Archive for February 2012

Political intrigue

February 15, 2012

Where the real intrigue happens...

I love reading political thrillers, especially the ones which involve someone fairly insignificant managing to change the course of the novel through their brave actions. You spend the book rooting for the underdog and the cause they represent and then at the end they usually succeed and everyone realises they were right all along.

Local Government is many things but no-one would ever claim that it is appropriate for a political novel. However, this week at my council we came about as close to political intrigue as I have ever experienced in local government.

At the moment all the council’s proposed budget cuts are being discussed by our political masters. As part of this process the managers of services which are facing potentially controversial budget cuts have been required to attend various committees and defend themselves. It’s a fairly simple process; the Directors of each directorate sits in for the whole meeting along with our chief financial officer and various department heads are called in to discuss the details of the services in turn.

This week it was the turn of a department which provides preventative services. As the service is not statutory they had been asked to find a rather substantial cut in their budget and were not happy about it.

The section of the meeting started fairly normally with the chair asking the manager to outline how the saving would be made and the impact that the cuts to the service would have. I believe the second question asked was around the steps that would be place to mitigate the impact of the cuts. So far so standard; after the councillors are getting used to facing horrible decisions and managers that are obviously not happy about putting forward savings that are going to damage services they care passionately about.

However, question three was a classic. I don’t have the exact words but it went something like this:

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To my valentine

February 14, 2012

Dear Job,

At this time of year we are encouraged to take a look at our relationship and think about what it really means to us, hopefully with the aim of reaffirming things and realising just how well we have it.  It’s time to think of all the little things we appreciate, and share this appreciation with others.  It may be a little embarrassing to open up about all this, but I want you to know how I feel and be honest from the start.

When I met you I was just coming out of a long term relationship which hadn’t worked out.  In it we had been surviving and getting through things, but going through the motions and not really caring for one another as we deserved.  I took the tough but right decision to leave, and it was at that time that you came into my life.

At first, I think we’d both admit that things were tentative at best.  We spent the first few weeks and months feeling our way around each other, gently nudging at some boundaries and working out each others expectations.  There were a few ups and a couple of downs, and I have to be honest with you when I say that to begin with I wasn’t sure if we were as right for each other as we hoped. (more…)

Diving into the downward spiral

February 13, 2012

How cool does this look?

When I was a kid our local leisure centre had a cool water flume type ride. What was great about it was that after you had gone through the fun of the flume it opened out into a big bowl which you spun round and round before dropping out of the end. It was great!

Please bear with me as I torture a metaphor but being in local government is a bit like that water ride at the moment (and not in the sense that it is great).

The top half of the flume represents what local government has experienced so far. Much like the tube section of the flume was predictable, if difficult to control, the budget cuts so far have been understandable for local government. Yes, we’ve been shaken from side to side and yes it feels like we are being pushed downwards by a never ending torrent of budget cuts (told you this metaphor was going to be pushed) but at least we’ve been able to manage the cuts within the context of a direction of travel we all sort of understand.

To return to my flume the ride in the tube was always fairly similar but the big bowl at the end was absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes you flopped straight down into the hole and sometimes you went round and round before falling rather ungracefully into the hole after 30 seconds or so.

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That was the local government week that was

February 10, 2012

Goodbye to a mild January, hello to a wintry February!  While local government has been working to cope with the snow, other work has not sat still.  Here’s our round-up of some of our favourite blog posts of the week.  If you’ve got others you think we’ve missed, tweet us @welovelocalgov or share it in the comments below.

Coming hot on the heels of our own post looking at local government websites comes this thought provoking post from Ben Welby, in which he talks about the possible implications of the recently launched gov.uk website.  We are cautiously excited about the possible options ahead of us, and Mr Welby puts this across across perfectly.

And it’s all happening in the open. Since before the launch of AlphaGov there has been a steady flow of information covering the wider strategy for how the Government Digital Service imagines the future to look. The code is open source and therefore freely available, fixes are being contributed by the public and the beta is changing on a dailybasis. They’re up front about what’s not there (yet) but they’re equally clear that gaps will be plugged as and when they get there.

If ever you were to believe hype, I’d say this would be the moment.

Some of the WLLG crew have got in trouble in the past for constantly asking ‘why not’ rather than ‘why’ when an idea for a new project comes up; depending on the situation, either question bears asking.  However, the ever inspiring @helreynolds of Monmouthshire fame has popped something on the always interesting comms2point0 blog post asking a different question altogether; ‘what if…’ (more…)

Ode to local government

February 9, 2012

20120208-222538.jpgI sit on the sofa during a visit to mum,
Through a copy of the local free sheet I thumb.
‘The bloody council, they’re all the same’,
From my mum comes this familiar refrain.
‘All the same, how so?’ comes my question in reply,
There’s so much people don’t know about councils, thinks I.

‘Well,’ mum continues, warming to her topic.
‘None of them seem to work with any logic.
The left doesn’t know that the right exists,
And I’m sure the customer service man I spoke to was pi55ed.
I had such a simple question when I called him last week,
By the time he had finished I felt like a freak
For not knowing which department or service I needed
That’s why I need help! In the end he conceded
The point and found someone I could talk to.
The trouble is they said sorry and passed me on through
To a nice young woman who tried hard to help,
But I could tell she was struggling, only a whelp
So after an hour I simply gave up
And had a hot coffee: I needed a cup.’
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Moving around

February 8, 2012

Not one job but many...

Last year we wrote a post giving advice to new local government workers. We provided ten tips and our wonderful readers chimed in with another 16. Together this provided a pretty awesome collection of tips for new local government workers.

Perhaps the one that interested us the most was the final one; from a blogger going by the name of Haypsych who advised:

26. Move around and try to get experience in a few different parts of the council you work for (or councils). If you start out as a graduate accountant, planner, social worker, HR bod etc. then by all means hone those skills but then be prepared to move. Local gov is a rich tapestry of roles and systems, you’ll ensure your longevity in the sector if you broaden your skill set.

I was reminded of this comment again this week as I reviewed some data about staff retention in my Local Authority. Unsurprisingly, if you exclude redundancies there is relatively little turnover, either within or outside the council. Our HR team still present this figure as a sign of success and I wondered whether that was really the case. Indeed, I strongly felt it wasn’t.

I think there are two real challenges in the above comment which my HR colleagues, and indeed all of Local Government, will need to think about.

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There’s nothing as bad as an underspend

February 7, 2012

Spend it, spend it now!

Being a ‘budget manager’ in local government can be a tough job. Some managers just have a few staff to look after and the budget is quite easy. However, at the other end of the spectrum some managers can have incredibly complicated budgets involving contracts, equipment, staff and innumerable other things to consider.

What makes the job even harder is that each manager has to predict at the start of each year how much they are going to spend and getting it wrong can have large consequences.

What confuses some people, including many of those I work for, is that under-spending that budget is just as bad as overspending it.

It is fairly easy to get your head around why an over-spend might be bad thing. The council would have to find money from its reserves or make further cuts to other services to make up for the extra money that you have spent. This would also have an impact on the budgets for the next year and generally put the council in a tricky situation.

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Snow trouble is c-old news

February 6, 2012

No app, but there is a digital map...

What a difference a few years makes. It seems so long and so little time ago that we wrote a piece after the cold snap at the end of 2010, when parts of the country had ground to a halt after an inch or two of snow fell and local government appeared to sit back and rest on its collective laurels.

At the time we called for councils up and down the country to take a little time to think about what had happened and perhaps review the things that went right and wrong and see if there were steps which could be taken to deal with it better next time round. We’d like to think therefore that we are entirely to be given credit for what’s happened recently (although in reality we accept that perhaps others had the same idea as us).

And what may these ideas have been? Well, fast forward just under fourteen months and Britain once again (shock horror) finds itself under snow in winter, and do you know what? It looks like town hall types took our advice and had a good think about what happened. Plans were drawn up, grit ordered and stockpiled and comms plans prepared, resulting in a far, far improved response in 2012.
The media, local or national, are often first in the queue to bash local government when things don’t go to plan. However, this time around I think on the whole things have gone very well. A combination of better preparation and better communication have borne fruit, with not only roads gritted but people more aware of this fact via judicial use of a range of tools, including digital. This has managed expectations better than ever before; I’ve spoken to people about gritted roads and actually heard them mention the words ‘arterial route’ without prompting. (more…)

That was the local government week that was

February 3, 2012

Did anything happen?

This week on the blog we have looked at officer neutrality, council websites, local government managers and the balance between working in local government and having a young family.

‘But what else has been happening in the on-line world of local government?’ I hear you ask; well, quite a lot. So without further ado:

It’s no secret that the cuts made by the Government are going to have a major impact on those councils in poorer areas but stories like this one from the Independant really do bring it home:

London and the North of England have been especially badly hit by the cuts, according to research by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

“Overall cuts in local government spending (excluding education) are largest in both absolute and proportionate terms in the high-spending regions of London, the North East and the North West,” said the IFS in its 2012 Green Budget – a precursor to the Chancellor’s Budget each spring.

Average cuts in London between 2009-10 and 2011-12 were equivalent to £221 per person or 11.2 per cent. Cuts in the North East were equivalent to £169 per person, or 12.6 per cent. In the North West, the average cut was £156 per person, or 12 per cent.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies was also in the news this week when they suggested that the Government’s reform of the pension system was not actually going to save the Government any money over the next 20 years. As the Telegraph explained it:

The institute concludes: “In general, lower earners in the public sector will actually get a more generous pension as a result of the recently announced reforms. That is, they will be able to retire at age 65 with a higher annual pension than they would receive under current arrangements. Conversely, higher earners are likely to lose out.”

There are two real lessons from this. Firstly, the lesson that every local government manager knows; before you get any sign off for a project make sure that your costing of the project is correct.

Secondly, it is amazing how much bad information has infected the debate. The Government were trying to convince everyone that this change was an absolute necessity when it wasn’t and the Unions were actively campaigning against a policy which eventually ended up benefiting the poorest workers and reducing the benefits of the highest paid. When you put it like that it almost seems the wrong way round!

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Family or Fortune?

February 2, 2012

Things which are mutually compatible: lamb and rosemary, Morecambe and Wise, Tango and Cash.

Things which aren’t: Cesium and water, high heels and a night of dancing, Eric Pickles and a positive story about local government.

I’d like to propose that bringing up a young family and pushing forward in your local government career is moving into the second of these groups.

I can already hear local government press and HR departments up and down the country crying out in opposition, quoting the schemes in place to support working parents such as flexi-time, TOIL, childcare vouchers and more.  Outwardly we may protest otherwise but, drawing on personal experience, over the past few years I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my day job with my more important evening and weekend job of being a parent.

Looking around the office seems to back up my concerns.  Those who are young and successful are invariably those without children.  Those who have children and are successful usually are older, with children at least in their early teens.  Those who – like me – are young and have children are finding it tough at best to squeeze as much success out of their careers as they might otherwise like.

I want to be clear of course that in no way, shape or form do I blame my children for these challenges, they are the best thing I have and ever will do, regardless of whatever else happens in my life and career.  However, I’m keen to explore what exactly is the problem, and whether it is in any way controllable.  Why do those of us with young children find the balance so tough?  Is it as simple as people think, is it in any way particular to local government, or is it something that simply has to be accepted and worked through? (more…)