I love reading political thrillers, especially the ones which involve someone fairly insignificant managing to change the course of the novel through their brave actions. You spend the book rooting for the underdog and the cause they represent and then at the end they usually succeed and everyone realises they were right all along.
Local Government is many things but no-one would ever claim that it is appropriate for a political novel. However, this week at my council we came about as close to political intrigue as I have ever experienced in local government.
At the moment all the council’s proposed budget cuts are being discussed by our political masters. As part of this process the managers of services which are facing potentially controversial budget cuts have been required to attend various committees and defend themselves. It’s a fairly simple process; the Directors of each directorate sits in for the whole meeting along with our chief financial officer and various department heads are called in to discuss the details of the services in turn.
This week it was the turn of a department which provides preventative services. As the service is not statutory they had been asked to find a rather substantial cut in their budget and were not happy about it.
The section of the meeting started fairly normally with the chair asking the manager to outline how the saving would be made and the impact that the cuts to the service would have. I believe the second question asked was around the steps that would be place to mitigate the impact of the cuts. So far so standard; after the councillors are getting used to facing horrible decisions and managers that are obviously not happy about putting forward savings that are going to damage services they care passionately about.
However, question three was a classic. I don’t have the exact words but it went something like this:
Councillor: Have you done any calculations as to the financial costs of making the cuts to your service, both to the council and to the wider public services in the county?
This was an odd question as these calculations are notoriously difficult to make and as far as I am aware we hadn’t carried them out.
Manager: We have actually and the impact on the rest of the county would be £56 million.
Boom! That came out of the blue.
The chair of the committee turned to the chief financial officer and asked whether he was aware of these numbers. The answer was no but he would be happy to look them over. What else could he say?
The Director sat there looking like he had swallowed a wasp and the councillor who had asked the question looked quite pleased with herself. With no evidence elsewhere it was, she said, impossible to approve the cuts at this stage and they should be referred to full council for final decision.
The manager in question did not make himself many friends but by conspiring with the councillor against his own boss and our chief financial officer he had laid the perfect trap and got himself a stay of execution. I don’t know if he played his cards a little early but right now he’s looking pretty smart and his boss is pretty cross.
Ok, so the political intrigue is fairly small here and doubtless this goes on in councils across the country but it does illustrate the changing alliances and complicated relationships that exist between councillors and officers, especially when there are cuts to budgets taking place. I expect this to continue over the coming weeks, months and years.
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