Archive for February 2012

Putting the local back into local government

February 29, 2012

Middle Class council service delivery

We love a guest post and today’s asks a lot of questions; the most interesting of which is whether we’re trying to make everyone middle class (which certainly isn’t the focus where I work!). We hope you enjoy this post, think about it, and if you have a post you’d like to submit please drop us a line at 

One of the things that I do on a regular basis in my job is to look at what other Councils are doing to address particular issues.

I am one of those rather sad people who can spot the SOCITM organising framework for a website and be instantly able to find my way around.  I am often profoundly depressed about what I find when I look at some documents as I could cross out the name of X Council, replace with Y council, and it would still look the same.

I saw a comment last year which caused me to ponder, and I have been pondering ever since: ‘is the goal of all public policy to turn everybody to be middle class?’

There is a trait within all of us to find homogeneity in as many places as we could.  When my parents used to travel, they would always stay in a Travelodge and eat in a Brewer’s Fayre on the basis that you knew what you were getting.  I can understand that but personally would prefer to stay in a quirky bed and breakfast and take my chances on finding a little restaurant somewhere.  Mary Portas is right about our high streets becoming increasingly identikit and indistinguishable from each other.

There are too many times when we focus on the government element of our role and not enough on the local.


Revolution/Evolution (delete as applicable)

February 28, 2012

Surely evolution is less painful?

Many moons ago we ran a post which began with the immortal words “‘Never throw away your old drain-pipes”.  these words rang loud and clear in my mind recently when I sat in on a workshop/meeting looking at how my local authority would reshape some of its central functions.  With changing times, less money and a different political environment it was felt that the time was ripe to begin to reassess the way in which the council organises itself behind the scenes.

The last time they attempted such a process was back in the days when LAAs (Local Area Agreements for our younger readers) were the order of the day and LSPs (Local Strategic Partnerships) were springing up all over the place.  A suitable arrangement of all of the various forums, groups and organisations (not to mention the more dominant personalities) was made, and they spent the next half a decade or so delivering their workplans, albeit at a diminishing rate of returns.

Sitting around the table I found myself on I discovered I was joined by many of the people who were around in those days, and indeed who helped to set up those very structures now up for discussion.  They were wonderfully frank in their assessments, sharing that they thought at the time they had got things right but now saw the errors of their ways; this time they were sure they knew what went wrong, and had come up with a foolproof plan to guide structures for the next six or seven years.

None of them saw the irony embedded within their words and plans.

Whilst I wasn’t personally around for previous discussions all that time ago, I feel confident that there were similar people sitting around a similar table, all saying that they were actually pleased that the policy framework was shifting as it allowed them to address the failings in the even older system, and that now they knew exactly how things should be done.  It’s very much like a local government version of an infinite fractal loop. (more…)

Bench Pressed

February 27, 2012

Because thinking of a different picture was too difficult

As regular readers of our blog will know we really love to start a debate and are perfectly comfortable with people telling us that we don’t know what we are doing. Thus, we were rather pleased with the debate following our post about benchmarking (smack my bench up) and thought that it was worth following up on some of it in today’s post.

As a reminder our post had argued the following:

To be honest I would be quite happy if I never saw another benchmarking report ever again.

Who knows? Managers might even be encouraged to focus on their own services rather than comparing themselves against others based on a series of arbitrary, inaccurate and ill-fitting indicators.

Not much room for nuance there eh?

So without further ado let’s begin with a quick point from twitter. Jonathan Green took exception with our contention that benchmarking is inherently wrong and asked the following (albeit rhetorical) question:

@WeLoveLocalGov if u can’t manage a meaningful helpful benchmarking exercise to help improve services should you be managing a service at all?

A fair point and there is undoubtedly an element of bad practice that underpins my dislike of benchmarking. However, I still think there is a wider question. I’m sure our managers could complete a decent benchmarking exercise (a concession on my part) but with all the difficulties I’ve already identified is it worth their while?

To which an interesting comment from Kriswith on the blog itself seeks to answer that point:

The problems is that if you collect performance data but don’t have any context for it then you have no idea if you need to be doing something about the results. One example I know of is a score from a national survey. My borough got 27% which in itself might have been a worry – until we found out that this was the third highest score in England. Without the benchmark we might have spent money on a problem that wasn’t really a problem.

You can always find a health warning attached to any benchmark but that doesn’t mean the context you get from comparisons with others is not still useful in understanding your own performance.


That was the local government week that was

February 24, 2012

Another week down; is it nearly pay day?

As is so often the case with our weekly round up; no sooner have we finished writing it than we read something that definitely deserves to be included and so it proved last week  with this piece from Richard Vize about councils and council tax benefit reform:

Of all the battles to be fought over local control, council tax benefit is one issue where the government has been delighted to live the localist dream. There were just two caveats when ministers announced that control of the benefit was being handed to councils; it had to be done quickly – by 2013 – and the bill had to be cut by 10%. The current bill is £4.8bn a year and some 5.8 million people in England on low incomes receive it.

Richard’s totally right. Not only is the Government expecting local government to take away a lot of people’s benefits; they are doing so at a time when the amount of people eligible is increasing, at a time of decreasing local government budgets and at a time when other changes to benefits are making local government’s job even harder. The DWP are taking housing benefits back in house meaning that local authorities are left without the economies of scale that processing two benefits gave them. It isn’t getting easier and as Richard says:

Bringing down the welfare bill is a laudable aim, but caught between the rhetoric and the implementation are people with little money.

Ok, so that was a bit depressing but before we move on to things with a slightly more positive bent it is worth taking a quick look at local government pay. As the BBC reported yesterday:

Council workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have their pay frozen for a third consecutive year. The Local Government Association confirmed a pay freeze for 1.6 million local government employees for 2012/13.

Times are tough across the economy so it is unlikely we will receive much sympathy for this but as Public Finance magazine report:

A study carried out for the union (Unison) by the New Policy Institute shows that full-time wages have fallen by 13% in real terms over the past three years, as a result of a below-inflation pay rise in 2009/10 followed by a two-year pay freeze.

Added to this there have been lots of marginal changes to allowances, expenses and overtime which have also impacted on staff. This has probably allowed local government to protect jobs but especially for those on the lowest incomes it has come at a price.


35 Things I’m giving up for lent

February 23, 2012

At the start of every year we are pressured into making New Year’s Resolutions, which promptly go the way of LAAs and fade into the hazy depths of distant memories.  However, no sooner have we accepted that perhaps losing 7 pounds a month for a year is a tough ask than along comes lent.

Well, unlike in previous years, this year I am going to take advantage of lent and actually do0 (or not) a few things for lent.  If you’ve got any suggestions then tweet us (@welovelocalgov).  For the next 40 days:

  1. I will try to give up rolling my eyes whenever I read the words ‘Eric Pickles today announced…’
  2. I will not criticise my boss in public (even if I’m in the right)
  3. I will not criticises my boss in private (even if I think they can’t hear me)
  4. I will not work more than a 45 hour week
  5. I will not sneer every time someone says that the answer to a problem is more localism
  6. I will not play localgov bingo
  7. I will not hide song lyrics in committee papers
  8. I will not constantly compare my new workplace with my old workplace
  9. I will not respond to people who ask for IT help that they have an ID-ten-T problem (more…)

Smack my bench up

February 22, 2012

Well, a picture of an actual benchmark would be really dull

We’ve all been there; when trying to defend the performance / budget / branding / future direction of our service the boss has turned round and said something along the lines of: ‘how does that compare to our neighbours; what’s the benchmark?’

Thus begins another tedious, and absolutely pointless, round of comparison with local councils followed by an equally tedious, and equally pointless, round of explanations as to why the comparisons are actually not a good match with our local context.

I hate benchmarking!

I think it is a weakness of the human condition to constantly want to compare ourselves to others and in local government this inclination is fully played out in the world of performance benchmarking.

For the uninitiated, benchmarking involves comparing the performance of your service/local authority with that of another local authority. The measure you use to do this can come in a variety of different forms and there are whole armies of staff, brought up on a steady diet of performance targets under the last Labour Government to crunch these numbers and produce some sort of comparative figure.

So why is benchmarking a bad idea?


Watching Healthwatch

February 21, 2012

We have discussed on this blog before about the benefits of moving about and becoming part of a wider local government family, and by living this ideal I recently came across something which has not really crossed my radar too closely until now.  On a semi-regular meet up with a colleague from another borough, I discovered the weird and wonderful world that is Healthwatch.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard of Healthwatch before?  Well, you certainly wouldn’t be alone.  This idea is part of the Health and Social Care Bill which is currently working its tortuous and controversial way through the system, and aims to replace LINks, or Local Involvement Networks.  What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard of them either?

LINks have been around now for a good few years, and have aimed to help local people have more of a say about the quality of healthcare in their area.  They are networks of people, usually hosted by a separate organisation and based around the involvement of volunteers.  Healthwatch apparently looks set to take these responsibilities and add some others into the mix, adding a little more teeth and a few extra pennies into the mix for good measure.

These may be very good intentions, but what hope is there really when so few people even know of its existence? (more…)

Interim Judgement

February 20, 2012

Starting a storm: The unfortunate (but wealthy) Mr Lester

Two weeks ago we had a sense that the unmasking of Ed Lester from the Student Loans Company as the sole employee of his own personal services company was going to lead to a bit of a public sector witch hunt and so it has proven.

But whilst the majority of the heat so far has been on the civil service and the QUANGO sector it was only a matter of time before Eric Pickles jumped into the fray. And whilst others had been pussy footing around the issue (after all, other ministers are meant to be defending their own departments) Mr Pickles has typically been able to come out with both guns blazing and a nifty soundbite.

Mr Pickles on Friday called for Local Authorities to target ‘town hall tax-dodgers’ arguing that:

Local people have a right to know whether town hall tax-dodgers are short-changing the public purse; whether bumper bonuses are being awarded to poorly performing workers; or whether pay is being hiked up for execs who’ve boomeranged from post to post.

I am actually quite sympathetic to Eric Pickles.

My first job in local government was on a team that involved about eight staff; of which I think five of them were interims and all of those were in some form of separate company which enabled them to pay less tax. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what happened next; within a year the two members of the team who were on the payroll had left to take interim roles elsewhere and had set up PSCs (or joined a different umbrella company which apparently did the same thing… Who said tax isn’t meant to be taxing?!?).

I also don’t really like the idea of any member of staff setting up arrangements that enable them to pay less tax than I do. It just feels wrong.

And yet and yet…


That was the localgov week that was

February 17, 2012

intro text

First off is a visit to LGC, where Dan Drillsma-Milgrom shares some thoughts on the way Eric Pickles is treating councils who aren’t agreeing with him about freezing council tax this year.

The announcement of the one-year £675m funding offer that ministers were making available to English councils that keep tax levels frozen contained a simple statement: “The scheme will be voluntary.”

Except apparently it won’t. Quite how ministers intend to punish local authorities that choose to put up council tax is unclear.

Mr Shapps made hints about retrospectively adjusting baselines once the new retained business rates system is implemented. To do so according to whether or not a council took advantage of a voluntary offer would surely attract the interest of the legal profession.

We’re occasionally a little multi-dimensional in our messages, thanks in part to the fact that a group of officers write this blog but also due to the complexities of all the issues faced by local government.  The different faces of these issues is well highlighted by these findings from a recent survey which shows that, despite budget cuts and huge protests, morale in the public sector is actually quite high.  Not only that, but staff appear to back their managers too. (more…)

Munch ado about nothing

February 16, 2012

Eat, don't just meet

When things go wrong I don’t mind being told off.  I don’t like it of course – few people do – but when something I’m working on goes wrong because of me then being told off is one of the things that invariably can happen.

Being told off by your parents and your wife however is rather less comfortable.  Last weekend I had this unfortunate feeling during a quick visit to the parents for a cup of tea and a natter.  After politely asking how work was going and hearing the positive reply, my wife decided the time was right to stir things up and get me into trouble.  Did she tell them that I wasn’t performing in my role adequately, that I had messed up on a major project or that I was working all day everyday and through most nights?  Well, no, as none of those are true, but she told them something that ensured I’d be subjected to 45 minutes which I never want to repeat; she told them that I sometimes skip lunch.

Okay, sometimes actually means at least two or three days a week or perhaps more, but the details matter not; I was in the dog house.  What followed was a detailed explanation of all the problems skipping a sandwich can cause, which ranged from lower concentration levels and decreased productivity right through to death.  The thing is, having looked around the office, I don’t think I’m alone in this. (more…)