structure that reflects this. Will the governance body be directive or consultative? How can the balance of risk be shared and how can it be mitigated? Different models will suit different requirements.

  • Collective buy-in

Without the understanding and engagement of middle and junior managers and the support of staff, any collaborative venture will struggle to succeed. Bringing together staff from different forces and organisations can require the integration of very different cultures. Harmonious change management requires work from the bottom-up as well as from the top down.

  • Continuous learning and improvement

No positive change comes without its challenges. Any shared hub will create its own style of working that will be distinct from that of its constituent forces, and new processes often have teething problems. An openness to continual improvement, with regular reviews of validity and usefulness, with help to ensure that new systems fail or succeed quickly.

Creating any kind of shared back-office function, whether in procurement, HR or finance, creates a series of challenges that forces may not have previously encountered. But the rewards of a more collaborative way of working can be substantial, both in efficiencies for organisations and better outcomes for the communities they serve.

This article first appeared in Policing Insight.

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