Archive for January 2012

Is content king?

January 31, 2012

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Jeremy Hunt sat in a packed room in the House of Commons and spoke with the expectant crowd about his plans to both open up broadband access to more of the public as well as to enable the roll out of ultra high speed broadband for a small number of towns. He also sat through a rather cheeky and lengthy pitch for Gateshead’s city status bid, but perhaps that’s a mini-rant for another day.

These plans for enabling more people than ever to get online are very welcome, especially with the ever growing importance of channel shift (moving people from face-to-face contact to phones, and from phones to online in order to save money). Smartphones are becoming ever more prevalent, and decent Internet connection will help make these channel ambitions a reality. We’ve previously discussed that this isn’t for everyone, but the direction of travel for the masses appears to be clear.

So far, so good. We are helping people to get online and encouraging them to do so; what could go wrong?

Have you seen your average council website?

If its anything like the random sample we looked at then it doesn’t matter how fast your web access is or how much you are pushed towards it, you are not going to go back any time soon. (more…)

Neutrality

January 30, 2012

Keeping a Straight Face

‘Right Eric, I have had enough. When you and your acolytes have been purposefully dishonest about local government services I am fine to disagree. When you slash our budgets and then blame local government for closing services I can understand that this is politics. But when you have the bare-faced cheek and total lack of integrity to attack council officers for giving impartial advice that you disagree with I have simply had it.

Pickles, I’m calling you out!’

So started what was going to be an epic rant about Eric Pickles’ latest salvo in the war about the council tax grant.

For those who missed it Mr Pickles said the following:

‘Particularly to finance officers, there is a danger here of being involved in politics, in a way. There is a referendum [trigger], and to suddenly find yourself mysteriously arriving in that place between zero and where you have to face the electorate is a highly political decision.

To put it another way I’m happy to use the headline from the Public Finance magazine:

‘Don’t meddle with council tax freeze’, Pickles warns FDs

As you imagine what especially annoyed me about this is that Mr Pickles had just tried to drag officers into the debate about council tax. He should know better. Much like civil servants local government officers are, especially at the level of finance director, politically neutral.

However, I took a deep breath and decided that having a Monday post upset with Mr Pickles two weeks in a row was the beginning of an unhealthy obsession; and continuing that rant was going to be bad for my blood pressure.

(more…)

That was the local government week that was

January 27, 2012

A week gone, two weeks work done

As we near the end of January it is fair to say that life for the WLLG team continues to be mighty busy. We’ve all had manic weeks at work and with cuts to make and services to keep going, and even improve, and less staff to do it all things don’t look like they’re going to slow down any time soon.

The big news story this week was not Eric Pickles describing local authorities as immoral over council tax but the debate over the benefits cap. People I work with find the debate about the benefits cap deeply frustrating, feeling that there is little or nothing to be gained, for example, by turfing single mothers (who make up a large proportion of those in our social housing) out of their homes just to save some money on the benefits bill. These feelings were shared and brilliantly summarised on the not so big society blog. As the excellent Ermintrude2 points out:

Politics of envy is easy but it is ignoble. By encouraging the population to envy those who have less rather than those who have more (i.e. the class of politicians) they are diverting our attention from the real battles we should be fighting.

However, when I got home and had a chat with Mrs WLLG about all this she made the point that whilst I might understand the intricacies of the benefits system for the normal member of the public this seems ridiculous and we should be more willing to identify those examples which just aren’t right. The debate will continue – and not just in the WLLG household!

(more…)

‘Meeting’ the challenge

January 26, 2012

On the way to a meeting?

I’m not sure if hit US TV show the West Wing quite counts as ‘retro’ yet but either way it certainly was unexpected when it popped into my mind on the way to my fifth meeting of the day.

The scene that sprang to mind was one where the hyperactive Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, is scheduled for an early morning meeting with someone from NASA. He goes to meeting under duress from his ever faithful assistant Donna and does his best to get out of there as quick as he can. When confronted about his lack of interest in the meeting he lays a little bit of intellectual smack down on the poor NASA administrator before commenting:

I prepare even for meetings I don’t want to go to. I wasn’t improvising. You guys are lost in space.

If we forget the awful space pun (Aaron Sorkin on an off day me thinks) the rest of his comment really resonates with me.

Ask yourself this question: How many times have you had a busy week and thought to yourself, I’ll just skip reading the papers for that meeting and work it out as I go? I know I’ve done it and I can state with cast iron certainty that nearly every single person I have sat in a meeting with has also done so at one time or another. Indeed, I have heard one manager tell me that she didn’t have time to read the papers for a meeting because she had real work to do.

(more…)

A question of standards

January 25, 2012

Guest post alert, and this pleases us.  As regular readers will know, WLLG Towers is home to more than one brain, but even between us all we find a fair few corners of the local government world about which we know pitifully small amounts.  If you happen to have some thoughts to share about any such corner then please send them in to us at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com, as did today’s fantastic guest blogger DSO.  Enjoy!

In those heady days after the last general election, the coalition government sat down and hammered out a document, The Coalition: our programme for government, subtitled “Freedom Fairness Responsibility”. Included in the proposals for local government was a sentence which met with cheers from many local councillors: “We will abolish the Standards Board regime.”

Now, the Standards Board regime might have had a lot of reasons to be disliked, but it would never have been established if there hadn’t been a need for some oversight of ethical standards in the conduct of local councillors. The vast majority had no trouble sticking to the Code of conduct although they might have resented the necessity of legislating requirements to treat people with respect, not bullying and not to abuse their position for personal gain.

The real problems came from those determined to breach it on principle and from the complicated framework for dealing with complaints: investigations could drag on for months, there was secrecy concerning what information was seen and by whom, and no one was ever satisfied with the outcome of a Standards Committee hearing. Some of these criticisms were addressed when the regime was overhauled in 2008, transferring most of the work to local councils to speed up the process and bring local knowledge into play, but at the same time increasing costs for the local council. Everything had to be filtered through a first-stage committee meeting which could consider only evidence from the complainant and, based on this one-sided view, had to decide what to do next: investigate or drop it. An authority in the southwest received more than 800 complaints from one resident, and had to meet to decide what to do with each of them as the legislation didn’t allow the Monitoring Officer any discretion to dismiss clearly vexatious complaints. (more…)

Things we learnt at #UKGC12

January 24, 2012

Wow!  What an end to the week last week!  For those of you who didn’t know, last Friday saw one or more from the WLLG team making our way to the Microsoft offices in London Victoria for the fifth UK Gov Camp, an ‘unconference’ with no set agenda, no guarantees and no limits.  The participants set the agenda themselves, pitching their ideas for things they’d like to present or like to talk about, and those who find at least one other person to speak with do just that.  The wonderful ‘rule of two feet‘, which means no-one gets offended if someone leaves a session before the end, allows participants to never find themselves in a useless session and to put it simply, great things happen.

We strongly recommend you take a look at some examples of blogs (here, herehere, here, here, here and here) , twitter conversations, pictures and anything else that have been shared since the end of the first session and throughout the two day camp any time you are lacking a little motivation or inspiration.  In fact, the nigh-on legendary Dan Slee thought it would be good for participants to share some of their initial thoughts and opinions of the day, so to follow suit here are ten things we learnt from #ukgc12.

People care

No, really, they do.  If they didn’t care about delivering great public services then there is simply no way they would have invested their own time and sometimes money to trek halfway across the country in order to sit in a building talking with other public service people.  There is no way at all that these conversations would be passionate and inspiring, and there is no way that many of these would lead directly to projects, concepts and work which would benefit more than those directly taking part.

People knock public servants in ever increasing numbers and sometimes there are occasions when they are right to do so.  However, if the attendees of those two days truly make up any percentage of staff then there is a lot of heart and energy being put in up and down the country to improve the lot for the rest of the population; you can’t put a price on this.

Innovators do more than tech (more…)

Morally Deficient?

January 23, 2012

Eric being moral?

We’re not really the sort of people who have New Year’s resolutions but when the excellent Guardian Local Government Network asked us to name one we said that we were going to be nicer to Eric Pickles in 2012. And you know what; we meant it.

Unfortunately, much like the diet, alcohol ban, gym attendance and intention to spend less money on cheesy Wotsits this New Year’s resolution has not made it to February.

So what caused our feelings towards Mr Pickles to turn so rapidly? Before showing the headline it is probably worth reminding people that Mr Pickles has offered every council money equivalent to a 2.5% increase in council tax and in return the council has to commit not to increase their tax this year. So back to our outrage…

One headline can sum it up:

Councils have ‘moral duty’ on tax – Eric Pickles.

A moral duty?!? As in this is an absolute? As in this is correct and any other interpretation is thus immoral?

Are you kidding me?

(more…)


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