I made the 45 minute flight from Rio to Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais. Minas Gerais has 853 municipalities! It wasn’t the recently opened new City of State Administration (four buildings which cost £250m to build and houses 15,000 staff), which impressed me most, but the hunger of the strategists I met. This team of departmental directors briefed me on their work and 20 year strategy.
They demonstrated a real hunger to learn from the UK experience of strategic commissioning, community engagement in shaping priorities, how to move towards a focus on outcomes, pooled budgets and community budgets. They wanted to learn from the experience of the how the UK had encouraged examples of innovative local government practice and then shared those case studies so that others could learn and speak face-to-face with the innovators. Communities of Practice and the improvement work of the former IDeA were also of great interest. This team had a real and visible hunger to learn. They want to be the best in Brazil. I discovered that this group, with an average age of around 25, were the outcome of a strategic approach to recruitment. All students in secondary education had an option of sitting an exam. Success in the exam covered not only the cost of their degree in Public Administration but a guarantee of a two year post in the Minas Gerais state administration. The public sector was clearly reaping the benefits. Would the UK make such an investment?
Singling out Minas Gerais is perhaps unfair. When I delivered a similar seminar to the state of Rio, those staff wanted to learn more and more about the same subjects, namely, strategic commissioning, community engagement in shaping priorities, how to move towards a focus on outcomes, pooled budgets and community budgets, developing and sharing council good practice, and sector led improvement. They also wanted to understand consortia and shared services approaches to procurement. Despite giving them many opportunities to close the discussion, they opted for a four-hour seminar. I doubt I did more than whet their appetite – certainly their enthusiasm at the end of four hour for asking questions had not waned.
I also met with state owned public sector organisations. The state oil company, ‘Petrobras’, and pharmaceutical company, ‘Bio Manguinhos’ wanted a more strategic procurement. Amongst the big questions from them were: How do we get the organisation to work better together in procurement? How do we introduce category management and set up consortia purchasing? How do we cope with a legal environment that is far more prescriptive than that of the European public procurement rules? Alongside operational questions such as, how would we best buy travel and hotel services?
For someone with a public sector procurement improvement background I thrived on these seminars, discussions and questions. But what was fascinating to me was the engagement with the academic community in supporting municipalities, state and state owned businesses. The GPI (Groupo de Producao Intergrada) team, which invited me, were working with all these public sector organisations on problem solving and developing ‘a better way’. Why do we not have such an integrated approach in the UK?
Behind all the questions, there was also an implied but sometime explicit question for the UK to answer, how can Brazil remove corruption from the public sector? I explained the steps taken since the 1970s ‘Poulson Affair’, but the recurring response was ‘but what do you do in Brazil, now?’So to me Brazil is different. It has almost 6,000 municipalities. Only came out of dictatorship in 1988 and is still the early steps of democracy but one thing is clear, Brazil is a country which has much to learn from the UK. Likewise it’s important to recognise the UK has much to learn from Brazil – let’s remember it was from Brazil the idea of participatory budgeting came to the UK!