Archive for May 2012

The trouble with experts

May 31, 2012

I don’t know everything.  There, I’ve finally said it – there are things which I simply don’t know.  I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery, I don’t know how to land an aeroplane in an emergency and I don’t know how to make Piers Morgan likeable.

I don’t feel bad about this lack of knowledge though, because for all the things I don’t know (except the latterly mentioned Piers Morgan conundrum) there are other people out there who do know how to do these things.  For each of these problems and for many, many others there are experts who have spent their lives (or at least 10,000 hours) learning about a specific topic and becoming the people who deliver solutions.

And then on the other hand are those people who speak with authority on subjects, yet have little to substantiate their attitudes and opinions.  Admittedly this is more of an immediate issue when faced with heart surgery or a descending 747, but in the less extreme world of local government these individuals have the ability to cause more pain, confusion and blockages than a street bought burrito after a night out.

I will use a recent experience to demonstrate my point here, but please don’t think this is confined to any single field of work; these people and attitudes permeate every service and level of local government. (more…)

Eric Pickles is at it again

May 30, 2012

Ever the politician

It has been a while since the mighty Eric Pickles has raised the ire of the WLLG team. This has not been for want of trying. Mr Pickles’ latest thoughts of multi-culturalism raised a curious eyebrow, his entreaty to business people to work harder made us wonder if he had simply forgotten he wasn’t talking about local government that day, his re-announcement of the business rates changes mildly distracted us, and his obsession with street parties and flags keeping us amused if not informed.

But whilst Mr Pickles might have been characteristically provocative in his speech (something which we actually value here at WLLG) the simple fact is that the DCLG has somewhat run out of policies, ideas and general announcements. Even the Queens Speech was a largely DCLG free zone.

All this was to change on Monday. With what announcement did the DCLG choose to make the political running you may ask? Well, this:

New council tax help for hard-working families and pensioners

Good news you might think and as the press release continues we find out that:

These reforms could allow councils to make up to a £20 reduction in the bill for a typical Band D property in England, or hold bills down by the same amount.

Amongst some sensible reforms (finally, individuals can pay their council tax over 12 equal instalments ending the ‘put it all into 10 months’ nonsense) the Government was particularly keen to emphasise this £20 reduction they are freeing up local authorities to provide through their technical changes. This money is freed up by giving:

Councils greater local flexibility to choose to waive special tax relief on second homes and empty homes, allowing councils to use the monies to keep the overall rate of council tax down. This would allow a £20 saving on a Band D council tax bill for ordinary families. There will be no requirement for councils to make any changes, if they do not wish.

So, why on earth did this seemingly innocuous announcement raise the ire of the WLLG team?

Well, it was the sheer bare-faced cheek of it.

(more…)

Localgov – the movie

May 29, 2012

Last night I sat down at the computer with the express intention of writing an insightful post looking at the rivalries and relationships apparent at each and every level of local government and the differences between these at each level of local government. However, an episode of Game of Thrones and a spousal insistence upon a Big Bang Theory marathon drained me somewhat, so I have instead decided to share a classic game played between myself and colleagues.

It’s a simple one: simply choose a topic (in our case local government) and a theme (today’s is movies) and mash them up; voila! We’d love you to join in too – either leave them in the comments below or tweet using #lgovmovies.

Here are some starters for ten:

  • Eric in Wonderland
  • Batman – The Dark Knight’s annual Returns
  • The Empire Strikes over pensions
  • Mad Max 3 – Beyond the DCLG-dome
  • Dispicable MP
  • Grant Shapps and the Chamber of Secrets (more…)

It’s the people stupid

May 28, 2012

Are they truly smiling or just complying?

How many times have we heard the spiel from a consultant or a new Chief Executive promising us that a new structure, new way of working, new computer system or new approach to reviewing the local authority will deliver the savings or improved service we need?

The answer of course is many many times.

As regular readers of this blog will know we are generally fairly sympathetic to this approach. Too often local government is trapped in the belief that we should just continue to do things the way we always have and there is a lot to learn by considering problems from a different point of view or by applying sensibly thought through management tools and techniques. At the same time we get trapped in our management silos and forget that the main aim of the work we do is to serve our customers.

Indeed, sometimes the change is useful even if it is not perfectly designed as just the act of changing things can be beneficial.

However, over the past few months I have been reflecting on the changes we’ve tried to make in our local authority and the one deciding factor in each case of success, and indeed each of failure, has been the people involved. Perhaps, the hardcore systems thinkers amongst you will be shouting at this screen that if that is the case then we’ve obviously chosen the wrong solution to implement or simply not done it properly. My observation is based on nothing but anecdotal evidence but to me it seems that the people involved, especially at management level, are just as important, if not more so.

This should not be a surprise really. We all know who the really good people are in local government and have a pretty good idea who the poor ones are too. However, what was a surprise was how absolutely the staff involved influenced the success or otherwise of the work.

This has a few different elements:

(more…)

That was the local government week that was

May 25, 2012

Back by something less than popular demand

‘Woohoo!’ I hear you say, can it really be that after a one week hiatus the WLLG round-up is back?

Well, yes, by popular demand (err, well not exactly but humour us) we’ve scoured the world of local government to bring you our favourite bits of the week. Well, that and the pieces we thought we could comment on.

We have been watching the changes to the relationship between the NHS and local government with a lot of interest and this week the LGIU published one of their excellent briefings accompanied by this post entitled ‘Health and Wellbeing Boards: system leaders or talking shops?’. The blog correctly identifies some issues that have yet to be resolved by this boards and particulr flagged the following:

An important issue which is not yet being addressed head-on is the relationship between the council and the HWB as a council committee. This is will be particularly important in relation to NHS provider reconfigurations which so often prove politically challenging. The Kings Fund describes the situation regarding contested reconfiguration as follows:

‘Even where there is a compelling case for change on the grounds of clinical safety or outcomes, the local authority will come under pressure to reflect local opinion and preserve valued services…In these circumstances the local health and wellbeing boards will be in the eye of the storm and the current wave of generalised goodwill on which they have been riding will quickly dissipate.’

The Tax Payers Alliance (TPA) 2020 tax report was largely ignored by the political classes, due in part to the fact that it advocated a huge tax cut for the wealthy and described people who opposed that point of view as suffering from sexual jealousy. However the report did make mention of local government and on that point we sort of find ourselves agreeing with them. As the Conservative Home blog points out:

Part of the mix they propose would see more tax at a local level, with councils less dependent on central government handouts. For localism to be a reality it must include the management of money. Otherwise councils are the paid agents of Whitehall. The report argues that half the net spending of a council should be paid for from locally raised tax – rather than 17% at present.

The politics of their plan would be greatly helped by the context of tax going down overall. But the power to impose a Sales Tax would come on top of retaining VAT. They would also allow a Local Income Tax.

Perhaps a bit too radical for some but a point definitely worth making and exploring further.

(more…)

Right to Build

May 24, 2012

Last month the government relaunched a scheme which has been more controversial than most schemes to emenate out of Whitehall over the years: Right to Buy. Finding its roots way back in the distant past (well, the 80s), this scheme encourages council tenants to take their first steps onto the home ownership ladder through providing a discount should they want to purchase their council owned home.

Apparently, over 2m social homes have been bought by their tenants since the schemes first incarnation, although in recent years this number has tailed off dramatically (only 4000 purchases of this type happened in 2011). Whilst primarily this is down to the tough economic times, it is also down to the fact that the value of the discount fell so heavily. In London for example, the discount fell from 53% way down to 10%, which is a real pain when property prices have increased from £16,493 in the year of the Silver Jubilee to £354,300 during this year’s royal celebrations.

I have very mixed feelings on this issue, and quite a split between my personal and my professional minds. On the one hand Right to Buy is a way for council tenants to grasp on by their fingernails to the property ladder, something which over the years has become tougher to do. With many seeing home ownership as an aspiration, any way of helping can only be seen as a good thing.

However, speaking less selfishly I’m pretty concerned at the current state of affairs. Part of this stems from the scheme itself, but mostly on its impact on the quantity and quality of housing stock remaining and being built to make up for purchased property’s loss. (more…)

Do we employ the right people in local government?

May 23, 2012

Answering questions…

Our good friends at the Guardian Local Government Network deliver each Friday a local government careers e-mail. The e-mail includes a link to their ‘working lives’ blog where local government employees describe what their job entails; a section called ask our members where local government people can ask for career advice and links to jobs and helpful career based articles. If you haven’t signed up before now you should.

All of this is by introduction to today’s post which seeks to answer the GLGN’s career question of the week:

Is local government employing the wrong type of people? Does it need to think about bringing people in from a much wider group, rather than focusing on people with previous public sector experience?

This is a common question and one that is often asked of the Whitehall civil service; an institution that generally employs policy generalists at the age of 25 and then at 45 after twenty years doing just that expects them to run departments, mange substantial IT systems and deliver complicated projects. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, was particularly scathing of this element of the civil service and I have no doubt that the debate over civil service skills will continue under the current administration.

But how does this work for local government? On face value the two shouldn’t be comparable. Whereas the whole civil service is, and here I am stereotyping for effect, basically one big policy team, local councils usually have a small policy team outside of the Chief Executive’s office. The rest of the staff on the council are carrying out front line service delivery.

(more…)

The absurdity that is “flexitime”

May 22, 2012

A missive regarding the unhappy commencement of my employment

Dear Mother,

I am writing to you after experiencing my first day at my new office. The sights I have seen, the horror, the chaos; I scarcely understand the system before me and how any success is achieved here in local government. It may be of a shocking nature, but I feel I must share all I have seen to warn you, lest my younger siblings ever harbour secret desires of joining me in public service.  I shall take you through my initial lessons in turn; be warned however, that you may wish to sit before reading further, lest your weak constitution get the better of you.

To begin with, when I arrived I was greeted and informed that a bowler hat and monacle was not “required attire”. I struggled with this concept for a period of time, but eventually agreed to acceed to their request and dress “smart casual” (note to self: discover what this actually entails and whether or not coat tails are truly “casual”).

After this came the biggest shock of all: I was introduced to the concept of “flexitime”. I do hope I do not cause you distress by using quotation marks so freely, but I feel this issue requires such flagrant overuse of these grammatical devices.

Apparently, through “flexitime” staff work the hours to which they have been contracted: can you imagine such a thing? If they have agreed and signed up to deliver 36 hours of work each and every week, this “flexitime” arrangement allows them to do just this. But that’s not all.

“Flexitime” is apparantly a shortened form of the words “flexible” and “time”, and mixes these two issues somewhat strangely. It allows staff to take a flexible approach to their work, resulting in them potentially not sitting at their desks at every moment of the day (statuory recommended meal and relief breaks notwithstanding of course).

Can you comprehend such a situation? If staff have arrangements in their lives which would benefit from a more flexible approach to organising their hours, then they are encouraged to do so. Madness! This sees some staff arriving at eight in the morning and leaving at four o’clock without a by-your-leave or query from the security staff, whilst others arrive at the ungodly hour of ten in the morning. Ten o’clock! By such a time Mr Godfrey would have been at his desk for some time in the office back in the village. (more…)

A day out in Staines (upon Thames)

May 21, 2012

It’s by the river you know! – Picture courtesy of http://www.stainespeople.co.uk/home

Sometimes we receive a guest post and think it might be a simple promo job. Despite appearances to the contrary we’re pretty convinced this is not one of those and in fact make a really strong case for local authorities as geographically based entities and not just service delivery organisations. It’s therefore well worth a read:

Neither living in, nor working in, the borough of Spelthorne I was, to put it lightly, a little sceptical at the council’s attempts to rename the town of Staines to call it Staines upon Thames. After all, is changing the name really going to make any difference to the town? It was next to the Thames before the name change and it will remain next to the river after the name change. It was not as posh as Richmond or Windsor before the name change and this will not change after the name change.

However, when a friend of mine invited me to pop along to Staines upon Thames day, the official launch of the new name for the town I was intrigued to say the least (the promise of beer and jazz had nothing to do about it).

What I found was, in its own way, brilliant.

The local council had done more than just voted to change the name of the town. The day they had organised to launch the new name showcased local charities, voluntary groups, water based leisure activities and businesses. It featured local bands singing from a stage in the town centre and a map of Staines upon Thames where local residents could signal their favourite parts of the newly named metropolis.

And the crème de la crème of the whole experience was a duck race. The race involved placing over 1300 ducks in the river, each costing a couple of quid and contributing to local charity, and then, a la pooh sticks, waiting for the current to do what it does best.

All in all the day was quaint but well attended.

It was also a good reminder of why we have local councils and the importance of a sense of place. Everything about the day, and the plan to change the town’s name, was based on a wide coalition of local supporters. The event itself was sponsored by at least twenty local businesses, the street signs were sponsored by a local estate agent and many of the stewards for the day were provided by the Heathrow airport ‘here to help’ team (which was quite cool). Many businesses had stalls; usually with some games to support local charities. And most of all many members of the town turned out to show their support, both for the new name and for their local area.

(more…)

This post is urgent

May 18, 2012

You’ve got mail!

To: Reader, Readers, Skimmers, Non-readers

CC: My boss; your boss; Finance; HR

BCC: My colleagues who I need to know that I am taking this seriously

Subject: URGENT: Action needed!!!

Dear Readers,

It has come to our attention that readers of this blog have NOT been reading the blog early enough in the morning. To make matters worse it has been reported to me that some readers of the blog have not been reading the blog consistently.

I have also heard of some readers who only skim read the posts.

This is obviously NOT acceptable and I write to you asking for this to be rectified straight away!!!

As such, I expect an immediate response from all of you covering the following points:

  1. WHAT YOU WILL DO TO RECTIFY THE SITUATION
  2. BY WHEN

I should also remind you of comments made in previous communications on this topic. As the boss has said recently:

Please enjoy today’s post.’

I am not going to report back to my boss and tell him/her/it that this has NOT been fixed by each and every one of you!!!

<Insert name of defenceless admin officer> Localgov: I would like to remind you that you are meant to be RESPONSIBLE for this issue. Please inform all readers as to their duties regarding this. I also expect a full report from you accompanying a new procedure manual for monitoring the reading habits of the readers.

ALL: Let me REASSERT that I expect this situation to be fixed within the next <Insert random timescale> and will not accept any excuses.

IF YOU DO NOT FIX THIS I WILL BE FORCED TO ESCLATE THIS TO YOUR BOSS’S, BOSS’s, BOSS’s BOSS!!!

WLLG

PS. This is obviously not that urgent or I would have picked up the phone or come and seen you in person. But I am angry, running out of the door and won’t have a chance to bug you about this for at least four days and I needed to make everyone in the organisation know that I am taking this very seriously indeed.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com We’re not angry in real life… Honest!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 241 other followers