Suffolk library service

Suffolk’s library service is provided by an industrial and provident society, with Suffolk County Council’s role as expert commissioner. This case study forms part of the different delivery models – libraries (mutuals) section of our online Culture Hub.


After an extensive public consultation in 2011, Suffolk County Council decided to ‘spin out’ its library service to give the community a voice in its governance whilst ensuring that the council discharged its statutory obligations. The decision was taken after a service review and an options appraisal on all the possible delivery models.

Suffolk decided on an industrial and provident society as the most appropriate form for the new organisation. A needs assessment recommended that the council should employ sufficient in-house library expertise within its strategic commissioning functions to ensure that its provider complied with the statutory duties. Suffolk would commission the library service through a contract, delegate the budget via schedule of payments and set out agreed targets and measures.

Suffolk’s Libraries Industrial and Provident Society Limited, known as Suffolk Libraries, was formed in 2012. The council decided that any externalisation of the service must be reversible and it has retained ownership of the infrastructure (buildings, IT infrastructure/devices and mobile library vehicles). This has not stopped Suffolk Libraries from making savings in these areas, for example by employing local contractors to maintain the internal decoration and repair of the buildings, including the use of suitably skilled volunteers. Similarly, the council’s ownership of the IT system does not stop Suffolk Libraries from procuring more innovatively. The commissioner’s job in both cases has been to act as a point of contact for council colleagues in property, IT and procurement services, and act as an advocate for Suffolk Libraries to be trusted to deliver on these projects.

Part of the commissioner’s role is to ensure that where changes to the specification and contract price are proposed, there is sufficient understanding of the effect on the service, and whether consultation is required if there are material changes to service delivery. The commissioner took a leading role in the contract negotiations, especially in developing the specification for library services and the key performance indicators, working collaboratively with the chief executive of Suffolk Libraries.

The initial contract was for five years but Suffolk Libraries has exercised its right to extend this for a second five-year period. The commissioner leads on the annual contract price and specification negotiations. The cabinet member and commissioner have ‘observer’ places on the Suffolk Libraries board. Key performance indicators are reported regularly to the council: the commissioner is responsible for analysing these, offering feedback and suggesting areas for improvement. The commissioner also undertakes library visits to assess how they are performing.

Looking ahead, in light of continuing budgetary pressure on councils, there will be further negotiation on the balance between Suffolk County Council’s ambitions and requirements and the ability of Suffolk Libraries to deliver them within the contract price.  

Key learning points

  • An anticipation and avoidance of legal challenge allowed both partners to concentrate resources on strategic planning and delivery.
  • Championing a more cost-efficient, lighter touch approach to the provision of services, where Suffolk Libraries sometimes acts as the council’s agent (acting within procurement legislation).
  • An open and transparent approach to finance where the commissioner has access to the same financial data as the Suffolk Libraries board.
  • The commissioner must continually assess, manage and accept the financial and reputational risks inherent in delivering the service through an external organisation.
  • Skilled relationship management has achieved a level of co-operation and trust not available in a limited contract management relationship.

For further information contact Alison Wheeler, Chief Executive, Suffolk Libraries: alison.wheeler@suffolklibraries.co.uk or Stephen Taylor, Head of Service Development and Contracts (Libraries), Suffolk County Council: stephen.taylor@suffolk.gov.uk 

Adapted from a case study for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which can be seen at: https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/suffolk-county-council-expert-commissioning