Archive for April 2011

It’s nice to be reminded sometimes

April 28, 2011

Thank youAs regular readers will know, this blog is written by a number of people. Recently one of the regular contibutors, my good old anonymous self, haven’t been contributing anything to these fine pages, leaving things in the excellent and safe hands of others (heartfelt thanks go out to all of you by the way!).

The reason for this hiatus was unfortunately not a good one. My wife and I suffered a sudden and unexpected personal tragedy. I shant go into too many details, suffice to say that it was something that knocked us for six and took over everything for a while.

Now, I can hear you asking yourself what on earth has this to do with local government? Surely whatever happened wasn’t the fault of Eric Pickles, or suffered from an overabundance of form filling? Well, you’re right of course – even I couldn’t blame E-Pic for this one.

The reason I wanted to share this with you all was the way the situation was treated by my colleagues and workplace. The office has been a bit of a dark place recently, with restructures, interviews and redundancies flying around like Piers Morgan on a broomstick. It’s felt at times that the only way to be certain of a job at the end of things would be simply to be the last one standing, with any sign of weakness punced upon and used against you at a later date. (more…)

Trans-Atlantic (dis)agreements

April 27, 2011

Obama shows the way

Britain and America are apparently two nations divided by a common language but despite this we often share the same problems.

Exhibit A: the public sector worker.

Last month David Cameron got himself in a modicum of trouble for blaming civil servants for holding back his latest reforms (he called them the enemies of enterprise) and it seems that Barack Obama has also got himself into ‘public-servant bashing’ trouble describing some federal employees as ‘slugs’ who are not trying to do their job.

So, lazy public sector workers in both countries right?

Well, no.

What is striking about (the unedited version of) Mr Obama’s comments is that whilst he shares Mr Cameron’s concerns about the work of public servants his actual quote was taken out of context. So, whilst Mr Cameron, and our friend Mr Pickles, see public servants as part of the problem here is the rest of Mr Obama’s quote:

“What’s striking when you enter into the federal government is how generally smart and dedicated people are.” The president also noted that some federal employees “are slugs and not trying to do their job. But that’s true of any large institution.”

And later on, as the Washington Post reported;

During that private conversation, the president also praised feds saying, “Generally speaking, he would put up federal workers against any workers in the private sector.”

Public sector workers are, in Mr Obama’s conception, seen not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Refreshing isn’t it?

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Delusions of grandeur

April 26, 2011

Sign of success or taking your life away?

About two years ago one of my close friends got herself a new job in a neighbouring public sector institution. The new job was a step up and my colleagues and I were amazed that her new job provided her with a PA. If you’ve got a PA, we thought, you’ve really made it.

I was recently reminded about this as my friend moved on to a new challenge in a new country. So in her honour here are the top five trappings that (really don’t) show that you’ve made ‘it’ in local government.

1)      You have a PA. I have no idea what I’d do if I had a PA; I think I like being in control of my own life too much to be at the whim of someone else. That being said, I’ve done the job and genuinely believe that I played a highly valuable role in keeping my boss in the right place at the right time and ensuring that what he (and yes, it was a man; stereotype or no stereotype) wanted to get delivered was delivered (usually by me). Maybe it’s a mindset thing and once you’re there you know how to make use of them?

2)      You are allowed your own office. Gone are the days when every manager had their own office; now in the world of the open plan, if you have an office you have truly made it. I once worked in a team which wanted to abandon offices altogether and set up a totally office free floor. We then appointed a new director and the first thing he did was build himself (well, we got people in but you know what I mean), and his senior management team, a set of offices.

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Happy Easter everyone

April 22, 2011

To all our readers we wish you a great Easter break; it’s been a slog since Christmas for a lot of us so I hope you all find time to recuperate and come back fighting, ready for the next challenge!

Ahhh, cute!

Are you a localist or a municipalist?

April 21, 2011

And you thought a post about localism and municipalism was dull!

On Newsnight last week, in between Gavin Estler and his research staff being skewered by Eric Pickles, Mr Pickles got into an interesting debate with the Deputy Leader of Nottingham council.

The Deputy Leader was arguing that the council should be allowed to NOT publish details of all expenses over £500 as it was a local decision. The implication was that by Mr Pickles demanding this of local authorities he was not being particularly localist.

Indeed, this is something we on this blog have often accused my Pickles of.

The response from Mr Pickles was fascinating. He didn’t make an argument based on the importance of open data but rather said something along the lines of: ‘Localism is not about giving power to councillors; it’s about passing power straight to the people’.

In effect Mr Pickles cast the deputy leader of Nottingham council as a municipalist, someone who believes power should sits with local government, rather than a localist who believes in giving power to local people.

This provided a good sound-bite and neatly quietened the deputy leader but I am deeply curious as to what the logical end point of this philosophy will actually be.

Firstly, if Mr Pickles is a true localist then what does that make him? Fair enough that Nottingham Council should not be all powerful but surely a localist would not want any interference from central Government at all? Or does Mr Pickles see himself as something akin to the guardian of localism; acting in the ‘best interest’ of the population who seem not to know better when they go to the ballot box?

Secondly, what role does this leave for local government? If central government is the guardian of localism does that make local government the enemy of localism? Surely, it makes more sense for the local councils to be the guardians of localism as they are closer to it?

Finally, what role does this leave for representative democracy? If localism does not mean elections and representation at the local level how are the actions of local people to gain legitimacy if not through elections? Surely, Mr Pickles can’t be the guardian of all localist ideas at a local level but if local government is not to provide legitimacy or to mediate between competing ideals then who will?

This all leaves local government with a massive challenge. If Mr Pickles is to be taken at face value then localism probably will not mean more powers for local government whilst also asking it to develop a new relationship with local people. If local government fails to meet that challenge would the end point be irrelevance?

The Duty to Involve debate

April 20, 2011

We all agree people should be involved but is the Duty to Involve any good?

Eric Pickles is all over the deregulation agenda at the moment.

His latest effort has been to re-write the Best Value guidance and in doing so also repeal the ‘Duty to Involve’ and the ‘Duty to Prepare a Sustainable Community Strategy’.

His rewriting involved reducing pages and pages of official ‘guidance’ and reduce it to just under 300 words. Indeed, the press release accompanying the announcement was twice as long!

The welovelocalgovernment team is a diverse one so in order to reflect this we set up a little late night e-mail debate between two of us.

Here is the outcome:

Let’s cut to the chase; the duty to involve was just like any other duty; ill-defined and misappropriated. It was, at the same time, used to justify activity that suited a councils own needs and applied to activities that had no business being called consultation just to say we had met the duty.

Nothing like a gentle warm up eh? I think the issue you might be having is simply looking at life AD (after duty) and how the duty was misused. For all the faults in application, the duty provided those of us who care about public involvement and engagement a powerful argument. We were able to go to senior managers and argue that they had to do a better job of engaging with the public because of the duty. I’ve lost count of the number of times the duty was referenced in senior level reports. Local Government can often be slow to do the right thing and a little kick from the centre can do wonders.

But isn’t that the problem Mr Pickles et al are trying to solve? If Local Government doesn’t stop being so dependant on the ‘central powers that be’ how are we ever going to develop powerful self confident local government that we need?

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Computers don’t respect boundaries so why does council IT?

April 19, 2011

So what exactly does McDonalds have to do with council IT?

One of the under-appreciated parts of any local authority is its IT department. Unseen by members of the public and bemoaned by council staff people only care about IT when their computer stops working and even then it is assumed that it is just some stupid IT tech who has got something wrong.

This is, of course, silly and local authorities are becoming increasingly reliant on all sorts of IT networks, applications and systems. In today’s guest post, a ‘techy’ (which is a technical term!) discusses how savings can be made, even within the increasingly complex information technology world.

If you have a guest post to submit then please send it to welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

It has been obvious to me for some time that many public sector budget items have been unnecessarily duplicated time and time again for no apparent reason other than territorial integrity. Centralised procurement of goods and services has been highlighted as one area where huge savings can be made.

Imagine, for example, a hugely efficient private sector operation like McDonalds allowing each branch to negotiate and buy its own supplies of buns and burgers etc from different suppliers. It’s total nonsense since there is no way that the best deals on price and quality could be negotiated other than by one or two central buyers speaking for the whole McDonalds empire with its massive buying power.

Yet, for reasons of history and cultural difference this is just how vast chunks of the public sector have been operating with the inevitable result that individual departments have been spending far more than they needed to on everything from paperclips to computers.

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Where do the wealthy pay more tax?

April 18, 2011

The newsnight slayer

The Department of Communities and Local Government has, under Eric Pickles, been very keen to ensure that there is a regular stream of ‘open’ data to help the public get a deeper understanding of what their politicians are up to. Indeed, his very openness made the BBCs Gavin Estler look extremely silly on Newsnight.

However, on the same day that Mr Pickles was having fun at the expense of the BBC research staff, his department also released the latest open data attempt; a map summarising how much council tax is paid in each area of the UK. The map is shown below and for those without chronic short-sight you can see a full sized version here:

The map clearly shows that those areas that are populated by wealthy people are paying more council tax.

Aha, might say those in favour of council cuts; the areas that are the most wealthy, and paying the highest council taxes, are also those that received the smallest cuts. See, I told you it was fair.

Except, that’s not what the map shows at all.

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The first cut is the deepest, but the second will hurt more

April 15, 2011

Another phrase to be banned

On Twitter during the week we had a discussion about the jargon and phrases that local government officers use on a regular basis, and those which the LGA feel should be on their ‘banned’ list.  Some, such as ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ are themselves not bad words, although the context they are used in often confuses their meaning.

Others however have a deserving place on the list.  Phrases such as ‘citizen touchpoints’ and ‘thought shower’ have no place in the normal world, and certainly not when talking with local people.  Jargon has its uses; it can convey complex issues quickly and easily between those who understand what it means, but it can also seriously exclude those who are unfamiliar with it (assuming that is that ‘exclude’ isn’t itself a banned word).

A new phrase seems to be entering the office at the moment which I think should be added to that list; ‘cash envelope’.  Pictures of seedy men in raincoats leaving packages of used bills behind public toilet cisterns instantly spring to mind for some reason, when instead nothing sexier than balance sheets and budget books is being discussed.  Apparently services are all trying to ‘push the cash envelope’ to gather as much money to them as possible in the short term in order to store it away for the long term; like a squirrel burying nuts in the autumn, the idea is that when more painful cuts are to be made in the next financial year there will at least be something left to cut.

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Internal markets in the council

April 14, 2011

Now, that's what I call an internal market

I had a Chief Executive who said that if the work we were doing was not directly benefitting or serving a member of the public then we were probably doing the wrong thing. In the same organisation we were told to focus closely on what the needs of our customers were and seek to deliver it. Finally, I was told, as a member of a support service, that I needed to ensure that I was delivering what the frontline service needed and not just what I felt was important.

All of the three statements are correct and not necessarily mutually exclusive.

However, they do highlight the complex position that people within support services are often in. On the one hand they usually have a formal role to undertake, such as audit, finance or legal services. On the other hand they are working for a public service and therefore should be serving the public and finally they are a SUPPORT service so should really just work for the service they are supporting.

It is a quandary that local authorities have long been trying to straighten out and one of the favoured tactics is to set up the internal business unit, or if this is a bit much, the approximation of an internal business unit.

The support service can then charge the frontline services in the council for their work.

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