[Editor’s note: this post was written jointly by Sheila Bennett and Jonathan Lindley following the recent masterclasses]
On 16 February, we published a guest blog from Fiona Williams, Chief Executive of Explore York Libraries and Archive. She talked about how they had formed a consortium (Optimo) alongside the three other existing libraries mutuals – Libraries Unlimited, Suffolk Libraries and Inspire Culture, Learning and Libraries – and consultancy firm Mutual Ventures. DCMS, through the Taskforce, commissioned Optimo to run two free Masterclasses on Alternative Delivery Models.
We ran these in London (on 24 March) and York (on 28 March). They were designed for heads of library services, elected members, local authority transformation officers and other interested parties, and covered a range of areas including:
- Why consider an alternative delivery model for library services?
- What alternative delivery model options are available?
- What are the benefits, risks and challenges associated with each of these models?
- How do you create an alternative delivery model for a library service?
Both Masterclasses were fully booked, with representatives of nearly 50 local authorities turning up to benefit from the chance to hear about the experiences - and the very real challenges - that these pioneering organisations have been through.
Rob Wilson, Minister for Civil Society, filmed a keynote address especially for the events. He spoke about the broader strategy for encouraging public sector mutuals which the government is due to publish shortly; and his view that alternative delivery models, such as public service mutuals, could be one of a range of practical and innovative approaches for councils to use to help sustain and transform frontline library services.
He also emphasised the very practical support and advice that DCMS was providing to help those looking at options for more effective ways to run their library service - not only these Masterclasses, but also a toolkit to help support this thinking (see the later section of this blog), with further support planned in the coming financial year.
What did the events cover?
Each day’s event was split up into sessions covering different aspects of public service mutuals and other alternative delivery models, and ways to help library services and local authorities take their first steps in exploring the different options and what they mean for their service.
The focus was very much on the practicalities of establishing public service mutuals and other alternative delivery models for library services, bringing together the real-life experiences of trailblazing library services alongside specialist expertise on technical issues. Most importantly, attendees had the chance to hear from, and put questions to, the leaders of existing library service mutuals - in workshops, question and answer sessions and, just as importantly, informally and directly during networking breaks.
Learning from hard-won experience…
Some introductory sessions at the Masterclasses covered:
- An overview of what models were available: Alternative delivery model options
- The processes that local authorities were recommended to follow to work through all the stages of spinning out into an alternative delivery model: How do I spin out my service
Both these sessions were run by Mutual Ventures, who provided technical advice to both York and Devon about spinning their library services out into new forms of governance. Important issues discussed included how vital it was to start from the base of a robust library strategy; a focus on customers’ needs; and the need to clearly establish what the service was aiming to do before looking at structures and legal forms.
The sessions also looked at the different stages of investigation and work needed to decide on, and to establish, a new organisation. Key messages were that this would take time and resources; that the process tended to be a marathon rather than a sprint; and that it was crucially important to ensure that staff and stakeholders were fully involved and briefed at every stage.
At each event, there were also sessions where the CEOs of the mutuals talked about:
- setting up public service mutuals in real life– what were the benefits, challenges and critical success factors: Libraries Unlimited and Inspire
- and then the different challenges of running and sustaining them longer-term: Suffolk Libraries and Explore York
Then there were smaller, participative workshop sessions covering: [Note: the heading of each is a link to the slides]
- Is a new model right for my service? This focussed on how to decide if you need a new model, and which model is right for you. This helped attendees think through the initial investigation process - from involving stakeholders, through creating the case for change, deciding which services are in and out of scope, to undertaking an objective options appraisal. During these discussions, it was made clear that a new delivery model would not necessarily be right for all situations; and that retaining an in-house service, with some re-engineering, was an option that should also be examined as part of this process.
- Staff engagement and ownership.York Explore and Inspire led a session talking about how they had involved staff in setting up a new organisation, and the challenges of building a new organisational culture. They gave a very honest account of what works (and what doesn’t), both during the design and implementation of a new model, and after the new model goes live. People issues that cropped up during the day ranged from how Trade Union discussions were handled, through to the symbolic importance of having new staff badges in place from Day 1!
- Public service entrepreneurship. Libraries Unlimited shared first-hand experiences of the challenges and opportunities of building a culture of public service entrepreneurship. This covered the new commercial disciplines, skills and activities needed for new models to thrive - from developing innovative new services, to marketing and branding a new organisation, to becoming contract- and investment-ready. Discussions covered the need to ensure systems were set up to be able to handle the income generated, the business model supporting the innovative Exeter Fablab, staff-led Adopt a Book schemes, through to the income generated from running childrens’ birthday parties in libraries.
- Expert commissioning: the role of the local authority. Suffolk Libraries led this session, alongside their commissioner, sharing 5 years of experience in building a strong relationship. It focussed on how councils should consider their approach to commissioning, how this ensures their statutory duty is met, and how to establish a fair transfer of risk and stretch in the relationship for the future. Strong messages came out about the importance of commissioners building a strong knowledge and understanding of the service, and the strengths of working in a collaborative way, meaning that the commissioner can become an important advocate for the service.
We're pleased to say that the evaluation forms we collected from participants were very positive about the usefulness of the sessions in stimulating their thinking.
- 78% of respondents said they were 'very' confident, or 'more confident than before' about investigating an ADM
- 54% of respondents said they were 'very' or 'quite' interested in further support to explore an ADM
Is there any more support available?
DCMS and the Libraries Taskforce also commissioned Optimo to draw together a toolkit to help library services considering alternative delivery models. The brief was to draw up something that would be very practical, and could support library service managers, council commissioners and transformation teams, councillors, Friends Groups and community groups to consider the desirability, viability and feasibility of a range of alternative delivery model (ADM) options for their library services. In summary, we asked them to write something that they would have liked to have had to refer to when they started out on their own journey!
This has now been published so take a look. It’s got a wealth of resources to help councils and their library service work through a staged approach to investigation and establishment. It also describes the characteristics and potential advantages/disadvantages associated with each type of ADM. It not only covers all the technical processes involved, but also draws out learning points from the real life experiences of the 4 library services that have spun out from their respective councils. They not only highlight some of the benefits that have been realised, but also talk about the challenges and barriers they’ve had to overcome.
And DCMS Mutuals Team will be making more support available next financial year as well. We will consider running another Masterclass event if there is a demand to do so - if so we’ll let you know via this blog. Meanwhile, if you have any views to share on this topic, or are interested in getting advice on whether this might be a route you want to explore, then please email the team.