Archive for April 2012

National problems

April 30, 2012

The best way to defend and reform social care lies in one of these books... I hope

This blog is written by staff members from local government and we are in general strong supporters of the localist principle. However, there are times when even localists like us recognise that local government is providing a framework that is no longer appropriate.

And so this is the case with Adult Social Care.

On Friday, the chairman of the LGA Sir Merrick Cockell published a letter from 400 council leaders urging action on Adult Social Care. When written up in the Daily Telegraph ran with the headline:

‘Elderly care funding will force closure of libraries, councils warn’

The letter itself was a little more technocratic. As the Telegraph reported:

They (the LGA) say that a “loss of momentum” would be “dangerous” on three fronts. “First it will exacerbate the problems of an already overstretched care system,” they say. “Second, and as a consequence, it will increasingly limit the availability of valuable local discretionary services as resources are drawn away to plug the gap in care funding. And third, it will fundamentally threaten the broad consensus that has built up around the Dilnot proposals from all quarters.

“The potential damage caused by any one of these dangers, let alone all three, could set the care reform debate back years.” Councils are required by law to provide services such as bin collection, schools, roads and care for the most vulnerable. Services such as leisure centres, parks, sports clubs, after-school clubs and some libraries are classed as “discretionary”.

Sir Merrick and the other leaders from the LGA who signed this letter are totally right that the impact of the increasing cost pressures from adult social care will impact non-discretionary services.


That was the local government week that was

April 27, 2012

A busy week; no wonder the keys are leaping off the page

It’s been a proper busy news week and with more days and more time we could have written twice as many posts this week. Nonetheless, our Friday post gives us a chance to catch up. We’ll try to do the week some justice and also pick up a few slightly different pieces but goodness knows what we have missed.

It only seems right to start in the East End of London with the London Borough of Newham being accused of social cleansing by trying to find homes for people on their housing waiting list in others parts of the country, namely Stoke. This caused an almighty row but the underlying issue is an important one. As the BBC explained:

Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, blamed government policies which had left his borough “chasing around the country trying to find ways to deal with people who are in need”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have got a waiting list of 32,000 – we’ve got hundreds of people looking for places to stay and the result of government benefit cuts, which are still working through as well, means that many more people from wealthier parts of London are looking for places to live in London and they’re just not there.

“We have written to 1,179 organisations [housing associations] saying could you accommodate some people? We’re not looking to push people all to one place, we’re looking to find the best possible solution for citizens.”

The Government accused Newham of playing politics with the issue but failed to recognise that Newham weren’t the ones who brought it to the presses attention.

More pernicious is the seeming inconsistency in the Government’s position. If it is acceptable to pay people different amounts based on the local economy why is it not ok to recognise the higher costs of living in London and pay higher housing benefit based on that? Similarly, if the Government insist of having some form of cap on the benefits then surely this is because they don’t want people to claim benefits to live in expensive parts of the country.

The coalition can moan all they want about social cleansing but the people on these waiting lists need housing and the fact that local authorities are thinking imaginatively to solve the problem, where they can, should be welcomed.

Thanks to the good chaps at Comms2point0 for linking to this piece by Martin Osler about the importance of communications professionals being able to write well. As he argues:

Effective Writing Underpins Communication

Some of you will read this far and say “ach, here he goes; another ex-hack banging on about poorly drafted news releases.” No, excellent writing skills are much, much more than this. As communications professionals we should be able to write robust, grammatically correct proposals and briefing documents, properly punctuated and a delight to read. We should be creating free flowing articles on behalf of our clients, magical web copy, crafty blogs and exciting competition entries.

It is a mistake to base any sweeping judgement on ones own limited experience but I have come across quite a few communications officers in local authorities who see their inability to write well as part of their ability to communicate effectively. Some wear this lack of skill as a badge of honour or at least don’t see it as a problem.  I agree with Martin; if you can’t write well then I don’t really care how good your messaging or creativity is.

It has often been said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics but in this modern day and age there are also very clever people out there willing to explain those statistics. Kudos then to Chris Game from INLOGOV for breaking down the competing political claims about council tax in councils run by the different parties in the run up to the local elections. Whilst all the parties claim that their tax is lower it’s actually just a little more complex than that:

Band D has thus become a benchmark for comparative purposes, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable that the Conservatives tend to use it – as they could with this year’s Commons Library figures – to claim that average Band D tax rates are normally lower in Conservative than in Labour or most Liberal Democrat areas.

Reasonable, but disingenuous. Not so much because only a small minority of properties (15% in England) are actually in Band D, but because, exacerbated by the absence of any revaluation since 1991, the mix of property bands across authorities and regions nowadays varies starkly. In my own authority of Birmingham 56% of properties are in Bands A and B, and just 14% in Bands E to H combined. Neighbouring Solihull has 19% A and Bs and 41% E to Hs. In the North East there are 56% Band As, in the South East 9%, in London 3%.

All of which obviously means that, to raise a certain tax income in an authority with mainly Band A to C properties requires a significantly higher Band D tax than in one comprising many E to H properties. The average bills paid by tax payers will vary similarly – being generally higher than the Band D figure in affluent and Conservative-inclined areas, and lower in poorer or Labour-inclined ones.

Hence Labour’s equally disingenuous preference for using average tax bill figures as their political comparators.  North East: Average Band D council tax £1,525; average tax bill per household £1,072. South East: Average Band D council tax £1,475; average bill per household £1,381. As the anthropomorphic Russian meercat, Alexsandr Orlov, would confirm: simples!

‘Simples’ indeed and well worth reading the whole piece.

In case anyone missed it the Taxpayers Alliance published their annual Town Hall Rich list 2012 identifying the number of staff receiving total benefits packages over £100,000 per year. In a way I appreciate the work of the TPA; they make as much data as possible public and even tried this year to give it some context:

The average remuneration increase for staff in the Town Hall Rich List from 2009-10 to 2010-11 was 26.85 per cent. But this would have been driven by a number of employees receiving large redundancy payments in 2010-11. To account for this, a more accurate picture would be the median average increase, which is 1.83 per cent.

However, their endless message is that these salaries are always inappropriate which is so patently wrong that it annoys me.

This does not, however, annoy me nearly as much as the response of the various local government organsations. I would have liked them to stand up and say clearly: ‘local government is a complex organisation and we employ good staff on market appropriate salaries throughout the organisation. Some of these are well paid but this simply reflects the work that we expect of them’.

Instead they complained that the data included redundancies and therefore overstated the issue. Talk about missing the wood for the trees!

An interesting point of view from Ken Livingstone got some unexpected support this week from a Lib Dem councillor this week via an LGA Blog, when Cllr Lester Holloway agreed that perhaps there are too many boroughs in London.  After all, do we really relate at all to our borough boundaries?

Aside from job losses the main objection has been loss of local accountability. But preserving town hall fiefdoms in formaldehyde does little for accountability.

As a Liberal Democrat with ‘localism’ sewn on my sleeve, I should be instinctively against big domineering monoliths of the state. But Livingstone has a point: borough-based identities are for bureaucrats and local politicians. Most people identify more locally.

We’re not sure whether this could actually work, but one things for sure; we won’t get to find out any time soon.

As the humble mobile phone morphs into something altogether more sophisticated it continues to open up opportunities to engage digitally with groups who in the past would never have been interested or able to benefit from the digital world.  The Government Digital Service (GDS) has picked up on this fact, and on 16 June will be holding a hack day to take advantage of this.

Westminster City Council, with the help of Go ON UK and GDS are holding a hack day on Saturday 16th June. The request is simple, to build something useful and accessible, either for the homeless themselves, for the professionals who assist them, or for any member of public wanting to help in some way. The platform that this is delivered across is also open, covering web, mobile or other platform. Assistance will be available from experts in this area on the day to help with ideas and on Friday 11th May, results of a pre hack day discussion with homeless charities explaining the needs of the homeless in this area will be published.

We truly look forward to seeing the results of this work, and love the fact that in this case the technology is creating opportunities that otherwise simply wouldn’t exist.

Another digital post here, albeit a short one.  Dave Briggs has pointed us towards a nifty new site which aims to help councillors better understand issues in the complex world of planning.  And there’s no ridiculous flowchart diagram in sight.

The purpose of the site is really to drive traffic to NALC’s e-learning platform (provided by my good chums at Learning Pool) as well as to other online learning resources about planning.

We wanted the site to have a nice and bright, informal feel that perhaps not many websites in this particular sector tend to feature, and are pretty pleased with the results!

Thanks to the Evening Standard for highlighting this bit of local government scandal. A local councillor in the London Borough of Merton was removed from his cabinet post for the crime of…. removing an illegally placed poster from some railings. As the Standard reported:

A senior councillor has been sacked from his role as education chief after being filmed ripping down a teenager’s fundraising poster.

Peter Walker was out jogging this week when he stopped to remove the poster attached to railings at Dundonald Park, Wimbledon.

The Labour councillor was secretly filmed by a local resident and the footage was posted on YouTube — prompting Merton council’s leader to dismiss him from his cabinet education post yesterday.

Yep, Jeremy Hunt can survive leaking information about a Government statement to the owners of one of the world’s premier media empires but Councillor Walker cannot survive removing a poster put up by a local youngster… And don’t even get me started on the secret filming!

I love local government!

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The TPA strikes again

April 26, 2012

If you are reading this, odds are good that you are well aware of what has been happening over the past few years in local government.  Funding has been slashed, cuts have been implemented and services cut, leading to the recent announcement that £1.4 billion has now been cut from the local government paybill.  This has apparently been made in part by efficiencies, but mostly has been down to the sad spectre of redundancies.

210,000 people have so far lost their jobs over the past couple of years, and there is no end in sight to the challenges.  Services are being stretched to the limit, and council staff are hard pushed to ensure that the most vital are maintained as well as delivering what local people want and need their council to deliver.

So it was with a degree of shock but at the same time no surprise that I came across the latest rant by the TPA about the pay of senior officers.  If you are yet to go through it, it’s the sixth time they have gone through the accounts of local authorities and released the figures, drawing conclusions and starting arguments.  This is their right to do of course, but their tubthumping approach is less than helpful in the wider conversation.

This latest attempt by the TPA to grab some headlines has certainly succeeded, but it has also taken an incredibly weak route to do so.  By focussing on such a small number of staff out of the 2.1m still working in local government they are taking cheap pot shots which cover up the real issues and challenges facing the sector. (more…)

The three publics

April 25, 2012

Because penguins are much cuter than the public

There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to split up the local population. For every different service in local government there are different considerations to make and thus different ways to assess the members of the public that make up your customer base.

Despite the different methodologies there is probably one thing that we all, at least in part agree on; that it is important to understand the people you are meant to be serving.

In the private sector we would have a fairly simple starting point; we would want to keep current customers and then work hard to attract other customers.

In effect, the private sector organisation is dealing with two publics; those who use their service/product and those that don’t currently use the service/product but might.

In local authorities, and the public sector more generally, this situation is greatly complicated by a third public; those who have no need or interest in a specific public service but because they in some way contribute to it have an opinion which needs to be taken seriously. This method of splitting up the local population is a crude one but it can be instructive when trying to understand the political responses to service changes and the way that local authorities try to meet the needs of their local community.

1)    The public who use a service

We tend to be fairly good at collecting information about those who currently use our service, how they feel about it and what we could do to improve it. However, there are two problems with how we manage this public. Firstly, for services with a relatively small client group we tend to use the current service as the context and then talk to our customers about how it works and how it could be changed or improved. We rarely ask the bigger question of if the service was starting from scratch how would we design it and what would it look like?

The second struggle is where the services reach vast quantities of the public. For these services we often give them simultaneously too much focus (bin collection and potholes anyone?) and not enough detailed conversation with the public concerned. Thus, we will often spend lots of money on the services involved but perhaps won’t take the extra time to really make sure we are delivering the service the different parts of the community might need or want. In a funny way in these situations it seems that the public becomes too big for us to really handle.

2)    The public who don’t use a service but might do in the future


It’s all about the game

April 24, 2012

How about LocalgovVille?

In this WLLG bloggers life, regular battles take place with the other half for attention. It’s not that their partner is uninterested, selfish or unwilling to spend time with them; no, the problem lies in the form of one behemoth of a time-sucking entity; FarmVille.

For the uninitiated, Zynga’s Facebook-based game involves the user building and maintaining a virtual farm with crops and livestock which they plant, tend and then harvest to earn in-game credits, which allow them to improve and expand their farm as they see fit. The difference between this and more traditional games lies in the fact that these crops grow in their own version of ‘realtime’; whether the user is logged on or not, the plants keep growing until they are ready to harvest, then die off and wasting the time and virtual money used to get them ready for harvest.

This has resulted in elements of our lives literally being booked around the harvest schedule; dinner gets done early as the corn is ready to reap, the children’s baths are delayed whilst the cows are milked and evenings out with friends are postponed as some special event or other comes up.

Were this a regular game I suspect it would soon have worn off its charm and the demands it placed on our lives would have stopped them from enjoying it as they do. However, this game has introduced the element of competition and score keeping, which drives them on. They compare their scores with friends and family, swap comments and advice with aquaintences and provide and receive gifts on a seemingly constant basis. This social aspect has thoroughly drawn them in, and contributed to the developers of FarmVille being valued recently at $7.8bn (and yes, that’s billion).

Besides the inconvenience, this has got me thinking about gamification and it’s rise in the virtual world. The advent of social networks has revolutionised the gaming world, as have the introduction of smart phones with internet and GPS access. All of a sudden the world really is our playground; perhaps our local areas and local government should sign up in some way? (more…)

Me and my CC army

April 23, 2012

Free Advertising...

E-mails are great; seriously, they are time saving, efficient and most of all really easy to use even for a technical dunce.  And whilst Mark Zuckerberg may be predicting the end of the e-mail I am confident that in local government they will be here for many years to come (we are never ever ahead of those sort of trends!).

Unfortunately, even the best inventions can fall foul to the mis-use of the human being who is in charge of piloting the tool of choice. Two and half years ago (yeah, I couldn’t believe we’d been going for that long either) one of my colleagues wrote about the strange mis-use of the ‘reply all’ button and concluded:

Seriously, if you can’t be responsible about using the reply all button then frankly you shouldn’t be allowed to use a computer. In fact, you shouldn’t really be allowed out of the house, or be left alone with anything complicated like shoe laces or peanut butter.

She was of course spot on but two and half years later I am taken with another e-mail problem similar to the ‘reply all’ phenomena: People using the cc section of the e-mail as a show of strength or bravado.

I call this phenomena ‘me and my cc army’ and it takes a number of different forms:

1)    The ‘look at all the important people who you would be disappointing if you don’t do as I say’

In this version a relatively junior person is copying in as many layers of management as he or she can think of to show that the issue is really important. Not having the confidence to make the request themselves on its own merit they call in the ‘big boys cc army’.

2)    The ‘see chaps, I really am on your side’


That was the local government week that was

April 20, 2012

Some things to look at...

It was an interesting week for the WLLG crew as we collectively went through a little bit of a work related slump. We are keeping on keeping on and thankfully so is this week’s round up of local government related news and blogging.

Checking out the regular column of Richard Vize in the Guardian Local Government Network can be a joy. It can also be deeply sobering as last week’s piece was. Entitled: ‘Social care: the ticking timebomb at the heart of local government’ I think Richard got the issues pretty much spot on:

The government is getting into dangerous territory with social care, as funding, reform, rhetoric and reality combine to pull high-need, high-risk services dangerously out of shape.

The whole article is well worth a read as are some of the reports referenced within it.

Into the same debate came one of favourite bloggers, ermintrude2, who wrote this interesting piece entitled ‘Is there really ‘Crisis’ in Care?’. As she says:

I wonder about the use of the word ‘crisis’ though. There is a massive issue in relation to funding but this is not something that has been ‘magicked’ out of the air. Nor is it an issue which has suddenly arrived with this government. We have known about the needs of an ageing population for decades but each government of all parties have continued to try and ignore the fact that there will need to be a higher level of tax receipts or co-payment to meet the needs of people who require support from the state.

If it is a crisis, then it is a crisis created by lack of foresight both politically and economically – it is not a crisis created by the care sector or people who require care.

Her pieces are always worth reading and this one is no exception.

We’ve been fairly critical of national politicians who launch their local election campaigns with a bluster of non-local government related soundbites. Thus, we feel it’s necessary to give a few props to the Welsh Liberal Democrats who argued that:

“Welsh people know that if they want a better schools better services and better value for money the only way they are going to get that is by voting for a Welsh Liberal Democrat councillor.”

The squeeze on public spending meant “you really need to make sure that councils focus their resources on things that really make a difference”, she said.

“We have delivered better services, we have delivered better schools whilst at the same time making sure that we are not wasting tax payers money and we are keeping council tax rises low,” she said.


What’s in a name? That which we call a Rose by any other name would smell so sweet

April 19, 2012

Now go on, you didn't expect to be seeing them today, did you?

It’s been ages since our last guest post (well, since 26 March anyway) and we were beginning to think that perhaps no-one else had any interesting or amusing points about local government which they wanted to share with us and our readers.  That was when this work of art popped into our inbox ( by the way) and proved us wrong in the most wonderful way, so here it is in all its glory.  If you’ve got something you think would interest or amuse us or our readers send it in and you too could see your name up in pixels, but first enjoy and chip in yourselves.

The colleague who sits next to me is a slammer.

Most of the time she is very calm at work; while everyone is stressed she is usually the relaxed one. However she does get stressed and she deals with this by slamming down the phone. She will tend to be as sweet as pie on the phone but I know she is angry at the caller because she slams down the phone at the end of the conversation. At times this may be led by an appropriate outburst.

The other day she really slammed down the phone. Any harder and she would have broken the head piece, gone through the desk and met the floor. Once said phone was down, she whispered under her breath, in that kind of whisper that everyone care hear within a mile of you, “No Madam I am not going to refund your *%*! parking ticket, as my job is to collate performance data on education, not to deal with parking tickets and anyway, I have no idea what our *%”! parking policy is.” What had caused this outburst? Quiet simply the call centre had put through a resident wanting to complain about parking to someone who had nothing to do with parking.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced this. When a call comes through that has nothing to do with your job. Sometimes you can understand the mistake (I know Scrutiny Officers get calls about security), sometimes it is just bizarre (I know an Engagement Officer who gets a call about the Borough’s flood defences). But you know what? I don’t think it’s the person at the call center or reception’s fault.

No; its our job titles.

Look at your job title now. If you had no idea what your job was, would you understand what it was you did just by your job title? I’m willing to bet the amount of the Country’s Deficit, that the answer is no. I’m also willing to bet you are sick and tired of having to explain what it is you do after you have met someone for the first time and they have given you a blank look when you have told them your job title. You may even have a set phrase, “Its like…” I’m also willing to bet that the majority of your friends and family haven’t a clue what it is you do, because they have turned off before you have even started said explanation. And you know what, nearly every job title in local government is like this (go on look at the job title of a person in the team next to you…see, I’m right!). (more…)

Of bad ideas and humility

April 18, 2012

Low wattage lightbulb on this occassion

“Don’t interfere with that which you don’t fully understand or manage especially when working in a highly hierarchical organisation such as local government.”

That is the (perhaps wrong) lesson I took as I walked home from work last Tuesday after having what can only be described as not one of my finest hours. I thought it might be instructive, and a little cathartic, to share my experience.

Last week I was sitting with a manager in a team that is not related to my day to day job and discussing some of the problems he has been having. Many of the problems were external to his team and he wasn’t sure what could be done about them organisationally.

At that stage I had an idea.

It wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I thought it was a brilliant idea at the time), and it was on the radical/crazy end of normal working practices but it was an idea nonetheless. I persuaded the manager that he was ok with the idea and that I was the best person to go off and pursue the idea. I then went off in search of someone with some clout who might be willing to a) listen and b) implement what had become in my mind ‘the idea’.

I spoke to a couple of senior-ish managers and although no-one enthusiastically embraced ‘the idea’ they all thought it ‘might’ be worth a try and suggested I go and have a chat with someone from one of the other teams that would be impacted by my idea and see what they thought.

By this stage ‘the idea’ and I were best friends and I was fully signed up to the idea that it would definitely work. My misconception was fully punctured by my next discussion. The member of staff in the other team affected by ‘the idea’ was not happy at all. And by not happy I mean severely peeved, monumentally miffed and fundamentally chagrined. He saw my intervention as having an ulterior motivation and made it very clear that if I suggested it to any other people he would ensure that ‘the idea’ failed and me with it. He was annoyed that I had talked to his managers and generally felt that my advocacy of the idea showed me to be a weak and misguided member of staff.


The Devil’s Guide to Getting Ahead

April 17, 2012

Who needs hard work when you can cheat?

Today we’re going to take a trip into the minds of some of those who think that the only way to the top is on the bodies of those around them and share with you the Devil’s guide to getting ahead in local government.

If you are a hard-working, diligent, nice, supportive, positive, honest, reliable, knowledgeable, experienced, trust worthy member of staff then you need read no further; you’re beyond help. If however you simply want to get ahead as quickly as possible with little fuss and don’t worry yourself about the nagging voice on your other shoulder, then read on and revel in these secret methods of success.

1. Stab, stab, stab.

You know those people who say that they ‘have your back’? Well, they’ve only got it because it’s always good to have a few backs handy when you need to stab someone in one. No matter what they profess to believe, no-one really would protect you no matter what you did; when the proverbial faeces starts flying they will happily use you as a human shield.

Get in first by finding those people who either would probably bounce back from any set-back or who actually wouldn’t be missed. It’s character building after all, they’d probably thank you for the development opportunity. And if you can combine it with number two on this list, you’re in for a rapid rise.

2. Know thy enemy (more…)