Do shared services improve resilience?  Mixed evidence from district councils during the Covid-19 pandemic

Dr Thomas Elston and Dr Germà Bel

Inter-municipal collaboration, often referred to as ‘shared services,’ has gained a significant foothold in English local government over the last 10-15 years, bringing England into line with much of mainland Europe and the USA. 

This model of jointly providing public services across two or more local jurisdictions, whether through a ‘joint committee’ or ‘lead authority’ model, or by joint commissioning of a private contractor, was primarily intended as an efficiency measure through which cash-strapped councils might attain new economies of scale during the ‘age of austerity.’  Limited evidence to date unfortunately suggests that councils’ large cost-saving aspirations have not tended to be been matched by achievements, though more research is needed.

Nonetheless, when councils and management consultants were preparing their ambitious shared service business cases, typically in the early 2010s, improved service quality and better resilience in the face of unexpected adversity were also named as advantages of the shared services approach, alongside efficiency.  Since efficiency and resilience are often regarded as mutually incompatible (e.g., slack resources are inefficient but protective against shocks), and given that there are few if any empirical tests of the relationship between shared services and business continuity in existing literature, we set out to investigate.

Taking the first Covid-19 lockdown during the spring of 2020 as the sudden and severe ‘adversity’ against which local government resilience was tested, we compared levels of service disruption in collaborating and autonomous councils compared against pre-covid performance, controlling statistically for potential alternative explanations.  Our analysis focuses on revenues and benefits departments in district councils, since a significant proportion of these (ca 30% at the onset of Covid-19) are operated collaboratively.  And we focus on the administration of Housing Benefit specifically, for which robust, high-frequency (monthly and quarterly), and multi-dimensional (speed, quality and cost) performance data is available.

Our study found that disruption of Housing Benefit application processing speeds during lockdown was unrelated to mode of service provision.  For both shared and autonomous arrangements, performance worsened slightly during lockdown, before resuming its pre-pandemic trajectory over the summer of 2020.  However, collaborating councils did show less of a decline in service accuracy objectives during lockdown, measured as both the identification of new debt owing to benefit overpayments (not shown) and, particularly, the recovery of such debt from claimants (shown in the graph below).  These mixed results – no effect on speed, partial protection for accuracy – proved robust to various different econometric specifications.

Average value of debt recovered from Housing Benefits claimants as percentage of total debt outstanding, comparing ‘stand alone’ and collaborative provision, Q4 2018–19 to Q1 2020–21

There are a variety of possible explanations for this pattern. 

First is that the apparent resilience in debt identification and recovery is simply an artifact of the performance differential between shared and autonomous revenues and benefits departments pre-pandemic.  As the graph above indicates, and contrary to business-case predictions, shared services (grey dashed line) appear to be consistently associated with less debt recovery prior to COVID, meaning that autonomous councils simply had ‘further to fall’ during the emergency, producing their appearance of reduced resilience. 

Second, and more substantively, is that high-performing organizations can fall into ‘success traps’ or ‘competency traps.’  According to existing literature on organizational resilience, the low level of challenge facing high-performing organizations during ‘normal’ times can leave them complacent and ill-equipped to deal with unexpected adversity; whereas less-successful organizations are more familiar with confronting and managing adversity in their everyday operations, and thus better rehearsed for managing crises.

Third is that there genuinely is something about the shared services model – be it the increase in operating scale, the balancing of peaks and troughs in demand and resourcing across different partners, the greater experience of remote working prior to COVID, or the lock-in effects that arise when service operations are specified in contracts or service-level agreements – that enables collaborative arrangements to better withstand the challenges of service delivery during lockdown.

Finally, it is interesting to consider why the partial resilience revealed in our data is concentrated on debt identification and recovery, rather than speed – recognizing that bureaucracies often face a trade-off between speed and accuracy of decisions.

Studies of goal conflict suggest that organizations can cope with such split objectives by prioritizing those that are most valued by their largest or loudest constituency.  Benefit claimants and their landlords favour speedy service, whereas central government (which funds Housing Benefit) advocates accuracy.  But perhaps Whitehall overseers pursued this agenda less forcefully during the pandemic, when many distractions arose and when preservation of life and livelihoods was clearly better served by providing speedy financial support to vulnerable populations than by auditing prior applications.

Alternatively, goal conflict can also be address by sequencing – addressing one goal first, and then another. Whereas poor timeliness of benefit processing cannot be subsequently rectified (once a payment is late, it is late), poor accuracy can be corrected subsequently through greater attention to and resourcing of debt collection later in the year or in future years. The debt will still be owed, albeit the risk of debt write-off will be higher. Future research will be able to test this ‘catch-up’ hypothesis once data on debt identification and recovery during subsequent quarters of the pandemic is released.

Overall, then, in contrast to the questionable financial benefits of shared service adoption in the English context, this study has indicated that possible advantages may be gained in terms of service resilience.  We have just secured a research grant to replicate and expand this research agenda into additional service areas and over a longer time frame.

This blog is based on research recently published in Public Management Review.

Dr Thomas Elston is Association Professor of Public Administration at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.  His research focuses on the organisation of public services, and particularly on questions of performance, resilience, reform and democratic control.  His work on shared services has been published in JPART, Public Administration, Public Management Review, and Public Money & Management.

Dr Germà Bel is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Barcelona.  His research deals with the reform of the public sector, with a special focus on privatization, regulation, and competition. His research pays particular attention to local public services, transportation, and infrastructure. His work on shared services has been published in JPART, Public Administration, Public Management Review, Local Government Studies and Urban Affairs Review.

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