Reasons for councils to avoid large-scale outsourcing? – lessons learnt report

By Tony Collins

Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee has just published “Update on Lessons Learnt from the Experience of the South West One Contract”. The lessons could be read by some as a warning against any all-encompassing outsourcing deal between a council and a supplier, in this case IBM.

The carefully-worded report is written by Kevin Nacey, the county council’s Director of Finance and Performance. It updates a “lessons learnt” report the council published in February 2014.

The latest report concludes:

“… All parties have been working very hard to keep good relationships and to fix service issues as they arise. The sheer size and complexity of this contract has proven difficult to manage and future commissioning decisions will bear this in mind.”

All local authority large-scale outsourcing deals are complex and difficult to manage. So are councils that sign big outsourcing deals courting trouble? Should councils avoid such contracts whatever the supplier incentives?

Somerset County Council was a top performing council when it created a joint venture owned by IBM in 2007. The aim was to take the council “beyond excellence” in the words of the then Somerset chief executive Alan Jones. His councillors hoped that the new company, Southwest One, would attract much new business and so cut costs for each of the partners.

But even without attracting new business, IBM had difficulties managing the sometimes conflicting expectations and services for each of the initial three clients: the county council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police.

Former Somerset County Council IT specialist Dave Orr has written a well-informed series of articles on the Southwest One contract.

What’s interesting now is that Somerset County Council, under pressure from Orr and others, has investigated what has gone wrong and why, and is disseminating the lessons, after giving them much thought.

Originally Somerset was proud of its deal with two councils and a police force. Its auditors in 2007 praised the deal’s innovative approach. Now we learn from the latest Somerset report that the contract was “incredibly complicated”. The report says:

“One of the most significant lessons learnt related to the sheer size, breadth and complexity of the contract. Both the provider [IBM] and the Council would agree that the contract is incredibly complicated.

“A contract with over 3,000 pages was drawn up back in 2007 which was considered necessary at the time given the range of services and the partnership and contractual arrangements created.”

[But all big outsourcing contracts run to thousands of pages and are unlikely to be anything but incredibly complicated.]

More from the council’s latest lessons learnt report:

“What has become clear over time is that any such partnership depends upon having similar incentives …”

[Does any big outsourcing deal have similar incentives for supplier and client? Only, perhaps, in the press releases. In reality suppliers exist to make money and, in times of austerity, councils want to spend less.]

“Dissatisfaction can occur”

The county council’s report: “The well-documented financial difficulties faced by the provider [IBM] early into the contract life also affected its ability to meet client expectations. The net effect is that at times the provider and partner aims in service delivery do not always match and discord and dissatisfaction can occur.”

Client function too small

“The Client function monitoring a major contract needs to be adequately resourced. At the outset the size of the client unit was deemed commensurate with the tasks ahead … However, as performance issues became evident and legal and other contractual disputes escalated, the team had to cope with increasing workloads and increasing pressure from service managers and Council Members to address these issues. This is a difficult balancing act.

“You do not want to assemble a large client function that in part duplicates the management of the services being provided nor overstaff to the extent that there is insufficient work if contract performance is such that no issues are created.

“With hindsight, the initial team was too small to manage the contract when SAP and other performance issues were not resolved quickly enough. Sizing the function is tricky but we do now have an extremely knowledgeable and experienced client team.”

3,000-page contract of little use?

“Performance indicators need to be meaningful rather than simply what can be measured. Agreement between the provider and the SCC client of all the appropriate performance measures was a long and difficult exercise at the beginning of the contract.

“Early on in the first year of the contract, there were a large number of meetings held to agree how to record performance and what steps would be necessary should performance slip below targets. Internal audit advice was taken (and has been at least twice since under further reviews) on the quality and value of the performance indicator regime.

“It is regrettable and again with hindsight a learning point that too much attention was paid to these contractual mechanisms rather than ensuring the relationship between provider and SCC was positive. Perhaps the regime was too onerous for both sides to administer.”

[A 3,000 page contract proved of little value in holding the supplier to account on performance. So was there much value in the contract apart from making a lot of money for lawyers? Too tight a contract and it’s “too onerous for both sides to administer”. Too loose and there’s no point in the contract. Another reason for councils to avoid entering a big outsourcing deal?]

“Too ambitious for all parties”

The report says:

“Contract periods need to be different for different services as the pace of change is different. The range of services provided under the initial few years of the contract were quite extensive. On another related point the provider also had to manage different services for different clients. This level of complexity was perhaps too ambitious for all parties.

“Although there were many successful parts to the contract, it is inevitable that most will remember those that did not work so well. The contract period of 10 years is a long time for 9 different services to change at the same pace…”

Drawback of seconding staff

“The secondment model introduced as part of the contract arrangements had been used elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, it was the first time that 3 separate organisations had seconded staff into one provider.

“In many ways the model worked as staff felt both loyalty to their “home” employer, keeping the public service ethos we all felt to be important, and to Southwest One as they merged staff into a centre of excellence model.

“The disadvantage was that Southwest One was hampered by the terms and conditions staff kept as they tried to find savings for their business model and to provide savings to the Council in recent years given the changing financial conditions we now operate under.”

Different clients on one main contract – a nightmare?

“Another aspect of this contract in terms of complexity is the nature of the partnering arrangement. It is not easy for all partners to have exactly the same view or stance on an issue. Southwest One had to manage competing priorities from its clients and the partners also had varying opinions on the level of performance provided.

“Remedy for such circumstances differed depending upon initial views of the scale of the performance issue and what each client required for its service.”

Quick audit work “stifled”

“It has been particularly challenging to achieve effective audit of the contract, both by internal and external auditors. Access for auditors has been a prime issue with clearance of those auditors often being slow as process involved all clients being satisfied that audit scope, coverage and findings were appropriate.

“The contract allowed for transparent audit access and there is no suggestion here that SWO did not welcome audit.

“Indeed, for the first few years of the contract there was a team within business controls in SWO that enabled and carried out their own audit work on behalf of IBM. It again proved to be the controls required by all partners and the complexity of access that stifled quick audit work to be performed.

“Increasingly, there was debate about capacity to support audit work within SWO and therefore, SWAP [South West Audit Partnership] suffered in terms of their ability to conduct audit work in good time. In addition,

“Police levels of security needed to be far higher than SCC and this complicated access for auditors.”

Arguments over confidentiality – FOI requests “incredibly difficult to answer”

“The most recent SWAP [South West Audit Partnership] audit of the contract client function found that there has been effective monitoring of SWO performance.

“The problem is that reporting of that performance has been hampered by arguments over commercial confidentiality and sensitivities about the validity of reporting.

“It is fair to say that the three clients do not always agree on the quality of service provided, which of course gives rise to SWO management challenging SCC’s robust approach if other clients do not agree when in our view service is deficient.

“The transparency surrounding contract performance has been a contentious issue given these difficulties, and especially at times of dispute and with court proceedings pending. Future contracts must make these issues clearer and give the authority the ability to follow the national agenda for transparency more explicitly and without fear of upsetting either partners or the provider.

“The Freedom of Information legislation is there to serve the transparency agenda but such requests have been incredibly difficult to answer because of need to ensure all parties are sighted on information made public.”

Confused data ownership

“A further issue is that of data ownership and responsibility. SCC must make available data if indeed it has that data. On a number of occasions SCC did not and SWO held data that contained references to other authorities.

“The shared service platform and the nature of service delivery occasionally made it costly to segregate data to respond to FoI and other requests. Secondees were also often torn between their allegiance to their ‘home’ employing authority and their commitment to SWO, which did cause some confusion regarding information ownership.

“In all contracts SCC must strive to ensure transparency is foremost in our thoughts and that clearance of data release is not subject to other parties’ views.”

ICT, SAP and splitting a one-vendor database – a host of issues

“Another lesson learnt from this contract relates to the use of ICT systems to be delivered and managed by the provider in any contract… Firstly, the introduction of SAP so early in the contract life and the system issues experienced meant that SWO performance became synonymous with SAP performance.

“There were many other benefits provided by SWO in the first few years of the contract related to other improvements in the network and associated applications but this was overshadowed by the SAP technology issue.

“Over time SAP has worked for SCC albeit there are still outstanding issues with its configuration and its flexibility to adjust to the Council’s changing needs.

“The creation of one vendor database in support of the shared service agenda is now with hindsight going to be a bigger issue for all clients as we approach the end of the contract.

“There is still insufficient knowledge transfer to secondees and this will leave a legacy issue for our authorities. Future contracts must clarify asset ownership, system maintenance and replacement infrastructure issues.”


Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee deserves recognition for the work it has put into the lessons learnt report.

It has produced the report under the pressure of years of intense outside scrutiny, by Dave Orr, and others.

Without such scrutiny Somerset could have ended up concealing contractual problems even from itself. We’ve seen in other parts of the country, where councils have failing outsourcing contracts, that the most enthusiastic councillors convince themselves that all is well.

They assume that negative local newspaper reports of problems on their major outsourcing contract are prompted by the profoundly disaffected, just as some councillors and officials in parts of the UK wrongly blamed the lifestyles of complainants when they alleged child abuse.

Mutual incentives?

The Somerset report says each side in an outsourcing relationship needs to be motivated by similar incentives. But can that ever happen? Councils exist to provide good public services as cheaply as possible. Suppliers exist to make as much money as possible.

There can only be similar incentives if a council is so inefficient that there’s enough spare cash to cover council savings and the supplier’s profits.

If there isn’t the spare cash, the council, in its enthusiasm to do something different by outsourcing, can simply fictionalise the figures for benefits and potential savings.

This creative (and legal) exercise is perfectly possible given the depth of the conjecture needed to project costs and savings over 6 years or more.

Part-time councillors who are considering a big outsourcing contract have the time only to glance at summary documents or the preferred supplier’s Powerpoint slides. They are unlikely to spot the assumptions that pervade the formalised legal language.

During such a pre-contract exercise, the most sceptical councillors are often excluded from internal scrutiny, and the disinterested ones who are admitted into the inner chamber can find their heads swimming in a supplier-inspired language that either swathes uncertainty in the business jargon of near certainty or obscures reality in opaque legalese.

How are these lay councillors to get at the truth? Do they have the time?

Big outsourcing deals between councils and suppliers are inherently flawed, as this Somerset report indicates. Too many such deals have ended badly for council taxpayers as Dexter Whitfield’s investigations have shown.

But still some councils sign huge outsourcing deals. Their leading officials and councillors say they took lessons from failed contracts around the country into account. But what does that mean? If a deal is inherently flawed, perhaps because of diverging incentives, it is inherently flawed.

The disaster that is Southwest One could be a priceless jewel in the public sector’s display case if it serves to deter councillors and officials signing further large-scale council outsourcing deals.

Thanks to Dave Orr for alerting me to the lessons learnt report.

Somerset report “Update on Lessons Learnt from the Experience of the South West One Contract”.

UK outsourcing expands despite high failure rates.


6 responses to “Reasons for councils to avoid large-scale outsourcing? – lessons learnt report

  1. Pingback: Southwest One reveals 6 further lessons learned from its Shared Services partnership | UNITE@SOMERSET COUNTYCOUNCIL

  2. Pingback: Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee has just published “Update on Lessons Learnt from the Experience of the South West One Contract”. The lessons | UNITE@SOMERSET COUNTYCOUNCIL

  3. Pingback: Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee has just published “Update on Lessons Learnt from the Experience of the South West One Contract”. The lessons | UNITE@SOMERSET COUNTYCOUNCIL

  4. Again another example of government not really understanding what they were buying in terms if software to support their business. For a start government should NEVER buy ERP… why? Because government is not balance sheet driven they are simply income and expenditure so complexity in double entry ERP just not needed. And of course ERP never helps people do the real job of work!

    There is a desperate need for centralised research unit within UK Government seeking out software that supports people even empowers them. Understanding “how” software works to achieve this is just so important. Thought leader in software Naomi Bloom eloquently sums it up where she articulates “It really matters how your vendors build their software, not just what they build”. As the title suggest government needs to “learn lessons”!


  5. I think a great deal depends on the nature of the contract and the services being procured (and the competencies of the procurer). I can think of very large scale, complex and long-term contracts that I would rate as highly successful in terms of performance and value for money. Given my background and experience, the examples of good outcomes that I can quote are mostly in the field of environmental services – waste management, highway maintenance etc.
    At the same time, there is no doubt that the big corporate service contracts, like South West One, which many councils embarked upon over the last decade or so have a distinctly chequered history and I can think of many councils that have come to similar conclusions to Somerset either in a structured ‘lessons learnt’ report, in private or in the full glare of media meltdown.
    I would broadly agree with most of Somerset’s conclusions – but, at the same time, I still maintain that well-conceived, properly planned and well-managed procurement of even very large scale, multi-service contracts can deliver successful outcomes. A conclusion that such contracts should be avoided in every circumstance is as erroneous as a conclusion that such contracts are the first preference on every occasion.


    • Fair point and well put. I failed to make it clear I was referring to IT-based outsourcing contracts. I have no knowledge of the success or otherwise of waste management and say road contracts. I have looked at many council IT-based outsourcing deals and none stand out as an obvious success.


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