Inconsistency-spotting.

Apparently, we’re wasting vast amounts of money, pretty much on purpose. For example;

Whitehall officials said that the report showed widespread savings could be made  throughout local government without a “slash and burn approach” to  public  services. Mr Pickles’s aides said some councils were making  genuine efforts.  They praised Cornwall Council, which has cut £3million  from waste collection services by contracting out to one firm, not six.

Now, how might it have come to pass that Cornwall started using one waste collection firm, rather than six? Could it have something to do with Cornwall having become a unitary? It can’t possibly be that, though, because

THE formation of Cornwall’s new unitary council has been highlighted as one of the worst examples in the country by a senior Conservative party figure. On a visit to Cornwall, Eric Pickles, the newly-appointed chairman of the Tories, said the process of reorganisation had been a disaster – and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

And as we know, it’s not the sort of behaviour he wants to encourage. I presume a hunt is underway for the officials in question so they can be re-educated with the aid of Eric’s pearl-handled revolver.

Assuming form follows function, I have a question

It’s 2020. The Coalition Government is nearing its second election (bear with me), which again looks likely to be closely fought, and is combined with a referendum on switching to STV, the price exacted for Liberal Democrat endorsement of Conservative candidates in marginal Labour seats.

Despite mixed success at first, and a disavowal of the branding, the concept of the Big Society has been a relative success. Communities and individuals across the country are more empowered to exercise control over the nature and delivery of services, and more involved in co-funding and co-delivery. A string of assets have been transferred to community organisations, and the parish model has spread, in name or in form, to more urban areas of England.

My Council has divested the majority of services, and is no longer accountable to central government for more than the barest minimum of performance indicators. Day to day running of services is overwhelmingly in the hands of the private sector, charities, community organisations, and mutuals of staff and service users. Local elected members are champions of their communities, and sit on the boards of a string of local organisations.

The Council continues to meet, approving large contracts, setting a policy framework within which bids are considered, and acting as the venue for major debates on issues of importance to the area and to engage with other agencies active in the local area. A core of staff continue to prepare policy advice, support local bids, manage strategic decision-making, liaise with Government, and oil the wheels of partnerships and democratic processes.

Groups of Councillors form Scrutiny Task Forces to take an outcome-focused look at key issues affecting the local area and call in witnesses from all sectors, making recommendation as to how we can work with one another and communities to drive better outcomes.

Right, so, that question.

What’s the Cabinet for?

The Bourne Redundancy

In which I suggest a case where ‘localism’ doesn’t in fact lead to the best overall outcome…

I don’t actually know whether Bourne Town Council need to make anyone redundant – as a Parish they probably face at worst a static income, and have relatively few staff with a total turnover of about £150k a year, but the title sprang to mind so I’m using it. In any event, on the occasion of noticing that the excellent Redundant Public Servant is gainfully employed again, I found myself wondering what the effect is of the extent to which public sector vacancies are now “internal applicants only”.

I can see, and accept, that if you are restructuring a team, say from 20 staff to 15, and changing the job roles, but not the overall function of the team, that there’s a logical case to be made for giving the 20 first refusal on the 15 jobs. That’s fair, and likely to be less expensive than advertising widely and then making them all redundant. However, the practice of only recruiting internally has now spread far more widely – in some cases it is the default policy of entire public sector organisations. I think this is bonkers – a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’.

My main problem with it, is that much of this is a zero-sum game. For most public sector jobs, the majority of applicants will be from other public sector employers. The argument that Mary, who has worked at Badgerton District Council on their Health Partnership, should be prevented from applying for jobs in the community liaison team at Badgerton General Hospital, which James, the community health statistics officer at Badgerton Primary Care Trust should be unable to apply for a job as Technical Adviser to the Badgershire Health and Wellbeing Board, seems to me bonkers.

Sure, we’re all making redundancies and we want to make as few as possible, meaning “natural wastage” a l’outrance, but it cannot be impossible to design a system which accounts for this, for example by nationalising some of the costs of redundancy, or by implementing a “dowry” by which an organisation seeking to downsize compensates another in the same position for taking on one of its staff. To do otherwise seems to me a guarantee that people will be in roles they would not ideally choose, and roles will be filled by people who would not be the first choice for them, either.

It also creates a stark division between the “in” and the “out” group; I’m likely to be far more resistant to redundancy (I haven’t even been offered it yet – remarkable in my view given the current pressures facing the sector) if I believe that I will then be locked out of applying for a string of local public sector jobs in the future. I’m also far less geographically mobile if my only promotion prospects are within the organisation for which I currently work – which is fine until I have, say, an ill relative, or a change of circumstances, or a partner who gets relocated.

Is it just me?

My ongoing love of consistency

How does one get hold of civil servants? I mean, if you don’t have an ongoing relationship on a particular issue, do you start at the top and work your way down, ring reception and ask for the policy area in question, or what?

I work in a relatively narrow field, and my Whitehall contacts are pretty decent, but I was pondering the statement from Eric Pickles last year when he said “Local activism and localism don’t need lobbyists. If local politicians want to change the way government operates, their council should send a letter or pick up the phone”. I’m assuming he doesn’t literally intend that we should all phone him, constantly, so getting through to the right staff would be useful.

That means finding the right person, even assuming that they are willing and able to have a discussion. It’s fine writing a letter to the relevant Minister, or sending over the Leader to have a ‘private chat’, but that’s only properly useful if you can get to the bottom of the issue first, I think, unless it’s something really obvious on which the Government are merely being wilfully obtuse (ask me for a list).

There used to be a publication called the Civil Service Yearbook. I won’t pretend it was the greatest publication in the world, but it was certainly a start. If you met someone but mislaid their card, you could probably track them down. If you had been told a name but no details, you could probably track them down. If you knew the policy area you were interested in, you… get the idea.

Anyway, and I can’t in fairness blame Eric Pickles for this given the date, the Civil Service Year Book ceased publication last year, and is no longer available in print or online. Querying this, I was told that this was because all the information is going to be given away for free (hurrah) so we no longer need to pay for it.

So where is it? Since then, all I’ve been able to find is the site of “Departmental Organograms”, which, well, they’re fantastic if you’re a journalist or noseypoke who wants to know how much people are paid, how many staff they have, or what silly job titles have been made up. If, on the other hand, you want to know the names of staff below Director level, or the phone numbers or e-mail addresses on which you can contact them, you can pretty much get stuffed.

I raised this with a friend in Whitehall today (hence the rant) who tells me that orders have been sent from on high to reduce the number of Government websites, and the amount of information contained on them. Openness and transparency, isn’t it wonderful.

Oh, and yes, we’re fairly rubbish at this in local government as well, I appreciate that, but (in theory at least) Councillors are easier to get hold of (and, crucially) more likely to be able to ask the right officers to look into a resident’s problem than MPs – who aren’t in the same direct relationship with civil servants, who in any case don’t have the same closeness between strategy and operations which still characterises quite a lot of local government work, even in the era of mass outsourcing.

Divide and Conquer

Exhibit A

LABOUR-run Durham County Council is poised to axe 1,600 jobs, its leader revealed this week. Faced with £100m of savings over four years, it is to ask its entire 10,041-strong directly-employed workforce for expressions of interest in early retirement or voluntary redundancy.

Over £11m of Durham County Council’s grant has been withheld to protect services in other local authority areas mostly in the South. The Government’s financial damping system which sets a minimum and maximum grant level for every council unduly penalises authorities in hard-hit areas.

In addition, grants for job creation and help to poverty-stricken areas have also been slashed by £25m Coun Henig said that when all grants were taken into account, the council faced a year-on-year funding cut of 15 per cent; and there was “clear unfairness” across the country, with Surrey County Council losing just 0.3 per cent.

Exhibit B

COUNCILS across Surrey are digesting the results of this week’s local government finance settlement, with reduced grants set to have an impact on services.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said there would be cuts of between 0.31% and 6.96% in the ‘revenue spending power’ of Surrey’s 11 borough and district authorities, plus the county council. But the real figures for reductions in funding which comes direct from central government are much higher, as the revenue spending power totals included council tax money – which is collected locally – plus other smaller grants separate from the core ‘formula grant’.

… local authorities in the county, where cuts to jobs and services have been part of the landscape in recent years, warned of challenging times ahead. Surrey County Council said its main central government grant was being cut by 25% over the two years, meaning a £41m funding reduction.

Confirmation Bias

Has anyone heard any gossip about the Government’s plans for elected mayors in cities? It very much isn’t going to affect me, but I find it fascinating that something which has had such mixed success is nonetheless the received wisdom across much of the political class. I puzzled at the time of the original phrasing as to what a “confirmatory referendum” was, as distinct from a referendum.

The leading contender for an explanation was simply that the process would be begun, and the referendums would be a part of that process. Then the Financial Times had a weird story just over a month ago stating that the referendums would be not a choice on whether to have a mayoral system or not, but a vote on whether the current Council leader should remain as the Mayor until the natural end of their term of office, or whether a new election should happen immediately.

This seemed surreal to me, and was dismissed almost right away by the usually well-informed Harry Phibbs on ConservativeHome’s local government blog, so I thought it must be someone getting the wrong end of a very long stick, but recently I’ve been hearing the same line from some generally reliable sources. I don’t know, therefore, whether there is substance to it, or whether it’s just recycled gossip coming round the loop a second time.

One good turn…

I recently got a shout out from the nice people at We Love Local Government – a blogging collective which therefore contains a broader range of insights, and delivers them on a more regular basis, than you’re likely to get in these parts.

They also post Dilbert cartoons when they have nothing else to say, which strikes me as a sound thing to do. It would seem rude not to reciprocate (the link, not the Dilbert), and I can’t imagine anyone reading here without being interested in what’s written over there, so – off you go!

Arguably funnier than Dilbert. Hard to believe that's possible, I know