The first cut is the deepest, but the second will hurt more
On Twitter during the week we had a discussion about the jargon and phrases that local government officers use on a regular basis, and those which the LGA feel should be on their ‘banned’ list. Some, such as ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ are themselves not bad words, although the context they are used in often confuses their meaning.
Others however have a deserving place on the list. Phrases such as ‘citizen touchpoints’ and ‘thought shower’ have no place in the normal world, and certainly not when talking with local people. Jargon has its uses; it can convey complex issues quickly and easily between those who understand what it means, but it can also seriously exclude those who are unfamiliar with it (assuming that is that ‘exclude’ isn’t itself a banned word).
A new phrase seems to be entering the office at the moment which I think should be added to that list; ‘cash envelope’. Pictures of seedy men in raincoats leaving packages of used bills behind public toilet cisterns instantly spring to mind for some reason, when instead nothing sexier than balance sheets and budget books is being discussed. Apparently services are all trying to ‘push the cash envelope’ to gather as much money to them as possible in the short term in order to store it away for the long term; like a squirrel burying nuts in the autumn, the idea is that when more painful cuts are to be made in the next financial year there will at least be something left to cut.
I use the phrase ‘more painful’ here because that is what they will be. Anything easy to cut will have been cut already; teams consolidated, services shared and excess cut away. All that is doing however is making the next wave more difficult to identify and accept. Service heads will have spent the last year acting like a fiancée in the final weeks before her wedding embarking on a crash diet to fit into her dress, only to find that the dress maker has made the dress an extra size smaller.
I’ve heard of services beginning to climb out of the morale black hole after the first round of restructures, only to be hit by a second whammy mere months later. My own service has made significant savings since last November, but thanks to some very clever work by ‘rival’ service heads these savings have mostly been allocated to others: we took the pain of making the cuts and losing staff, but others took the credit for the money saved.
This petty but effective game playing and subtle reframing of the rules is happening all over the place, and benefiting those services with exceptional individuals at the helm. For those unfortunate enough to have a competent, hard working but unimaginative individual who plays by the rules, there are tough times ahead. In the grand scheme of things it can be argued that saving money in any way should be welcomed, that savings made to one service ultimately cut the bill for the Council as a whole; in reality where those savings are allocated is becoming just as important a battleground as the total amount needed to be saved in the first place.
We completed our restructure in January this year, and by the time all of the unsuccessful staff finished their contracts April had rolled around. We are now preparing for another restructure to begin in May, meaning the next set of people will walk out of the door in October – just in time for us to start planning for 2012/13 savings to begin.
I worry that some services haven’t bulked up enough in advance and won’t have any more opportunity to stuff their cash envelope in advance. And to mix metaphors, a starving, weak service struggling to fit into its wedding dress won’t enjoy the honeymoon.