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What's the Issue with Risk?

I was pleased to see Alex Parmley write this week in the defence of risk-taskers. He writes that “commercial investment is a business with inherent risk”. I don’t think that this claim can be denied but I would take it some stages further and say that life is an enterprise with inherent risk. And further still, that the life well-lived is unlikely to be one where no risks have been taken.

In the same week, the Chair of the Accounts Commission has called for transformational changes in service provision in Scottish councils and Chris Martin of Essex County Council has showcased the benefits of doing something that is “totally transformational”, rather than just tinkering around the edges. To do something radical necessitates risk and to do it as quickly as the rising challenges facing the sector demand doubles that risk. But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Far from calling them out, the sector should celebrate risk-takers. You can’t blow the whistle on an ambition to do better for the public. What you can do is create the right environment for them to succeed, while ensuring appropriate diligence and scrutiny. I’ve previously written that there is no sense in imbuing staff with the spirits of entrepreneurs then tying their hands with process and rejecting every idea that entails risk and I’m more convinced of this than ever (

In his letter to the MJ, Alex writes that a more constructive approach would be to:

  • Showcase best practice

  • Develop commercial skills

  • Offer commercial peer reviews

This is the reason why I left my post as a local authority Commercial Director last year to embark on a mission of helping the sector more widely to collaborate and develop commercial best practice. It’s amazing what you can do in a short amount of time in the right environment, and this is what we’ve done so far in this space:

Showcasing best practice

Earlier this year, we issued a Commercial Councils survey to all local authorities, asking for examples of best practice across the sector. Our report is due to be published later this year and I would encourage all councils with something to be proud of to let us know.

Our Commercial Directors Network launches on 5th April, providing an opportunity to share best practice across local government and the NHS.

Developing commercial skills

Human Engine has launched a flagship Commercial Academy, providing what we think offers the most rounded perspective on what it means to be commercial in the public sector. There are key technical skills that must be sharpened, but a strong focus on culture and engagement, too. From smarter commissioning to income generation, our courses will give staff the skills and confidence not just to navigate risk but to embrace it.

Commercial peer reviews

Our Commercial Maturity Model provides a framework for authorities to assess how well they understand the commercial outcomes they want to achieve and whether they have right operating environment to do this. It examines strategy, skills, processes and culture so that councils can truly evaluate whether the conditions are right to adopt a more commercial mindset. We’re soon to start work with a London borough that will be part of our Commercial Trailblazer programme, undertaking an intensive review and workforce development programme. At the end of the pilot, the council will be the first to be licensed to use the model to lead peer reviews for other authorities.

We ourselves took a risk when we set out to do this. People left comfortable jobs to join the mission and it wasn’t clear at the start what the appetite would be. When I look back on my life, will I regret taking that risk? Not a chance.

If you’re a public authority that believes commercial thinking is a tool to be used for the public good, rather than something to be feared, then reach out to us in connection with any of our initiatives.

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