Decision Maker: Executive
Decision status: Recommendations Approved
Is Key decision?: No
Is subject to call in?: Yes
Ahead of the item of business being considered by the Executive, Officers employed by Publica Group left the Committee Room.
Councillor Andy Graham, Leader of the Council, introduced the report, which outlined conclusions from the recent Strategic Review of Publica Services, carried out by Human Engine on behalf of the four Publica Councils, and further sought to consider the next steps.
The Leader gave a detailed, high-level overview of the implications that were associated with the report, and explained that, whilst not fully known, a wide-ranging scale of financial costings would be associated with the proposals, as well as legal and recruitment implications, and that a full transitional plan and full business case would be formulated, to enable that residents remain foremost in the aims of the Council.
The Leader explained that the review process would take time, and that every stage will have the due diligence associated with it, to manage a smooth transition of services, as recommended to the Council.
The Leader further advised the Executive that the proposals would be considered by the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, at a ‘spotlight’ meeting being held on 18 December 2023 at 5.30pm, before being re-considered by the Executive and then Council.
In debate, a number of non-executive members were invited to speak and expressed their disappointment at the decisions that were to be taken, and referred to Publica being owned by the Council, rather than being an external organisation. Members also suggested that a better course of action would have been to invest in Publica and re-formulate the working partnership that was already in place, rather than strip it back to a level similar to previous arrangements that existed before Publica’s creation.
Members also highlighted an apparent lack of Transitional Management qualifications, and questioned whether the Chief Executives of the partner Councils were qualified in that field. It was subsequently confirmed that an external Programme Director would be appointed to oversee the proposed transition.
Reference was also made to the residents of West Oxfordshire being dissatisfied with the Publica ‘model’ of operation, and that residents were keen to see services delivered by the Council in its own right.
Members of the Executive stated that the operation of Publica was perceived to be ‘opaque’, and that partner Councils were willing to change the status quo. Members of the Executive unanimously agreed that throughout the process, the aim was to help deliver services for the better, and to put residents of the district first. The Executive also provided reassurance that the proposals had not arisen as a reflection of the efforts of staff employed by Publica but were reflective of the operating model in its current form.
Members also expressed caution about the proposals being considered, whilst all of the financial facts and implications were not fully detailed, and that this would make the role of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee difficult when it scrutinises the proposals. The Chief Executive reassured Members that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee would have the appropriate time to consider the review proposals, allowing time for the fullest financial, modelling and governance implications to be scrutinised.
Councillor Andy Graham proposed that the Executive agree to the recommendations as listed on the report. This was seconded by Councillor Duncan Enright, was put to a vote, and was agreed unanimously by the Executive.
The Executive Resolved to:
- Note any decisions taken by the Cabinets at Cotswold District Council, Cheltenham Borough Council and Forest of Dean District Council;
- Support in principle the direction recommended in the Human Engine report to return a range of services back to the Council and reshape Publica;
- Instruct the Chief Executive to commence preparatory work and prepare a business case for a new operating model, and an associated transition plan identifying any necessary consultations, in partnership with Cheltenham Borough Council, Cotswold District Council, Forest of Dean District Council and Publica, and to report back to Executive with these;
- Instruct the Chief Executive to prepare an Equality Impact Assessment as part of the preparatory work;
Agree to set the following principles to help guide
the preparatory work and transition plan:
- Recognise the significant contribution of Publica staff and management to West Oxfordshire;
- Ensure that human resources processes are fair and appropriate, and that there is effective engagement with Unions and staff;
- Support the financial sustainability of the Council, and the delivery of the Council’s ambitions as set out in the Council Plan;
- Explore the potential for delivering services in partnership to ensure adequate capacity and capability, and realise economies of scale;
- Ensure that there are effective governance, management and staffing structures in place for the Council, any partnership services, and for Publica, both through the transition process and afterwards;
- That the transition costs from changes are shared fairly amongst all of the partner Councils;
- That the funding model for Publica and partnership services in the future is fair and reflects the extent of services received.
- Instruct the Chief Executive to commence the process for Union recognition for West Oxfordshire District Council staff;
- Refer the Publica Review and Human Engine Report to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee for their comments, prior to further consideration at the Executive and consideration by Council;
- Agree to set aside £100,000 from the Corporate Priorities earmarked reserve to fund potential transition and preparatory work required for the Council and for the Publica Partnership during the 2023/24 financial year;
- Agree to set aside a further £200,000 of earmarked reserve to 2024/25 transition costs within the ongoing budget setting process for 24/25 (and update of the Council’s Medium Term Financial Strategy);
- Agree that for the 2024/25 Budget and Medium-Term Financial Strategy (currently being developed for presentation to Council in February 2024) to consider the financial implications more broadly, including on Council’s revenue and capital budgets, its risk profile, and its balance sheet (reserves and liabilities).
Attendees and Officers employed by Publica Group, returned to the Committee Room at the conclusion of the item.
Report author: Giles Hughes
Publication date: 17/11/2023
Date of decision: 15/11/2023
Decided at meeting: 15/11/2023 - Executive
Effective from: 26/11/2023