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

Funny old world…

I thought this was interesting;

In all, the report says, such precautionary measures would halve the ill-effects of the moderate amount of warming that might be expected if governments took urgent steps to reduce emissions (at higher temperatures such adaptation will be much harder if not impossible). But so far little is being done. It found that only seven per cent of local authorities had plans to cope with climate change – and none had begun to implement them…

Which would be a wholly unsurprising criticism, were it not from The Daily Telegraph. A great newspaper with excellent UK news coverage and probably the best sports section of any broadsheet, if a little bit eccentric in its choice of columnists, commentators and, occasionally, owners. Not, however, noted for being entirely supportive when local authorities engage staff to work on planning for, and mitigating, the effects of climate change.

Say no to Councillor on Councillor violence

Goodness, the Standards Board has not even been properly abolished yet, and already Councillors from the same party are turning on one another. Councillor Jean-Paul Floru (Westminster) has been driven to the brink of financial ruin by the amount of Council Tax he has been required to pay on his spare houses in Kent.

So upset has this made him, he’s written for the Taxpayers’ Alliance to condemn the garden of England and others for having a controlling group who are “Conservative in name only”, and challenging those around the country to make the same savings as have been achieved in Westminster.

I’m all for lower Council tax (we don’t get a staff discount, you know), but there are moments in political life when one might think, from a comfortable distance, that a pause for reflection and a period of silence might be wise. This is particuarly true when there is a risk of claiming that one has achieved by struggle that which has in fact been gained by luck.

For while it is true (I shall use 2008-9 figures, they were the most conveniently available to me) that Westminster charges an average Council tax of only £203 per head, as against £437 in the Dover area (£382 for Kent County and £55 for Dover District), that is not the whole story. It turns out that net Council spending in that year was £1008 per head in Westminster, and only £760 in Dover (£610 for the County, £150 for the District).

So there we have it, Westminster are in fact splurging fully a third more of other people’s money into the hands of scroung… I’m sorry, I’ve been reading the TPA website too long and turned into the Daily Express. In any event, while I’m sure many wise political and managerial decisions have been made in Westminster, one might look more to the fact that the national redistribution of business rates delivers £653 per resident to Westminster, and only £245 per head to Dover, as at least part of the explanation.

Here’s a graph. I like graphs.Lovely graph

A rather different perspective. Apologies to long-term readers who will have seen a similarly-themed rant from me on a previous occasion. Newer readers who have enjoyed this post may be interested in that one too.

All a bit puzzling

It makes my life easier if the Government abides by a consistent set of principles. When Members ask me what they Government’s doing, or likely to do, I can sort of guess. They don’t have to be ideological principles, they don’t necessarily have to be sensible or coherent. Just something. Obviously that’s harder with a coalition, and obviously when theory meets reality, things fray around the edges.

I get that localism will run into its limits when Councils are doing something that a Minister can get some brownie points on the right for attacking (having a newspaper, paying the going rate for a Chief Executive, paying a lobbyist for advice on how to influence the Government), and that’s fair enough. I get that a passionate commitment to spending cuts in general will fall by the wayside when specific cuts need to be made in Ministers’ constituencies. That’s the game.

What I don’t get, is pretend principles. If you think something is a good idea in a specific case, do it. If you don’t, don’t do it. But don’t invent an overarching principle to justify it if you don’t in fact hold to such a principle. Which is a roundabout way to say that I have been wound up today by trying to reconcile the following.

The Government believes policy advice should be carried out by Departments, not arms length bodies, which makes one wonder what the Office for Budget Responsibility is, since to produce the fiscal numbers that underpin government policy one must assume a certain influence over that policy is inherent in the numbers one produces, but also the Government believes that to provide assurance that the Regional Growth Fund is being put to best use, it is necessary to establish an Independent Approval Panel to advise Ministers on allocations of the Fund.

I suppose it’s potentially a squareable circle, if you separate the policy process rigidly into analysis of the facts (independent), operational decision making (independent) and pure policy decisions (Ministerial/Departmental) – in which case the CRC’s failing was to be set up with an advocate rôle, as well as an evidence-gathering and “rural watchdog” function – its reports not only stated the facts, they made suggestions as to how improvements could be made, and they made them in public.

Of course, deparmental civil servants will also advise Ministers, the only real difference is that they will be more ‘realistic’, more bound into prevailing Government thinking, and, oh, we won’t necessarily find out what they said. Which I suppose I can live with, though it doesn’t seem very ‘open source’. Nor does it help me look wise in front of Members. I could encourage them to spend more time with their MPs, I suppose…