The political context

Posted June 18, 2012 by localgovaswell
Categories: We love the Council

Tags: , , ,

The political context – on a mug

At a recent WLLG catch up we decided that we’d like to mix it up a little and try something different with the blog. So for this week we will be presenting five short posts looking at five elements of the local government sector and where we think we are right now. Today’s post is the first in the series and looks at the political context. We hope you enjoy this and the other pieces this week and look forward to hearing your responses to them.

When we stumbled upon the idea of writing a week long themed version of the WLLG blog taking on board some of the broader issues impacting local government I signed up to write this post thinking it would be a rather simple localist treatise plotting the future for local government in a new environment. This was not the case.

The more I think about it the more I am reminded of the innate complexity of the local government policy arena we all work in. Councils operate hundreds of services and each of them is governed to a greater or not quite a great extent by the Whitehall machinery. Thus, there is little that local government does that is not deeply impacted by central government.

This post then, has a danger of being central government focused which is precisely what I had hoped to avoid. However, despite my misgivings we do need to start with the coalition.

The recent Queens Speech was a bit of a waste of time and effort and seemed to many to show a Government that had run out of ideas.

I differ a little.

I suggest that the reason the Queens Speech was such a letdown was that the Government has already cast its dye in most key areas and is basically just in an implementation phase. The true impact of these changes will have a much greater effect on the perceived success, or failure, of the coalition than anything the Queen read out in 2012.

In most key areas of Government activity the coalition wisely used the first few years of the term to get their reforms out of the way.

Austerity and the accompanied dramatic cuts to public spending are definitely an ideological approach to our economic malaise but they provide a consistent, if controversial, base to the coalition’s economic plans. Whatever ‘Plan B’ ends up looking like it will be based on the austerity foundations. Whether this succeeds or ends up failing dramatically will probably define the success or otherwise of the coalition. Meanwhile these cuts are probably the single biggest risk facing local government now and in the next five or more years.

The changes to the welfare system will have an even greater impact on the local government finances. This is not least because the government has cynically told local government to cut council tax benefit by 10% whilst protecting all sorts of people and then at the same time said that if local government wants to not make the cuts they can just cut other services. Of all the Government changes this is the one that annoys me the most as it is brazen, cynical and most of all cowardly.

Other welfare changes will also impact local government and put more pressure on our services.

Meanwhile the major changes the Government is making to Health and Education are already underway and each impacts local government. Free schools and academies no doubt undermine the influence of local authorities over local education but many councils are more vexed with the Government’s attitude over funding for new school building or renovation. Structures are important but what matters to teachers, parents, students and local politicians more is whether the schools that everyone is working in are in a fit state.

Mr Gove and his colleagues should make sure this problem is fixed, and fixed soon.

The changes to the health service have possibly wide ranging impacts on local government. Although the NHS has basically reconstituted PCTs in another form with the Commissioning Support Organisations for now, in the long term it seems more logical that local authorities might provide partnership to their Clinical Commissioning Groups. From a place perspective isn’t this more sensible than what is currently being offered in many areas? The Government seem keen to push local CCGs to operate tendering processes between local councils and the private sector thus ensuring that CCGs either go NHS or go private but I hope the Government will change their tune on that one.

Meanwhile, the challenges of localism and the Big Society will continue to bring new players into the local service provision. This provides a unique challenge to local government, not least as this will probably mean that local government has to get better at change; services may change providers every few years, services may fail and commissioning will have to be imaginative to meet ever changing local needs. The risks of this are huge but there are opportunities to exploit as well.

All of the above examples provide challenges for local politicians. No longer are they at the top of a command and control structure where their every word is implemented by somewhat star struck council officers. Instead, increasingly their direct influence is declining, to be replaced by an influence based on their ability to negotiate on behalf of their communities. I would argue that this makes councillors infinitely more important as without this democratic accountability or local consent we are left with services that have no connection to the communities they serve.

However, it is a real challenge and will involve councillors upping their collective game. Whether we have provided them with enough support to play this new role I am uncertain but seeing the development of it will be fascinating over the next 5-10 years.

Whilst most of the Government’s legacy is already put in train there is one area where we don’t yet know the impact or indeed whether the Government is going to have the courage to put in place a long term sustainable solution; funding of Adult Social Care. As the Barnet graph of doom shows, if this issue is not addressed soon the entire council budget could be taken by funding adult and childrens social care within a decade. An unfathomable amount of people support something equivalent to the Dilnot report and the fact that the Government have yet to put forward a Bill to implement the recommendations is a peculiar example of either Government feebleness or civil service intransigence or both.

As you can see, a post that was meant to be a localist treatise ended up being a quick trot through the impact of the coalition government on local government.

This is, of course, not totally fair. Local government is still the most innovative and fast moving part of the Government structure in the UK. Thus, whilst austerity is the unifying feature for all local government and the changes being made by the Government represent the context in which local government is operating right now, the changes being made around the country differ depending on the council concerned.

I’m going to be honest; I don’t know what’s happening in over 350 councils around the country. I could probably not do much more than ten. However, every time I visit a council or speak to more enthusiastic and forward thinking members of staff there is always something interesting and innovative happening.

Local government’s ability to continually flex to the changing contexts we face is central to the Government being able to introduce its radical and wide ranging policy prospectus. Our role is also crucial to ensuring that services provided locally that so many people rely on are provided in the best way possible.

Local government will rise and meet this challenge and it would be nice if the coalition recognised this once in a while rather than always being on the attack.

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 

Weaknesses

Posted June 15, 2012 by localgovaswell
Categories: We love the Council

Tags: , , ,

Weakness can be a strength… But perhaps not at the Olympics!

If there is one thing I have learnt in my local government career it is that we are collectively really poor at identifying personal weaknesses.

By this I don’t mean that we are bad at identifying mistakes or errors. On the contrary we are excellent at this and many authorities have cultures of hanging people out to dry without giving them support or identifying why the problem occurred.

Instead, what I am talking about is our individual inability to be self-reflective and recognise that we have some weaknesses. Equally, the managers in our workplaces seem to have difficulty identifying the weaknesses of those below them and focusing on them as areas of improvement.

I don’t think that weaknesses are a bad thing. Weaknesses imply other areas that are strengths and we should be proactive in accepting that people have a bit of both. If not then we are probably accepting mediocrity across the board or expecting universal brilliance or incompetence, both of which are equally unlikely.

This inability to identify weaknesses impacts the organisation in a number of ways.

  1. In the workplace we often set staff up to fail by asking them to do things which they are not comfortable doing. We then run the risk of assuming they are poor performing rather than just someone with strengths and weaknesses (like all of us).
  2. People become defensive when mistakes are made or performance is low instead of asking for help as soon as they realise things are going off track.
  3. We fail to improve our staff due to our focus on what they do well. Thus, a member of staff could be in an organisation for ten years and never take action on an area, or be told, that they really need to improve in certain areas.
  4. Teams are rarely ever planned with complementary skills. Indeed, as we fail to recognise weaknesses appropriately we end up with teams with shared weaknesses.
  5. On a slightly different but related note, projects are often reported as being green because people are reluctant to admit that there are weaknesses in their project and would rather pitch it as green than admit failings and ask for help.

The problem doesn’t just exist in individual staff members or an organisational culture that doesn’t encourage this sort of critical self-awareness; it also rests with managers.

Read the rest of this post »

We’ve had an idea…

Posted June 14, 2012 by localgov
Categories: We love the Council

Tags: , , , , ,

If we’ve said it once we’ve said it loads of times: everybody loves an arbitrary milestone.  We here at WLLG Towers are no exception to this rule, and way back in the dark and distant past (well, October last year anyway) we celebrated breaking the 100,000 hits barrier by asking some of our favourite local government types to tell us why they too love local government.

Well, we’ve just sailed past the 200,000 barrier with barely a glance over our shoulders, so it’s high time we celebrated another marker along the way with something a little different.  An e-mail which began with the words “I’ve had an idea…” started winging its way between us, and we thought we should share it with you as we think it’s got legs.  Short, stumpy legs perhaps, but legs nonetheless.

Local government has a rough deal.  We do more things than most give us credit for, better than most know and all without much in the way of reward past job satisfaction.  We do all we do for pride and for the local people we serve.  We would say this is a noble endeavour, and worthy of wider recognition and – perhaps – even appreciation.

With this in mind, we’d like to propose that we take the route of so many other issues and entities out there, and declare an arbitrary day or week as ‘Local Government Day/Week’. Read the rest of this post »

Officers and Members – A response

Posted June 13, 2012 by localgovaswell
Categories: Big P Politics, We love the Council

Tags: , , ,

Two days in a row for the same picture… Gotta love ‘Yes Minister’

Sometimes a post we write generates a little debate. Often this debate takes place on twitter or on the comments section of the post but sometimes one of our readers is inspired enough to write a more lengthy response and sends it to us direct. When this happens we like to, with permission, publish the response and see what the rest of our readers make of it. Today is one such day; yesterday’s post about officers and members argued:

Do councillors or officers run local authorities? The rather messy answer is both, and rightly so. In my experience councillors should be in charge but officers must be freed up to make the decisions that councillors do not have the time, capacity or inclination to make.

I hope you enjoy today’s post, join in the debate and if there is anything you’d like to contribute do comment below, tweet or drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com but not before you’ve enjoyed this:

When I was a relatively junior officer, I was told by my boss that officers run the council despite the members, and I think that there are times when this is true. This might charitably be characterised as protecting members from the consequences of their intentions or actions, particularly when they have not taken the initial advice of officers.

Of course I understand the democratic accountability argument, but the reality is that most councillors are selected by a handful of party hacks who are generally struggling to find anyone to stand, and are elected by 40% of the 33% that can be bothered to vote. That is hardly a ringing mandate to do anything, so let’s not get too teary-eyed about it.

Before you write me off as a cynical bureaucrat, let me say that I have worked with some great councillors, who have a clear vision about what they want to achieve, and the ability and intelligence to drive it through. Generally they understand that the minutiae of actually running the organisation should be left to the officers, whom they rightly hold accountable for delivering their objectives. As your blogger says, things are achieved then that would never be achieved without that political intervention. This is when democracy really is working. More needs to be done to persuade people of this calibre that local government is something in which it is worth them investing their time.

Read the rest of this post »

Are officers or members really in charge?

Posted June 12, 2012 by localgovaswell
Categories: We love the Council

Tags: , , , ,

Any excuse…

One of the many criticisms targeted at local government is that councils are not really run by the locally elected politicians but instead are just run by council officers. Some council officers agree with this sentiment but instead of seeing this as a criticism believe that councils would be better if councils were indeed truly run by their officers.

It’s often been said that if you annoying people on both sides of an argument then you are probably doing something right.

However, although the truth probably lies in the middle of the two positions it is still an issue that is worthy of further debate. And unlike the relationship between civil servants and ministers (thanks in part to Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) the relationship between officers and members is comparably under-studied.

There are two questions that need to be answered:

  1. Are members or officers really in charge?
  2. Does it actually matter?

To answer the first question there is both a technical answer and a practical answer.

In the technical sense councillors are mostly in charge. All major decisions need to be made by the council or cabinet and whilst smaller decisions can be made by delegated officers (usually senior officers) the delegated authorities that allow for this are constitutional, controlled by the councillors anyway and can easily be removed.

Anyone who has worked in a local authority can also attest to the fact that councillors can and do interfere in almost every area of the council, even if sometimes they focus disproportionately on smaller areas. However, and this is a big however, the extent to which a local authority is truly run by the councillors is open to debate.

Technically, the councillors are in control and practically they do get involved in all sorts of areas but the extent of their control is limited to their capacity, and desire, to be in charge.

And this is where the debate really begins.

Because, in all areas where the councillors, for whatever reason, choose not to be in charge officers are left holding the baby.

Read the rest of this post »

Being Critical

Posted June 11, 2012 by localgovaswell
Categories: We love the Council

Tags: , , ,

Critical thinking – even the kids are at it…

Sometimes, a throwaway comment made by someone else can have real resonance. And so it was a few weeks ago when someone at a conference I attended mentioned (I think it might have been Carrie Bishop but if not sorry to whoever did say it)  that being a policy officer in local government rewarded negativity. Officers were given extra points if they could dissect a piece of policy or another proposal, in as elegant a manner as possible.

The reason that wrung true is that it’s not just policy officers; being critical, and having a critical mind, is one of the most sought after traits in local government.

Think back to the last time you sat in on a strategy meeting or something similar. Doubtless there was an officer there who had brought forward a researched and thought through paper that was then dissected by the attending managers. Even those that are supportive will only use their support as a preamble to then depart some piece of critical wisdom.

This is not necessarily a surprise. Having critical thought is one of the traits most praised in degree students and in society in general. Being critical assumes that you are able to analyse situations and not just take them at face value. The high value given to it in local authorities presumes that the act of creating good policy and particularly making good decisions requires the deconstruction of other work and thorough questioning before the right outcome can emerge.

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