As this is the last posting Friday of the year we thought it would be a good opportunity not just to review the week in the world of local government but actually the whole year. And what better, and admittedly more self indulgent, way to do so than by choosing our favourite We Love Local Government posts from each month of 2011.
So, without further ado that was the we love local government year that was:
Picking our favourite post from January was tough but in the end we passed over a guest post comparing local government to a (pirate?) ship and a slightly controversial post looking at the power of children’s services departments to get what they want simply by uttering the words: ‘you can’t do that; if you do a child might die’ and picked our local government ‘Dear John’ letters featuring such classics as:
At least make the effort to learn my name
The three years out of four when there aren’t elections still count on the calendar
Where’s all our money gone?!
Dear job security,
It was nice knowing you.
Sincerely, a Public Sector Worker
Dear Local Government,
Sincerely, Eric Pickles
Be warned, I’ll be back!
In February we discussed who we’d like to see working in Local Government (Stephen Fry as Head of Comms anyone?) and pondered why the DCLG had become the Department for Criticising Local Government but our favourite post was when we took a stab at helping Eric Pickles with his bonfire of local government duties. Some of our favourites were:
DCLG_076 Have regard to Local Area Agreement targets
Only regard, we don’t have to actually follow them?!? Who writes law like that?
DCLG_083 Promote democracy (not yet commenced).
It’s the fact that it is not yet commenced. So at the moment we don’t need to do anything about what our whole system is about – democracy? Really? And if we’ve survived this long without the regulation do we really need it?
BIS_034 Enforcement of Nightwear (Safety) Regulations
Do we have to ensure everyone is wearing appropriate pyjamas?
In March we had a look at the increasing complexity of the password setting regime in local authorities and pondered whether a battle between civil servants and local government workers was in anyone’s interest, but our favourite post by far was when we produced our guidelines on how to stifle creativity in local government including such gems as:
2. Create a steering group
No project worth its salt can be delivered without the aid of a steering group, so insist that one is brought together and engaged with before anything is proposed formally. There will need to be people there from at least six different services, so make sure they get them along even if they don’t want to come. The more people who are involved, the more changes will be suggested for scope and aims, so the less creative it will end up.
In April we looked at the sure sign that you had ‘made it’ in local government and were very grateful to be mentioned as an influential voice in local government by the LGC. However, our favourite post by far was a guest post from someone describing themselves as having a non-job:
My name is xxxxxx and I have a non-job.
There, I’ve said it. I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.
I have never worked directly with a member of the public. I have not cleaned streets, looked after disabled adults, planted flowers, been a lollipop lady, cleaned a sewer or even planned a new traffic scheme. Looking back on my career I cannot point to one example where my work ‘directly’ benefitted a member of the public enough that they would be able to say; ‘that xxxxxx, she did a really good job for me today’.
…. The public might not see me or care whether I exist or not but my colleagues seem to value my work. I’m also fairly certain that if my job did not exist then someone would have to invent it or front line staff would be doing it in their ‘spare’ time.
In May we joined in a larger debate about the future direction of young people in local government, looking in detail at the National Graduate Development Programme and asking if there could ever be such a thing as a council officer prodigy. Taking a step back we also had a look at the different personality types that end up working in the council including:
The Man from Del Monte
This may date me, but as all of a certain age know; the man from Del Monte, he says Yes. And so does this person, agreeing to take on just about every single project or task asked of them, and many of those given to their colleagues as well.
The bane of Joe Public, the Jobsworth is that individual who will not do anything that isn’t covered by policy or procedure, even if their actions will exacerbate a situation.
Usually found in more senior roles, The Pitbull has a reputation far surpassing most others. Willing to fight almost any fight, they appear to take pleasure in actively opposing others and revel in conflict situations. They tend to not beat around the bush, instead going straight for the throat and ripping the life out of whatever project or minion who has had the misfortune of getting in their way.
Plus many, many more besides.
In June we discussed whether councillors should have iPads (they should) () and whether we should be proud of our failures (we should) and published our favourite ever guest post entitled simply, ‘you want me to do what?!’:
The fun really began when I showed her the final draft the day before the presentation, and was told ‘this is great, but what I want is for the notes to be hand-written’.
Let’s let that sink in, shall we?
The notes, which I’ve already typed up and are much neater than any hand-writing could be, are to be hand-written. I point out that I have the handwriting of a 4 year-old with learning disabilities. I ponder with her the dangers of having one copy – what if it gets lost or damaged and then has to be rewritten again? To no avail. They are to be hand-written. I mean, what other work could I possibly have to do that would take precedence over writing these notes out?
‘Oh, get someone else to do it’, comes her advice. So I do ask one of the team administrators to do it (more of an apology than a request), and they have the same reaction as any sane person would. It’s embarrassing. It’s a palpable waste of time.
In July, we sent a break up letter to our job and asked staff to join us in a little bit of council Bingo, but the stand out post was one discussing the complex and often misunderstood issue of mental health in the workplace:
For those of us in local government these are incredibly stressful and difficult times. Even the most stoic and mentally healthy person can find themselves wobbling at the moment; tempers fraying, long silences growing, work and relationships suffering as the constant and increasing pressures and responsibilities are placed upon them.
For those of us who were fighting mental health problems even during the ‘good old days’ of local government, things can be a fair bit harder.
Having gone through my own dark times, the past few months have been rough to say the least. I’ve hidden my own mental health issues from all, even avoiding naming them to my partner for fear that they would treat me differently. I know that they know, it’s been a huge elephant in the room so many times, but giving it a name might give it power so we’ve skirted around it as only couples can do. I knew that I shouldn’t be depressed and couldn’t work out why I was – it was as much a part of me as my eyesight or appreciation for Glee (two unrelated facts, I assure you).
In August there were riots and we took the view that the response from local authorities up and down the country showed the real value of councils and, despite a lot of media attention, the limitations of the Big Society in this context. Meanwhile we pondered the collapse of the councils corporate centre and got ourselves involved (inadvertently) in a massive row with library campaigners in Gloucestershire. Our post reviewing the dispute and trying to get to the bottom of the real issue in GCC (as opposed to our supposed plan to get personal promotions by shutting libraries?!?) is our pick of the month:
Getting to the bottom of what is actually going on is difficult so being the unashamed local government officers that we are I decided to delve into the committee report that was agreed at the council.
The report does not make happy reading for anyone who cares about local government. Gloucestershire Country Council was being asked to make the following savings:
The total of these adjustments, which have been incorporated into the MTFS, produces a budget for 2011/12 of £396.156m. Council tax remains at £1090.50 for a band D property with no increase for 2011/12. Over the four year period the savings required to balance the budget are £114m compared with £108m at the time of the draft budget. This increase is due to the lower than expected settlement. Further details are set out in the attached MTFS.
That’s a huge reduction in spending; even for a large county council. The council is lopping off over a quarter of its budget.
The council ran a (much criticised) consultation asking people which services they should protect and the answers were the following:
Care of older people
Care for vulnerable adults
Child protection and care for vulnerable children
Fire & Rescue
Supporting thousands of voluntary carers
Anyone who works in Local Government knows that the majority of the council budget is taken up with five services: the top three above along with Highways and waste. In County councils only the top three are within scope so my bet is that they massively dominate all spending. Thus, any protection of those five services (which make up maybe 2/3rds to 3/4s of any unitary council’s budget), or even three of them, means disproportionate cuts to everything else. It is this which probably led to the eye watering 43% (yes, you read that correctly; 43%!) cut in the libraries budget.
Once they had protected all those other services it probably became necessary to cut deep elsewhere (1 in 6 staff were to be made redundant as well!) and by the looks of it that included libraries.
Never afraid to shy away from issues in September we asked why people thought having a degree was a necessary skill for many local government jobs, discussed a provision in the localism bill that provided for non-binding referenda (the point of which was and is unclear and was thus later removed) and tried our best to pick our way through the dispute at Dale Farm:
This is the beginning of the end to a process which began a decade ago, when the Council began trying to move a then-smaller group of travellers on from the site but were unsuccessful. It is difficult to pick some of the facts from the story without coming across as biased towards one viewpoint or another, and not being immersed in the situation we don’t want to say whether one is in fact right or wrong, but it’s worth for a second reflecting on the challenges the Council faces here.
In the first place, they are being pressurised by local people to move this group on. According to their consultation findings, they claim an overwhelming majority of local people want them to take the action that they are now trying to push through, with few arguing for the opposite. If they stood aside and allowed the traveller community to stay on their site then they would be going against the wishes of the pre-existing local community. This of course assumes that good practice principles were followed when undertaking this consultation, but we have to believe that if they hadn’t been then they would have not got as far as they have to date.
They also have many years of planning law and regulations to consider. Over the years, countless buildings and developments will have been proposed to the planning department for a huge variety of structures and potential communities. Some will have been successful, others will have fallen foul and not been allowed. By the looks of things, the travellers have developed the site they are on without going through these processes and/or abiding by the findings of the planning department, carrying on with their own plans regardless.
It has also taken years to get to this stage. The Council will not have been sitting idly by during this time waiting for it all to come to a head before moving in, which makes this last minute reprieve for the travellers a little puzzling. They will have surely been trying to abide by the law and contacting the community to tell them their concerns and the issues which were arising, and looking for an easier, quicker, cheaper solution. To think that years of acrimony and mistrust will be swept aside within a week and an amicable solution reached seems a little too far in the realms of fantasy for me.
In October we took aim at the Government over their one year council tax freeze money that would have simply made the deficit bigger for councils in one year’s time and urged councils to start talking about snow (which has so far turned out to have been really sensible… Oh, wait…). However, we also spent part of the month celebrating out 100,000th hit on the blog and published a special post asking some of our readers why they love local government. It was an uplifting piece concluded by our own thoughts:
And what about us?
We Love Local Government because:
Within the catch all term ‘local government’ is a diverse, complicated, at times bizarre and yet dedicated, brilliant and innovative organism. At its best local government can make a lasting difference to the lives of the residents it serves and even at its worst you can guarantee that the motives will be good and that there’ll be something interesting to talk about. It’s a place where things done perfectly go unnoticed, whilst the slightest hiccup makes news columns big and small, which attracts some of the greatest thinkers and doers working today along with more than its fair share of those whose only purpose in life is to serve as a bad example to others.
Like any relationships, our love of local government has its ups and downs, its highs and lows, its moments of pure inspiration, its moments when the acronym WTF?! is the only way to describe things. It may drive us mad at times, but if nothing else it will always drive us someplace interesting.
Local government is all this and so much more.
In November we gave advice for newbies entering local government for the first time and made a plea for better presentations and proposals from ICT companies as we argued that getting simple ICT shouldn’t be complicated. However, the story that dominated all others was the local government strike. Whilst members of the blog team disagreed about whether or not to go on strike, this advocacy of the strike action represents the thoughts of one of us on the picket line and hopefully many of the others who joined them that day:
Finally, I’m striking because Local Government and the Public Sector is being forcefully changed.
From cuts to new acts, I see a Local Government changing into something I don’t recognise. Though the issue is pensions, for me this strike is about a lot more. It is about the future of the Public Sector.
That is why I’m striking.
This month is still with us but we enjoyed taking a cheeky look at Freedom of Information requests and particularly enjoyed this guest post about a vote on the thorny issue of council prayers. However, our top post of the month was entitled ‘does motive matter’ and asks the important question of whether we need to have a public sector ethos to excel at our jobs (probably not). As the author says:
Many of the projects I eulogise about, bring people together for and whip up enthusiasm around are actually things that I wouldn’t do if I had a choice. Some admittedly do cross over into areas where I find genuine personal interest, but the majority I do because that is what is expected of the role. I deliver them and deliver them well, but lack the fire of conviction that my public reputation appears to support.
My question is simple: does this matter?
Does it matter that I deliver the required projects to the best of my ability even if deep down I don’t really have any interest in them or really care? Does it matter that I look on with envy at those who seem to have found their calling and their place in the grand scheme of things? Isn’t the important thing that these projects achieve or surpass their targets, that I am able to encourage the others that I bring along the way to believe even where I do not?
So, that was the local government year that was. Apologies for the really long post but we don’t plan to write again until the New Year so at least it will keep you going until 2012.
In the meantime, we would like to thank you all for reading and contributing to this blog and wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic 2012.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org