Archive for January 2011

Pravda in the council

January 31, 2011

Council free sheets have more colourful pictures!

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles is not a particularly subtle communicator. Last year, when announcing that he wanted to see an end to practice of local councils producing and distributing their own local newspapers he described his argument as follows:

Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on front-line services like providing regular rubbish collections. The previous Government’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers’ money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press.

This week the DCLG Select Committee in the House of Commons rejected Mr Pickles’ proposals and stated that he needed more evidence that the actions of local councils was undermining local newspapers before he could regulate them.

In many ways this was a victory for localism over the centralising tendency of the DCLG when something irritates them and should be welcomed.

However, in many ways the debate over council newspapers is like that over free speech. Just because councils have the right to do something does not mean they should abuse that right.

Council run newspapers are, in my experience, a dreadful thing and here is why: (more…)

Dear John…

January 28, 2011

Dear Local Government...

Life isn’t easy.  Sometimes we could all do with a bit of advice to get us through the day, whether it’s deciding what colour tie to wear or what jobs to apply for.  Other times we just need to tell someone what we are thinking to get it off our chest.

So, with little further ado, here are some short ‘dear john’ style messages for you to enjoy.  Happy Friday!

  • Dear Grant Shapps,
  • On your measure I earn more than the Prime Minister
  • Sincerely, David Cameron
  • Dear Lambeth,
  • You paid for frivolous posters so I’m not paying my tax bill,
  • Sincerely, budget consultee
  • Dear resident,
  • At least make the effort to learn my name
  • Sincerely, councillor
  • Dear councillor,
  • The three years out of four when there aren’t elections still count on the calendar
  • Sincerely, resident
  • Dear legal services,
  • I didn’t want ten pages of waffle; Am I breaking the law: YES or NO?!?
  • Sincerely, front line worker
  • Dear Grant Shapps,
  • When you said councils were free to do anything we wanted, that was a lie wasn’t it
  • Sincerely, Ringo Starr’s old house

(more…)

In praise of accountants

January 27, 2011

The bean counters have computers now!

In one of my previous local government incarnations we were going through a restructure and the powers that be had made it clear that, as so often, they would do everything in their powers to ‘protect the frontline’. One of my colleagues, only half in jest I believe, suggested that he was going to print some T-shirts for my team with the slogan: ‘back office staff are people too.’

I’m reminded of this frequently in recent times as politicians, managers, tweeters, bloggers and commentators all talk of implementing cuts that won’t affect the ‘frontline’. The hidden message in this language is that the back-office staff don’t really matter and cutting them won’t really make any difference.

Local Government workers, and hopefully blog readers, don’t need me to tell you that this is baloney. For example, there is not a member of staff who is not 100% reliant on the work of their IT department.

Despite this I recently found myself saying something similar about our finance department. I think my words consisted of something like: ‘there are quite a lot of them down there; what do they do exactly?’ I guess in times of cuts everyone looks for a scapegoat.

I was wrong of course. Good local government accountants are indispensible.

(more…)

Understanding restructures

January 26, 2011

Let's just break it up and put it back together again

I think it is possible that I have now been around more local government restructures than I have spent years working in Local Government. Often, this has been as a bystander rather than as an active participant but having seen so many restructures I can’t help but wonder why they happen with such regularity.

Here are four thoughts about why there seem to be so many:

1)      The curse of the one year budget

Local Government decides on its budget for the next year in February or March and then implements it in April of that same year. This is not exactly a recipe for long term planning and can lead to the sort of instability that leads to regular changes to structures over a short period; hence the need for a formal restructure. Longer term planning can allow these things to happen gradually and not require whole sale restructures. However, this short term planning is not wholly negative. It can also lead to political flexibility which allows for new initiatives and ideas to be tried out on short notice. See below:

2)      Performance management (or the lack of)

It’s a bit of a shame to say this but often the reason councils introduce a restructure is so they can remove those members of staff who are, how to put this, best off in alterative employment. If councils were better at performance managing those members of staff who don’t fully pull their weight and if the Trade Unions didn’t make it so difficult to properly manage these staff members then restructures probably wouldn’t be as necessary. Sadly, we often know who will be the focus of the restructures; instead of putting everyone at risk it would be better if these people were properly managed, given the opportunity to improve, and if not let go and someone else given the opportunity.

(more…)

Locally social

January 25, 2011

If Bob Hoskins thinks it's good to talk, that's good enough for me

Last week I took part in the #lgovsm tweet up.  For those of you who haven’t had a look, it sees anyone interested in how social media can be better used in a local government setting all logging on to Twitter at the same time and talking about a central topic.  By adding the #lgovsm hashtag they can all then track the same conversation and respond to each other.  @loulouk started this a while ago and it’s sparked many a fantastic debate.

Social media is a topic close to my heart.  Communication is an area that has always fascinated me, ever since I realised that with a tonal change, a shrug of the shoulders or simply a….. pause, the entire meaning of words can shift and change.  Growing up in a world getting to grips with IT meant that it was inevitable that these fascinations should merge, so with venn diagrams all over the place I find myself in the enviable position of ‘doing’ some social media as part of my job.

The funny thing is, I don’t get it personally.  I don’t want to tell people meaningless snippets of information, nor do I want to always share my opinions on a given topic (understanding as I do the near permanence of anything published on the web).  But for local government, for me the possibilities seem endless. (more…)

Moving the goalposts

January 24, 2011

A truly British obsession

Recently I made a few comments about the good people of our children’s services department; suggesting that they tend to have a disproportionate influence over the council’s budget.

As if to serve some sort of karmic retribution I recently found myself sent to a meeting of my august colleagues from that very department. However, what I encountered there was absolutely fascinating. The reason for this fascination was that my visit to see my hard working colleagues in children’s services coincided with Michael Gove’s latest policy in his education revolution.

Mr Gove has stated many times that he is committed to shaking us out of our educational complacency and his latest tool of choice was what he liked to call the English Baccalaureate, the results of which were published on the morning of my meeting.

The concept of the English Baccalaureate is fairly simple. As the BBC explained:

Schools in England are now being measured according to how many pupils achieve grades A*-C in five core subjects – maths, English, two science qualifications, a foreign language and either history or geography.

The reason this change exorcised my colleagues so much was that many of the schools in our neck of the woods were scoring fairly well in the old league tables which prioritised schools based on the number of students receiving 5 A*-C grades including Maths and English. Under the new system many of these schools which had been improving for years had suddenly found themselves hurtling towards the bottom of the league tables.

(more…)

The cuts are coming; quick, hide the books!

January 21, 2011

How many people would it take to take all these books out?

It may have escaped the notice of some people but this blog is ‘pro’ local government.

However, that does not mean that we automatically get upset when local residents act to protest against what is going on in their local council. To be honest it is often reassuring to know that the people we are serving care enough to get upset about what we are doing.

Protest is not necessarily enough to get a mention in this blog though. What we really appreciate is when residents do something amusing in their protest.

Standing outside the council and chanting just doesn’t cut it, nor does chanting whilst holding an amusingly worded sign; even chanting with an amusing sign and a costume is not quite enough.

The people of Milton Keynes though know just how to do it. As the BBC detailed:

Library-users have emptied a town’s library of books in protest against plans to close it down.

People have taken their maximum allowance of books from Stony Stratford library, Milton Keynes – clearing all 16,000 volumes from its shelves.

That is one hell of a protest, and they managed to ”over’-use a council service without causing untold pain on us poor local government workers. A similar set of protests might be as follows:

  • A mass swim: People turn up at the local swimming baths at the same time; those who are not aloud to swim take their place in the ‘watching area’ and entertain themselves by cheering on the lane swimmers and doing Mexican waves.
  • Catch the bus: Where Local Authorities still provide the bus services residents could all go along and catch the bus instead of driving for a day or two.
  • Pop into the one stop shop: Take advantage of your local one stop shop; pop in and ask one of the advice officers something related to your council services.
  • Visit your council’s website: Just click through as many times as you can; if you need motivation keep clicking until you learn something new

However, and here is my moment to get serious, the problem with these protests (and similar efforts to save post offices through petitions etc) is that they all reflect people making a special effort to use a council service that they otherwise ignore. If all 16,000 books were out of the library all of the time would the council really be seeking to cut it?

Still, I do love a good protest!

And if anyone has any other protest ideas please do add them below…


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