Hold on lads, I’ve got an idea

The classic phrase is something along the lines of ‘if you put a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually one will reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare’.  Well, if apparently if you ask 65m people to come up with ideas for cutting the national defecit and saving money you’ll get a seemingly endless numbers of suggestions (whittled down to about 45,000 so far), both weird and wonderful.

In case you’ve missed it, the government have been asking people online to come up with any and all ideas for ways to cut costs, and boy have the people responded.  Interestingly, apparently two-thirds of suggestions have come from public sector staff (although take with a pinch of salt any piece of information presented with the word ‘apparently’ as a precursor).

There are literally tens of thousands of suggestions on the site, many of which are repeats, racist, xenophobic or just plain stupid.  However, there are some real gems in there, with some so basic and easy to do it really made me scratch my head and try to justify why they have yet to be done.

I’m not going to go through all of them, but over the next few posts from me I’ll take a look at some of my favourites from the list on the Independent’s website.

2 Charge for Freedom of Information requests. Last month I received a Freedom of Information request asking how many times the council flew flags at its main office. To answer this took about an hour – cost: £25. The request came from a journalist on a national paper and he emailed his request to all 400 public authorities – thereby, at the press of a button, costing the public sector £10,000. FoI legislation was never designed to cater for this kind of lazy journalism. This particular journalist submits several similar requests each month.

If information leads to knowledge, and knowledge is power, and our information is given away for free, does that mean that in reality our power is worthless?

According to the infallible Wikipedia: “Freedom of information legislation are rules that guarantee access to data held by the state. They establish a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions.”

At my place of work, we get some very simple requests from time to time, such as…..

Actually, come to think about it, I’ve never seen a simple FOI request.  Admittedly I don’t deal with them on a day to day basis, but nor have I ever been asked to provide a simple piece of information or answer a basic question.

FOI requesters seem to be engaged in some sort of internal competition with each other to request the most complex and comprehensive amount of information possible.  My favourite request to date I’ve received asked for no less than seventy-two pieces of separate information, each of which was incredibly complex to gather and present, many being commercially and technically sensitive and sensitive in many other ways (such as the names, job titles, project roles and pay grades of over two hundred individuals).  To top it off, they wanted this information for what was estimated to be fifteen different but linked projects delivered by my local authority, and sent the same request to every single London Borough.

I’ve got no problem at all answering some questions and being open about my work, and encourage that to continue, but let’s not think that this an easy or cheap thing to do.  A charge for each request to each organisation would limit the number of these frankly ridiculous requests and move it back towards the intention for which it was first created.  Loads of government data is now openly available anyway – take a look there before asking me to spend the best part of a week telling you nothing new..

5 The elderly face the possibility of paying and contributing to the cost of care homes. I believe it costs approx £40k per prisoner per year. Charge prisoners for their upkeep.

I just wanted to question this one – are they saying that pensioners are being held captive against their will?  Or are they saying the prisoners in jails across the country should be paying to send my Nan to bingo?

6 Let’s have fewer local councillors.

Here’s where I want to ask you, the reader, to help me out.  Why is this not possible?  Yes, it might mean some new line drawing on a map and a bit of merging, but what are the problems with this?

Assuming that areas are kept reasonably local and one Councillor is not responsible for too much; surely a bit of a cull wouldn’t hurt?  Councillors are (mostly) just normal people after all, so if we use the same logic as suggested for workers then they are only productive 32% of the time anyway, let’s get rid of a few and get the rest to just work a bit harder.

What are your own suggestions?  Leave a comment below and tell us!

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5 Comments on “Hold on lads, I’ve got an idea”

  1. localgovaswell Says:

    I cannot believe you just advocated getting rid of local councillors; as if the weak willed political accountability of local authorities will be solved by removing some of them.

    How about this; if you are going to remove them you have to pay the remaining councillors more and make it a proper job.

    After all, local government is meant to reflect the people’s needs and often does a porr job… If we had better councillors would we need so much consultation?

  2. LG Worker Says:

    Get rid of Councillors?????? Over the last few decades we have been culling Councillors, resulting in less people to represent the local area and making us weaker (in Europe they have far less people being represented by one elected person then us. look at France in particular).

    Now, if we expect our Councillors to represent the people (a fact a lot of Local Government workers seem to forget), how can they truly represent the many different views that will appear in their diverse electorate? A problem that gets worst, the more residents, the one elected representative is meant to represent. Basically it destroys democracy. Sometimes, we have to spend money for the things we believe make our society great. I for one wouldn’t want to see an important foundation of our society destroyed because we didn’t have any money.

    Also, we have, in Local government, been crying out to Central Government to give us more local powers. We argue, how can some people in London know what is good for those several miles away? Well how can we promote localisation, if we get rid of the people who can lead that; Councillors? They are the voice of the local. Just remember that.

    Other then that, the other suggestions I like.

  3. localgov Says:

    Ah, here’s where my weaselly ways are shown – I was only questioning whether or not it could be done, not that I actually think it should be 😉

    It’s actually very possible to do, and is an example of some real short term gain that will potentially lead to long term pain. I’d argue that it’s similar in many respects to the US automotive industry when they were in deep crisis, in particular Chrysler and GM.

    GM responded to their downturn by making cuts and shaving back on quality, saving a couple of billion in the short term but doing significant harm in the long term.

    At the same time Chrysler invested in quality, research and development, and after absorbing a few years and a couple of billion in losses ended up making all of that back and then some.

    I agree that things need to be kept local, and the less local things get the less relevance those representatives have for local people. Still, we need to find a way of making sure that the measurements of success aren’t made in the number of Members Enquiries received but in actual results.

  4. […] Those watching probably responded to this with a big yawn but Mr Blair was 100% right: the FOI Act drives many of us to distraction. […]

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