Archive for August 2010

The abolition of the Audit Commission

August 17, 2010

It was announced on Friday that the Government wanted to abolish the Audit Commission.

Many in Local Government were outraged; some argued that the Audit Commission was already a lean organisation that was delivering a very efficient service (Heather Wakefield from Unison); others argued that the Audit Commission provided a public sector audit service which would be impossible to achieve in the private sector; and the Chairman of the Audit Commission pointed out that it had “more than fulfilled” the goals set out for it.

I did not shed a tear. The Audit Commission had become a tool of terror wielded by overweening central Government against supposedly recalcitrant local authorities. However, that was not all it did. The AC developed policy, lobbied the Government on behalf of local Government, produced best practice guides and Value for Money tools, audited performance and effectiveness as well as accounts and developed funky websites that no-one would read (see oneplace).

In summary, the Audit Commission grew and grew, taking on more powers and responsibilities and finding ways to have a role in whichever new policy the Government of the day wanted to pursue. With this came well paid Chairmen, communications officers and all the trappings of the modern QUANGO; all paid for by the public purse. How much of their budget was actually spent on auditing the accounts of local authorities I can only guess.

So yes, I welcome the general tenet of the announcement by Mr Pickles.

However, and this is a big however, does the medicine fit the disease? Yes, the Audit Commission was pursuing the wrong aims but simply hiving audit work off to the private sector may not be the long-term solution local authorities need.

As I see it Mr Pickles had two choices.

1) He could have simply stopped the Audit Commission from doing all of the other work it currently did and return it to being a public sector auditor. This would probably have saved most of the full £50 million Mr Pickles has identified and maintain a valuable public sector audit resource.

2) He could abolish the Audit Commission and privatise local government audit.

Short term option 2) is probably easier and looks simpler. Unravelling a behemoth like the Audit Commission would have been a pain and would have taken time. However, privatising audit will probably end up increasing costs for local authorities; not in real terms but over what it would have cost had the Audit Commission stuck to auditing. In addition, private providers will not have the public accountability that the Audit Commission did.

In 5-10 years I bet that some future Government will decide to invent a small public sector body that can provide cheaper cost audit to local authorities; in fact local authorities might even work together to create one themselves.

I commend Mr Pickles for making a tough decision to abolish the Audit Commission but am afraid that he has also ducked the tougher option of reforming the Audit Commission and providing the sort of public sector audit we all need.

Now I’ve definitely been here too long

August 16, 2010

Our last post on this blog was contributed to by many, but it seems to have affected me and made me realise that perhaps I’m now officially within that group.  Two recent incidents have cemented this fear in my mind.

The first was following the arrival of a new ex-graduate to the service who sit next to us.  He might be a nice enough person, but before I could find out – indeed before he had said anything else – he came over and demanded to know my name.  This was after he had stood there over my team’s bank of desks and gone round pointing at people to find out their names.

For some reason this really got my heckles up: who was he to come over and demand to know who I am?  He’s not a new senior manager walking the floor; he’s a first-dayer who probably won’t be here in a few months anyway.  I on the other hand lead a team, have been in Local Government for a number of years and am well known(ish) to those around me.  I ended up demanding his name before I’d tell him mine.

How childish is that?!  At what point has the hierarchy of the organisation become so ingrained within me that I get offended when someone on a lower level of the ladder asks my name?  Okay, his style was boorish and arrogant, but it’s my own reaction that surprised and frankly embarrassed me (although of course I’ll never admit that, even to the Spanish inquisition).

The second incident happened today, when I saw a Fire Exit sign.  I began building an argument to myself that it shouldn’t be a fire exit sign at all, but an emergency exit one.  What if there was a bomb alert, or perhaps a ninja attack?  People would be trapped, as the only available exit would be for fire-related use only.

Seriously, someone rescue me before I do some damage.

You know you’ve worked in Local Government too long when…

August 14, 2010

Everyone receives e-mail circulars and usually they go straight in the recycling box. However, one of my friends from a neighbouring local authority sends circulars that require a comedic response which is sent to everyone.

And for some reason, I, and by the looks of it people from across our friendship groups find it difficult to ignore the temptation to respond. Not only is it ten times funnier than if it comes in a stupid circular but ten minutes thinking creatively about something different can get you over the hump in the road presented by a long afternoon of report writing.

All this is by way of intro to the funniest version of the game I have seen in months (popstars as fruit is good but nothing compared to this…): Participants were asked to complete the sentence: You know you’ve worked in Local Government too long when…

And these are my favourite responses (please if you see yourself remember this is an anonymous blog and don’t get too excitied!):

  You have to get a purchase order signed off by your mum before you can do the shopping

  When someone asks you what you want for your birthday you provide them with findings from a focus group and an evidence base

  You don’t talk of your next door neighbour but of a resident

  You know the exact person to contact when your bin isn’t collected (including which company the collection has been tendered to)

  You assume your community is defined by clear boundaries line set by a governmental body

  You ask your friends to fill in an equality monitoring form when they come to your party

  You don’t use stairs for fear of health and safety regulations

  You demand Gantt charts and RAG reports from your children’s school teachers

  You don’t have an invite list for a party, you have a range of stakeholders attending

  You start spouting jargon that you don’t understand

  You check out all the parking signs when you travel through the Borough, to check whether they are estates or on-street

  You smile at anyone in a high-vis vest in any authority doing any sort of work since “we’re all in this together”

  You set your Children performance indicators for their homework.

  You see chatting to the person next to you on the bus as a community engagement exercise

  When a friend offers you a lift you think ‘Ah, the Big Society in action!’….. then you CRB-check them

  You refuse to recognise a story as news until you’ve read it in an LGiU Briefing email

  You have to have three separate people sign off approval for you to send an email to your mother, to ensure it has the right policy and community positioning and doesn’t contradict previous correspondence on the matter

  You write all of your documents in the prescribed corporate font size and type for briefing notes, as anything else just doesn’t look right

  You put together a project plan for your own wedding and diligently update it until the event

  You go to a restaurant with friends and wonder aloud when the last Food Safety inspection was conducted

And the Creme de la creme:

You know you’ve been in local government too long when…

Your job title is longer than your address

Bright young things

August 12, 2010

It is not a secret to say that things are tough in the world of Local Government right now. Jobs are being lost and senior managers and being forced to make the sort of tough decisions that they’ve possibly (and bearing in mind how long it is since there’s been big cuts, probably) never been asked to make before.

Sometimes this moment of challenge can lead to great innovation but often it can lead to really bad decisions being made.

A case in point are graduates on local government’s fast track graduate scheme the NGDP. This scheme is meant to mimic  the Civil Service Fast Stream and bring in a steady stream of hyper intelligent and uber-competent staff to ensure Local Government’s ongoing success. I have seen graduates in the various local authorities I have worked and in general they have lived up to their reputation and have gone on to get good jobs and have good careers.

This year’s intake are in an awkward spot; after all there is next to no recruitment going on and therefore apparently many of them don’t yet have permanent jobs for when the scheme closes in September (i.e. next month). What’s more, many authorities (this is based on anecdotal evidence so no stats here) are treating the departing graduates as fixed term contracts and therefore are willing to let them go without even placing them on the internal redeployment register. As most jobs are now internal candidates only this makes it almost impossible to keep these staff.

This is ludicrous: Yes, cuts need to be made but managers and authorities have invested in training up these staff. In general they will be bright, hard working and what’s more on the upward curve; invest right and they will be driving your authority forward in ten years time. Letting them go is the equivalent of sending Jack Wilshire to Bolton permanently as Arsene Wenger needs to get his squad size down… In other words; crazy

Authorities need to focus on the long term and investing in high quality, ambitious (cheap) young staff is preferable to saving a bit of case by not making 20 year – lifers take redundancy.

The impending crunch is a time for forward thinking managers and if we’re going to need to do more with much less then building a high performing workforce for the future has to be a number one priority and not an afterthought.

I hope that the graduates find employment sooner rather than later.

Digging for treasure

August 11, 2010

I was reading another post on this site (Where not to store your work – make sure you read it if you haven’t already) and was misled by the title a little.  You see, in my office we have been having a debate for the best part of four years ago about exactly this issue – the place we all store our work, also known as our dreaded shared drive.

This may not be a phenomenon restricted to local authorities, in fact I dare say it actually is endemic in any large organisation after a certain period of time.  However, I get the distinct impression that in most rational organisations this issue is easily cleared up with a metaphorical slap around the back of the head and a simple, enforced way of doing things.

It may be easier if I briefly run through the problem.  When I joined my team one of the first moans I heard was about our shared drive.  No-one could find anything, not even the work they themselves had produced.  Each member of the team used different naming conventions, not only from their colleagues but for different work areas; what they may have saved as ‘DMTevalrepFINALdraft.doc’ in one area they would call ‘v2draftreportThursdaymeeting – Drews comments.doc’ somewhere else.  Things were stored in multiple folders across multiple levels, with many files so old that the people working there had never worked with or heard of the people who had created them.

In short, it was a mess.

I tried to start sorting this out by suggesting archiving off all files that were orphans or hadn’t been opened in, say, three years and then working out a clear way of storing files and folders.  My arguement was that we live in the age of Google, and when people want to find something on the internet they simply run a search.  They don’t go to a central point and then navigate their way through page after page of links until they drill down to what they want – they simply pop the name of the thing they are looking for into Google and it gives them a deep link straight to it, along with links to e-bay and more pornography than could be consumed by Belgium in a year.

The trouble with this was that the whole team was stuck in the old days of Windows, where you could only use a limited number of characters (eight I think) as a file name.  They couldn’t understand the concept of calling an evaluation report just that, rather than removing all of the vowels to save space.  It might have improved their ability to send text messages, but evlrptDRAFT or any of its variations is not an easy thing to search for.

We then joined another team with all of their own conventions and seven years of historical file mismanagement, so the problem was exacerbated exponentially.  Various quick fixes were suggested, including a partial archive (so some files were moved but not all), storing everything in one folder (which just meant that folder was crammed full of randomness) and at least a hundred different ways of restructuring existing folders.  This was escalated until a member of our senior management team was busy writing papers and had pulled together a project team to look at it in more detail.  The issue was discussed at multiple service meetings and endless e-mail chains, none of which got anywhere.

It got so bad that some files were stored under ten or more layers of folders, each of which was  crammed with files and none of them bore any resemblance to their surroundings.  It felt a little like we had taken our team structure charts and replicated them in file form.

Eleven months later and still nothing had changed, so a colleague and I simply had a quick chat with our director, knocked up a set of clear guidelines on how to name a file and made every single folder and file in the old places read only.  Anything the team produced would go into a brand new folder, and be clearly labelled.  Anything not clearly labelled would be found and deleted.

A year or so on and mostly this is working out well.  Gone are the days of DRAFT, FINAL and FINALDRAFT being added to the end of file names, replaced with simple version controls.

All this doesn’t make looking for things simple but it does make it quicker, and it’s worth all of the constant arguements to see the look on people’s faces as you announce they have twenty minutes to rename their files before you hit the delete key.

How not to do social media

August 10, 2010

From a council’s intranet page:

XXX Authority now has a twitter page, allowing instant access to an ever-growing online community. If you want your department messaging or events promoted, please fill in the request form (link attached) to make the most of social marketing.

Sort of takes away the immediacy and spirit of the whole thing doesn’t it…

The Council should deal with that

August 4, 2010

I’m going to make my first members inquiry to the Council! I want the pigeons off my veranda!

This is the tweet that I recently saw, sent by a resident who by the sounds of it is then going to make a Members Enquiry to demand that the Council gets pigeons off of their veranda.

On what planet do they live.

I could be doing them a disservice here: it could very well be that the Council is directly responsible for strategically placing pigeons around the borough, and has determined that their veranda is a prime spot to place some.  These might also be trained pigeons, who stay where they are put rather than fly around like vermin with wings.

The Members in that borough may also be in control of this, and have control of pigeons as one of their portfolios.  They will then be more than happy to take up their own time putting the enquiry together, submitting it, having officers log it, farm it out to the appropriate service area, collate a response, have that response signed off by senior managers, returned to the Member and passed back to the resident.

Okay, not even I can defend this!  To even consider going through that entire process because some pigeons – PIGEONS! – are on your veranda beggars belief.  It’s things like this that happen all too regularly, and waste so many resources and so much of people’s time.

It also makes me wonder – what do people think that the Council actually does?  I know in this day of Big Society this is rapidly changing, but Councils do not do everything for all people.  Some seem to think they do, whilst in the same breath moaning because they get nothing back for their Council Tax.

We need to get better at telling people what we do, and making sure they feel able to do some things themselves without fear of us telling them off.

Either that or get some Council branded cats.

Twice is once, once is none at all

August 3, 2010

Humans have a natural propensity to check things.  If you hear someone say what the time is you’ll probably look at your watch.  If you read what the weather might be you check the sky.  If you see George Osbourne walking down the road towards you you’ll check your wallet to make sure he’s not secretly managed to empty it.

So with this in mind I can totally understand it when people in the office want to check that what we are planning on releasing to the public says what it should say according to the official line.

I’m currently running a project which needs a survey produced and advertising for this to run in our local newspaper.  I duly produced the survey and accompanying press release and got them ready for sign off by my line manager.

They wanted to check it, so sent the survey link to their manager and the press release to our comms department.  The survey was okayed but they wanted to check that the intro text was right, so spoke directly to comms.

Comms gave them what they saw as the correct information, which turned out to be the text I had originally produced and which they were checking at the same time.  This sated my manager’s manager’s need to be correct so they signed off the survey, so my manager could give it back to me and I could get it online.

So I ended up waiting for three days whilst my work was sent around to several different (and senior) people who could read it and then use it to prop up the other work that was being signed off by other senior people, only to end up with it all sent back to me with no changes and three lost days.

Who says there’s too much bureaucracy in local government?

To share or not to share

August 2, 2010

Local authorities are trying very hard to find ways to save money and one of the wheezes many are currently investigating is sharing services; or in other words merging departments with other local councils.

But here is the question: What do council’s lose or gain if they share services?

The gain is obvious: and is loosely described as economies of scale which lead to a more efficient service. As an example, if you have five accountants in one authority and five in another it might be that the work can be done by 9 accountants and cover the work for both.

You might also be able to put all the accountants in one office and save the costs of renting two. Finally, you might be able to develop new charging techniques which enable the accountants to ensure they are acting in the most efficient ways.

The problems are more philosophical and address the relationship between the authority and the electorate.

Once a service is shared it loses a piece of it’s democratic accountability. Councillors no longer have full control over the service. This is fine if shared between two authorities (they still have half control) but what about 3 or four authorities? This matters as local government is meant to reflect the needs and wants of the public.

Another question is how big is too big? Unwieldy bureaucracy is a term that is thrown around a lot but we seem to be at a stage where councils are too small and the Government is too big.

Sharing services is one way to avoid making cuts that are too painful but in doing so we run the risk of losing accountability and local individualism.

I don’t know the answer right now but it seems that we’re about to jump into more shared services without fully thinking through the consequences.

L

Where’s my clipboard…

August 1, 2010

You simply could not make this up:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jul/28/windbreak-council-officials-bristol-downs

In summary, a family on a picnic were ordered to take down their windbreak as it was breaking the law.  Apparently, according to a bylaw you are not allowed to erect a ‘semi-permanent structure’.

It is people like these two officers who give Councils a bad name.  The fact that the Council apologised and said that discretion should have been applied here doesn’t matter – the message is out there and the detractors and critics now have another little bit of ammunition to throw at any and all Councils when something doesn’t go their way.  The overwhelming, almost total majority of staff I know are in their jobs for the right reasons – either to make the area they work in a better place or just to earn a bit of money.

It’s the other tiny fraction of (for wont of a better description) jobsworths whose actions result in their well-intentioned colleagues being subjected to ridicule and abuse.  These are the people who paint around dead animals in the road, who stop people from using lawnmowers with certification and who are the general bane of our lives.

I know these individuals exist all over the place, but why do their numbers swell and come to the fore when they join a Council?  What is it about our organisations that make these people honestly believe that a clipboard and a high-vis vest give them the power to go loopy with impunity?

The Health and Safety Executive do a great ‘myth of the month‘ piece regularly, this month it’s the story that candy floss is banned because of the risks associated with the stick, I recommend you check it out.  I might also be able to give you some ideas about somewhere you could put those sticks when you’ve finished with them…