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Cheltenham BC and Boots Corner: Like local government across the UK, officers and councillors aren’t listening to the real boss, and change is well overdue

September 29, 2018 2 comments

Boots Corner

I’ve been out of local government for nearly three and a half years. But I have continued to watch the continuing chain of messes being created within our Gloucestershire Boroughs and Districts. Usually because someone or a very few people with power and with influence have personal ownership of and therefore investment in some ‘great’ idea. Ideas which are nearly always in some way about them, their career, their legacy or future. Wholly impractical ideas which are then misrepresented as being beneficial to the people they are actually responsible to. The people that they all represent.

There is some rich irony in the fact that lessons are never learned by these same people who have responsibilities not only to themselves, their jobs or their Political Parties.

Lessons are there to be taught through everything these public organisations do. They may appear to arrive in different form, but the same mistakes are being made time after time, over and over again.

Planning, for all the questions which surround it’s often arbitrary processes, has regrettably become the most day-to-day example of all that’s wrong in local government.

The Local Planning Process continually demonstrates all that is wrong with the wider system itself. But the problem is only in small part due to laws and regulations, and actually more about the people who manage and implement government processes, their ideas, motives and yes, the ties that bind them to their ‘interpretations’ within the protectionist culture and environment in which they work.

Watching the Boots Corner fiasco unfold over recent months has been like reading a text-book example of what happens when Planners and their Political Masters get things wrong. What people experience when Councils come up with a ‘great idea’ to improve things, but overlook the most important consideration in the room: What the impact and consequences will be for the people and businesses whose interests they are actually paid and elected to look after.

It doesn’t take many conversations with local business people, residents, employees and regular visitors from local feeder Towns to know that these changes at Boots Corner are idealistic at best, but practically awful.

The changes are having an impact not only on the Centre of Cheltenham itself, but are loading traffic onto the already congested main roads around the Town at rush hour, and now jamming back streets and almost certainly creating rat-runs unseen at every opportunity in between.

The change at Boots Corner is unnecessary. It’s not improving the Town Centre and nobody apart from the Planners and whoever on the Council they have convinced of the validity of this Scheme really has any idea what the real benefit of these changes are to anyone using Cheltenham Town Centre.

And that’s right now. Just wait until the long-awaited John Lewis Store opens its doors and visitor numbers really do burst through the lid.

Now don’t let anyone tell you that the Council is not aware of how people feel. If you follow local news, you cannot miss the disquiet that the changes in late June have raised. This is not Nimby-ism. It’s real people voicing genuine concern over the impact of poor decision making which is now having meaningful impact on their everyday lives.

The travesty is that instead of listening, and for fear of admitting being ‘wrong’, the Council is doubling down and now adding oversized flowerpots, cycle racks, benches, a lot of unhelpful white lines and yes, some artificial grass sat on the lump in between.

And there’s unlikely to be any mistake about the drawn-out nature of the timing of additions either.

Why? Well it’s all to give a repetitive sense to us all that this change is permanent. That when they tell us all that the trial was a success, that with hindsight it will feel like its permanence was always inevitable. That there was no option or reason to change their minds at any point in between.

But this simply isn’t true. And any tales you are told about decisions taking a long time to reverse in Council, or that a trial period must be seen through to its end to be valid are disingenuous at best.

There is no inevitability of confirmation for these changes at Boots Corner or indeed permanence of this change. It simply hinges on what the Officers and therefore the Councillors ultimately decide and however they choose to harvest and then interpret their ‘data’.

The fact is the Council could reinstate the pre-June road system within a few days if they really had doing what’s right for Cheltenham, in mind.

However, it is only fair that no Officer or Councillor be singled out and in some way blamed for what is happening in the Centre of Cheltenham right now.

The whole Government system is rotten with a protectionist and self-serving culture, only made worse by the quasi-bankrupt state of the Government and Public Sector, with austerity being a big part of the problem, but a significant way from being the cause.

But this in itself doesn’t mean that Cheltenham and indeed any of our Local Authorities cannot choose to be different.

The Council has the choice to be big about it. To listen. To gain respect from local people and businesses for trying something new but recognising it doesn’t work, for listening AND HEARING what is being said and quickly responding. To be adaptable to changing things that aren’t right and not get hung up at a personal level about what appearing to take a step back might look like.

Decisions are being made big and small within local authorities up and down the Country which have very little to do with with the people. And in case anyone isn’t sure, that’s the boss that Officers and Politicians ALL ultimately work for.

Locally the latest one is Boots Corner. In terms of direction, this one is definitely going the wrong way, and poor decisions which are having a real impact on daily life in Cheltenham are not the kind of change in local government that we all so badly need.

How about surprising us all and doing what’s actually right, rather telling us that’s what you are doing?

 

You can read some more of Adam’s writing about the realities of Local Government and the wider Public Sector here and here.

 

What the Carillion collapse tells us about the unspoken truths governing public sector contracts

January 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Carillion

Carillion is the big news this week, and is likely to remain on the media radar for some time, given the impact that the collapse of a Company of this size is almost certain to have on commercial relationships that are now an integral part of the public sector.

Moments like this are important for reasons which go way beyond the impact that Monday’s announcement is already having on jobs and the potential closures of many small businesses.

It is providing one of those very rare opportunities to glance inside the incestuous workings of contract delivery on behalf of government and gain an invaluable insight into why private interests working at any level within the public sector is in clear conflict with very ideals of what public service delivery is fundamentally about.

Regrettably, the clear focus of the media and political classes has already fallen upon the question and avoidance of blame. Yet if they were to begin to look just a little further and be open with what have for too long been the unpalatable truths, there would be just the merest hope that questions such as whether there can be a future for the NHS when it remains in a perpetual state of financial crisis could perhaps be genuinely answered.

So why are contracts going to private companies outside the public sector?

The best place to begin thinking about the contracting or privatisation problem is to look at why private business is really even involved in the delivery of government services of any kind, when government exists to operate for, on behalf of and for the benefit of only the public.

Man can only ever have one true master after all, and if money is the true motivator, then public service will at best become an oversight – the unwelcome relative left trailing way behind.

Whilst it may feel counter-intuitive to believe or accept it for many of us, the ‘privatisation solution’ has been in the main part created by Conservative governments in response to the consequences of policies created typically by Labour in order to enhance the rights, working conditions and influence of public sector employees.

Positive discrimination and rights, enhanced working conditions, gold-plated pensions and union indulgence within public sector organisations all cost an ever evolving sum of money in an increasing number of different ways, which usually create even more roles and dilute responsibility further and further still.

The cost of employing people within the public sector on conditions which exceed those of the private sector outside – even when salaries appear to be less, has simply made the delivery of services too expensive for government itself to provide.

Against this backdrop, all areas of he public sector have had to go in search of more cost effective ways to deliver services, and have had to do so in ways which also meet the rigorous requirements of providing services and employing staff as a government based organisations.

This has made the ‘marketplace’ fertile for the entry of private contractors who don’t have the same considerations as these former public sector based service providers.

When you consider that private contractors are providing arguably the same level of service, just without the same levels of bureaucracy – whilst making what in some cases is an outrageous level of profit besides, you can soon begin to see that something is inherently wrong with the way that the government system is now designed.

So how does public sector contracting by private contractors become a problem?

Business loves a contract. Contracts give surety. Contracts themselves can be used as a solid-gold guarantee – and particularly so when they are agreed and signed with government. This gives business confidence which can be misplaced, misused, abused and is almost certain to breed a feeling of complacency.

After completing what should be a rigorous ‘tender process’ – the company will sign a contract with the government organisation which agrees what, when and how the ‘contractor’ will provide a service, whether that just be 1 person to sweep a street or 32 bin lorries to collect your rubbish every fortnight for 5 years. On signing this contract, the company will know exactly what it will be paid, know what it will in turn have to spend, will have worked out its costs and borrowing, should have kept back a little for a rainy day and then know what it will make in profit – from which it will pay bonuses to staff and dividends to shareholders after it has paid any tax requirement.

Good managers know that some things change during the lifetime of a contract – such as fuel prices going up, which would be a real concern for a bus service provider or a private ambulance services. But contractual devices or clauses that allow for some variation in charges are usually built in to any contract to allow for this.

As such, genuinely unforeseen events or those which could not have been predicted by anyone within the contracting company itself are very rare to find.

What government contracts don’t allow for however, are lack of knowledge or understanding of the service delivery area on the part of those designing and agreeing a contract. They don’t make allowance for unmitigated trust on the part of either party. They certainly don’t consider the potential greed or indeed malpractice of a contractor or its decision making staff, which cannot be planned for or predictably defined even within the scope of a government contract process.

When a contractor has only a single contract, transparency is bizarrely much clearer and for the management, much more important and kept clearly in mind.

But when you have many more and perhaps and ever increasing number of contracts, the potential for complacency and overconfidence can lead to otherwise unrealistic opportunities, which in more focused circumstances would have been denied.

It may be as simple as paying senior executives massive, over-inflated salaries. But it has the potential to be much much more in terms of investment, questionable projects and big payouts for shareholders when little in terms of adequate checks and balances has allowed an adequate safety blanket to be retained from payouts and quietly put aside.

The overriding problem with a company which has grown to the size, reach and responsibility of Carillion is there is so much in terms of questionable financial activity that it has the ability to very easily hide.

The responsibility for contract design and management doesn’t just fall on contractors themselves however.

In the background to all this and within the protectionist culture in which contemporary public sector commissioning is currently enshrined, purchasing officers simply don’t have the motivation or willingness to do their jobs as effectively as they should. When the money you are allocating isn’t yours, public service and best value isn’t always the overriding priority. Sometimes it’s all about doing anything which proves to be easier, and who gets what doesn’t always work out exactly as it should.

Whether its building maintenance, bin collections, public transport, prison management, forensic services or interim and temporary staff services that contractors provide, contractors are all making unnecessary profit at the ultimate cost to us as taxpayers.

So what can be done to solve the problem and when will anything happen?

What has been outlined here provides little more than a simple snapshot of a very big and complex problem, which those in power are through their actions are continuing to deny.

For these problems to be addressed, it would first be necessary for politicians to accept that the whole system of government delivery is broken, riddled with management focused upon self interest, making decisions based on theoretical premise, and that there are simply too many people operating within the system who are ultimately being allowed to take us all for a ride.

The ‘too big to fail’ mindset has now permeated through political thinking to a level where contracts are being awarded despite very clear warning signals which would tell even very junior civil service staff that something is not right.

This is no longer a question of let’s bail them out so that they don’t fail like Labour did with the Banks in 2008; this is all about awarding contracts because there is a view that they never will.

Solving this problem is far from simple. It is not just about political thinking. It’s about getting the market’s to think differently. But just as much, it’s about getting employees to see their roles differently; to accept that they have a part to play too.

In simple terms, the free for all has to stop.

This bonanza based on self-interest is no longer sustainable.

The perpetuation of the lie that government genuinely works selflessly for everyone has got to be stopped.

No business can perform effectively on the basis that it prioritises the working conditions and needs of its staff before the priorities upon which it was created to deliver. Yet this is how liberalism and rights culture has manifested itself within all parts of government and the public sector.

Not only has the NHS become hamstrung by lack of staff and inefficiency, it is being cut up by the cost of the staff it hires through contracts – thereby being destroyed by the supposed solution itself; by the very respite that additional money is supposed to provide.

Meanwhile local government has its own substantive bogeyman too, finding itself tied up in knots by the cost of the local government pension scheme – the destination of the better part of our council tax, in many of the Boroughs, Cities and Districts where most of us reside.

Then there are the PFI contracts upon which the last Labour Government so heavily relied. A coarse, deceptive instrument designed to hide public spending, whilst fire hosing cash at private contractors over 30 year terms. Just another financial time bomb legacy like the raid on pension funds by Gordon Brown which we overlook daily on the basis that out of sight is very much out of our minds.

The power rests with government to change all of this, if only they would try.

Regrettably, the will doesn’t even exist to even begin doing so today, even if the Government could begin doing so – something that a hung parliament which could last until 2022 will simply deny.

With a good chance that the next Government will be based upon or built around a militant form of Labour, the chances are that politicians will only continue to try and hide the truth thereafter, because action which doesn’t just look responsible is not a pathway to which they are inclined.

As Jeremy Corbyn made clear in his questioning of Theresa May at Wednesday’s PMQ’s, the answer is just to do everything to return everyone to employment in government jobs. No doubt based upon further borrowing, which to those who don’t understand business or economics is a perceived as a policy which when sold looks bullet proof.

images thanks to independent.co.uk, bbc.co.uk, wiltshiretimes.co.uk

Keeping it real has become the key ingredient of electoral success and Capitalism vs Socialism is a battle which no longer has meaning

Capitalism vs Socialism 2

If you keep an eye on enough of the different news and commentary outlets, it will have been easy to pick up that one of the latest themes amongst those supporting the Government and Conservative Party, is to talk up the righteousness and benefits of Capitalism in comparison to the Socialist agenda of the Labour Party and the wider ‘progressive’ left, which we can be assured will be making the same arguments somewhere completely in reverse.

The backdrop of a General Election Result which has wrecked the confidence of a Party that thought it was safely assured of probably more than a decade in power has indeed set many injured cats amongst the electoral pigeons. On the other hand, it has also elevated the levels of chutzpah employed across the Left to a level which simply defies the true dynamic of their electoral return, in a race decided by factors which sit way beyond the control or influence of either of the political ideologies that either the Tories or Labour would like us to believe they pin their hats on.

What people were quietly thinking to themselves as they entered the Polling Booths across the UK on the 8th of June will long be debated. But you can rest assured that for most it will not have been either the manifestation of Marxist policies or the benefits from implementing the works of Hayek or Freidman.

No. The ideas that will have meant most to those voters who really made the difference to the fortunes of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will have been far more aligned with imagining the difference that one Party in power vs the other could make in Pounds and Pence to them on an individual level, rather than upon some high powered economic idea which all of the political parties seem destined to believe will get us all ‘there’.

Whilst it would be a lot less painful to be able to confine these ‘isms’ to being no more than the ideological myths that they perhaps should be – being the ideas and musings of a few ‘great thinkers’ that they actually are, the horrid reality is that the Twentieth Century saw misguided politicians and activists implement nearly all, with benefits to all but the relative few being very hard to find, whether those concerned have become substantially wealthy or alternatively live the life of a despot or their ‘chosen few’ within non-democratic regimes like North Korea as a result.

In itself, the travesty of one set of politicians romanticising over socialism when it has been tried, tested and demonstrated to be the flawed ideal for any wider population that it actually is, whilst another set continue to believe that markets ruled by money will consciously cater for every not-for-profit need of the wider population upon which its rapidly growing financial wealth is almost certainly now farmed, is simply too significant an injustice to put into words.

Yet the bright young things, the think tanks and the party leaderships of all political persuasions remain fixated on the idea that clever, confusing and complicated ideas can always win, never accounting for the reality that ideas are themselves developed on perspectives, which when created looking upon a destination from the benefit of distance are never the same once we have completed the journey to get there.

Socialism, Capitalism and the forms in which they are delivered are all based upon subjective but nonetheless real truths. Truths which are themselves prerequisite in order for any follower or exponent to believe in or more likely identify with in terms of their own life experience, in order for an ‘ism’ to become a ‘movement’ of any kind.

But these specific or myopic truths are far from all encompassing. They do not make allowance for the nuances of change and they certainly do not make account for the rules of (mis)interpretation, which for the roll out of any idea through the process of transformation to their practical form or policy, present a very real and all too often realised form of serious danger.

In uncertain times like those in which we live, the smallest self-serving truth shared between many through the process of group-think can be enough to eclipse the many others which should for us all have far more meaning, and it is here that any ideological fights between right, left and anywhere in-between should really be seen in their true perspective as the journey and outcome that they ultimately are and guarantee to be.

Socialism can only succeed by forcing the masses to behave as if they are all the same, whilst Capitalism relies on allowing the few to believe that they are fundamentally different.

Objectively, neither philosophy or pathway is genuinely truthful and both are for those ‘selling’ them as self-serving in purpose as the other.

The void created by the long absence of original thought in British politics over a number of decades and through Governments constituted by politicians of all sides does not need to be filled by ideas drawn from text books and the bookshelves of old.

Yes, history needs to be fully regarded for ALL of the lessons that it can teach us, and amongst this, the thoughts of the economic ‘giants’ should be gleaned for the value from each and every perspective, whilst we maintain a healthy regard for the fact that in the case of all these widely lauded ideas, individual perspective is exactly what they are.

What all of the political parties can no longer escape – should they genuinely wish to ensure their long-term-electability, is that the war of ideologies has long since been lost. The electorate may indulge ideas when to them there is no possibility of personal cost, but will always look for the policies which are going to make a positive impact upon their own experience of life in the ‘right now’.

Whether it was the European Referendum or the General Election in June of this year, ‘keeping it real’ – whether policy is perceived to be good or bad – has become the key ingredient of contemporary electoral success.

Capitalism can only work for all if it becomes responsible and reflective of consequence, whilst the Socialist ideas which are genuinely on the side of right can only do real good for all if there is an acceptance that idealism has to be kept in practical check and be considerate with the ideas, hopes and fears of each and every individual too.

Public outcry over Grenfell may ensure prosecutions, but the root causes of public sector indifference are cultural and injustices are destined to continue

July 24, 2017 1 comment

Residents of Kensington and Chelsea are right to be very concerned about the conduct of the local Council in their handling of events leading up to, during and after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Yet we should all be concerned with the reality sitting beyond and concerning the state of the whole Public Sector, which leaves Grenfell unique only because of the size and obvious impact of this horrific event, which has captured the public imagination for all the wrong reasons.

It would be difficult for anyone not to picture the horror of the event and to at very least attempt to consider just how significant the impact of an experience of this nature would be. But the race to apportion blame and the politicisation of this disaster for purposes which reach way beyond those of helping or supporting the people directly involved are diversionary at best, and belie the indirect culpability which lies at the feet of politicians of all backgrounds and officers alike, who are operating and making decisions within a system which might appear fine beyond without the presence of Austerity, but is otherwise quietly failing us all miserably.

Yes, the criminal inquiry which the Police are now working on may well identify individuals who will be charged and subsequently found guilty of having some kind or level of criminal liability. Just as the Judge-led inquiry into the technical aspects of the event, construction and renovation of Grenfell Tower may identify problems with wider policy which will then be used to inform changes which will be intended to make structural development safer for users.

But as I have written before when then Prime Minister David Cameron was talking up Jail-terms for the individuals responsible for the failures of the Local Council and Public Sector in Rotherham, there are cultural issues present right the way through local government and the public sector which make incidents that continue to disadvantage the public all but inevitable at all levels, and in many ways that people outside of Government may never become aware of.

Did anyone get jailed over Rotherham? Has anything changed since then? Have any of the parliamentary political parties demonstrated even the slightest hint that they are in touch with the greater problems caused not by Austerity alone, which persist far more significantly in the background and way beyond?

No being the answer to these questions is of course a travesty in itself. Yet even worse is the misleading direction that this whole debate will be taken if sound bites and labels such as ‘social murder’ continue to be taken literally by followers of the media who rely on news mediums – rightly or wrongly as it may be – to provide them with an accurate view of what is really going on, when all they are really getting is very little fact and one hell of a distorted view.

If the complexity of the issues which make our public services arguably unfit for purpose in all but name are not understood by the very people who hold the responsibility to lead us at all levels of Government, how can anyone who does not even have the slightest experience of the inner workings of the public sector be expected to have even a remote idea of what is really going on?

If they did, we would surely be now looking for names for a whole range of crimes either carried out or instigated without intent otherwise known criminally as corruption, embezzlement and fraud, to name just a few.

Some might like that idea greatly. But the very regrettable reality is that the problem spanning the public sector is culturally embedded and the result of many issues which to address will take political leadership of a kind that we have long since seen on offer.

Ultimately, an embedded problem of this kind must be addressed by action taken at the very top and this is why I previously asked if the last Prime Minister should himself be the one facing the jail term.

Until there is an acceptance and willingness on the part of politicians from all political parties to address the greater problems which sit behind not only events with the level of notoriety of the Grenfell Tower disaster and Rotherham, but also the ‘unintended’ injustices of all kinds which are visited upon taxpayers daily, we remain destined to have future events of this kind continuing to unfold.

This is at best unjust and it is a very long way from what we should all be able to expect from any form of government which actually works for the people it is supposed to serve.

An Oath of Allegiance to a broken system will legitimise the punishment of scapegoats whilst the real problems within public services will remain unresolved

December 19, 2016 Leave a comment

oath-1It was perhaps inevitable that with the publication of messages which were supposed to result in a public-wide swift and audible intake of air, Dame Louise Casey’s report on social cohesion would provoke the Government into making a knee-jerk but nonetheless media-hyped response.

Reviews and Reports of the kind which are commissioned by a government are of course expected to make recommendations. But can we really have confidence that the implications of adopting any policy which logically represents a very narrow and isolated point of view have been considered in the widest context just a couple of weeks after its publication?

Comments from The Casey Review did indeed resonate with many more people than the Government may realise, purely because it was stating in many ways what many already know to be clearly true. But that doesn’t in anyway mean that Dame Louise has the answers to those questions.

We all want to see decisive government action of the kind that we can be sure Sajid Javid intends this policy to be. But it is not in anyone’s interests and least of all his own, for the social injustices which we are now experiencing throughout society, to be compounded by legislation which will legitimise witch hunting and provide a focus for irresponsible leaders who to publicly point the finger of blame.

After all, when we make an oath, the mere act of breaking it becomes a verdict of unquestionable guilt. One that for others makes an easy target upon which to attribute much more negative association besides as they draw attention away from their own roles and [lack of] responsibility.

The whole public sector is in a mess, and it desperately needs top to bottom reform initiated in the form that only the Government can provide. However, making anyone associated with delivery itself liable for actions which personally, professionally, culturally and in some cases contrary to social acceptability are outside of their control, is surely a giant step upon a very slippery slope to a dark place indeed.

I am not arguing against taking action in any way. But the suggestion being made by Mr Javid is no better than the discussion initiated by David Cameron following the child abuse scandal in Rotherham in which he suggested that public servants who overlook their safeguarding responsibilities should simply receive jail terms. I wrote about the issues facing the Sector then, and nothing has been improved by the politicians with the real ability to do so in any way since.

If public services operated as effectively as they could, and were underpinned by processes and localised standards of governance which really worked to ensure the very best deal possible for each and every end-user, yes, an Oath by all employed or elected to represent us within would be a fair and appropriate benchmark.

However, they don’t work effectively and they are certainly not underpinned with the continuity and levels of service to make it possible for only one person to be branded as being at fault when so many more are always, if not inadvertently involved.

 

image thanks to unknown

Labour’s coercive plan to fix the living wage is as real world as the Tories apparent belief that unemployment and poverty are the same thing….

March 16, 2015 1 comment

SNN0713XA---280_1419151aAt first glance, Ed Milliband’s promise to roll out a requirement for employers to pay the living wage sounds like it recognises the biggest issue facing so many families across the UK.

It could work. Or rather it could be seen to work temporarily, and that’s the most cynical part about it.

If our economy was on track, managed by politicians who considered the real impact of policy and performed as it could and arguably should, a working adult would be able to financially support them self on the most basic wage, without any need for support from the Government, or any third party organisation such as a food bank.

The political tomfoolery or short term opportunism which Labour are investing in their manifesto plans as part of their General Election Campaign doesn’t however recognise or consider the role that such policies play within the ecosystem that business and the economy around it actually is.

Like the Conservatives flawed idea that poverty evaporates the moment the unemployed are offered a job, fixing a basic wage for all gives absolutely no consideration for all the other factors that come in to play, nor the consequences which will almost immediately follow.

Whilst the suggestion of an apparent £1.50 an hour raise will give the lowest paid the feel-good factor that might win their vote, Labour’s sound-bite gives no thought for the fact that small businesses might have to reduce their workforce, just to pay the higher wages for fewer staff that the law would require.

This fag-packet plan gives no thought to the likelihood that the productivity of small companies could inevitably reduce because there would be less staff hours available to do the same amount of work.

It doesn’t consider the reality that profit margins may be so low for some small businesses that being required to pay the living wage to employees might actually force them out of business because they cant compete with bigger companies which have the economies of scale and significantly wider profit margins to help them out.

For big business, that might be seen as good news. Companies that thrive on the use of low-paid, low skilled workforces such as the supermarkets and branded coffee bar chains do after all have the ability to raise prices almost at will. They would certainly then be able to cover the rises that the living wage would require, as they inadvertently make the cost of living more expensive for the lowest paid workers, preserving the profitability of their business models.

Put in these terms, we can soon appreciate that the living wage as it is being presented by politicians is in fact just another one of those red herrings that they keep on spinning. It doesn’t accurately reflect what it costs to live. It certainly doesn’t reflect the manner in which the government continues to subsidise large company profits by providing the many welfare incentives for those on the lowest pay, such as tax credits and housing benefit – even if it keeps some small businesses afloat by doing so.

Many people would simply not be self-sufficient on Labour’s Living Wage, any more than they are on the Minimum now. Its coercive implementation would just begin a spiral of inflationary rises that would once again hurt the members of our society who need a basic level of income which genuinely reflects the cost of living the most.

In real terms, we would in effect very quickly be back exactly where we are again right now, with some politician promising yet another quick fix which isn’t actually going to ever solve the problem, just keep the wheels turning by moving the goalposts and them themselves in government (or knocking on the door of it) until another day.

We need the political establishment to begin taking the longer view. To consider the concept of cause and effect. To appreciate, recognise and work with the reality that all decisions they make, and that all policies they implement will have consequences that when made in isolation, often have the result of hurting the wrong people whilst benefiting those don’t actually need any kind of financial assistance at all.

Decision makers must become conscious of the fact that money may be the common thread which runs through almost all of the problems that we have in the UK, whilst money is not the problem in itself.

Westminster has to accept that fire hosing money into problems – and in this case, not even the government’s money – is not a solution. Unhinged spending only extends the magnitude of the problems that already exist, whilst increasing a mountain of debt that for any organisation other than the government would have long since have resulted in bankruptcy.

Whether it is wages, Welfare or the NHS, reform needs to take place on a wholesale basis and comprehensive scale; throughout and across the system of government and everything it touches or ultimately has responsibility for.

Real lives are not completely populated by one-off black and white decisions and even when they are, the ripple effect of consequences will go in all directions and often end up hitting completely different – and usually innocent things.

Above all, government must lead on the reassertion of ethical practices throughout business and government itself. This needs to travel from the top to the bottom of society and remove any suggestion of there being one rule for us; for you another.

The best place to begin would be for the Conservatives to stop behaving as if telling people they are no longer poor will make them believe otherwise when everything they are experiencing says not, and for Labour to stop pretending that barking an order will make a free-thinking business world sing happily without consequence to its nanny-state tune.

The real living wage – or point where the lowest paid can live self-sufficiently, can only come into being within an economic system which produces its own equilibrium.

Government must stop interfering where it shouldn’t, and do more where it should, preventing other forces from manipulating or skewing the balance which has already travelled so very far away from a point of being good.

Poverty, immigration, radicalisation, unemployment and many more serious issues which the UK is facing are all made worse and worse by the behaviour of short sighted and inconsiderate politicians. Its time that they all realised that life is not like a bedtime story book for those who live outside the Westminster bubble, and real life for real people doesn’t simply hinge on getting re-elected every five years.

image: http://www.thesun.co.uk

Jail terms for public servants who overlook their safeguarding responsibilities sounds tough. But if the cause of the problem is actually government wide, should David Cameron be volunteering himself for 5 years in prison rather than another jolly in No. 10?

March 9, 2015 2 comments

Rotherham has already reached such levels of notoriety in local government that the place name has itself become synonymous with the darkest aspects of our society and the lack of responsibility taken by those who we all somehow know simply should have done much better.

At first account, David Cameron’s announcement that any public official – whether an officer or politician – who is shown to have overlooked child safety issues may soon face a jail term, sounds exactly like the kind of tough-minded policy making that we all really want to have coming out of Westminster.

Many of us will agree with the sentiment.

But then, what if those responsible didn’t actually see a problem? What if they didn’t ask questions, because they didn’t see it as their job to do so? What if those individuals were more sure of difficult consequences as a result of speaking out than they were of being any help to others by doing so?

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We do not know the specific circumstances and chronology of all the events and actions that contributed to Rotherham. But neither are we likely to do so, given that inquiries will reflect the often-accepted perception that all decisions are black and white in nature, and that the evidence will speak for itself.

On one level it will, and particularly so when there is a kneejerk response from Central Government to the idea that an individual can always be blamed.

However, the thought processes we all have are still thankfully just our own. Very few of us would willingly provide a word-by-word account of what we have ever at any one time thought – even if we could remember the exact detail for long enough to do so.

Regrettably, in terms of getting tough on those who neglect their responsibilities to the public is concerned, the PM’s plan is a measure which neither accounts for the inadequacies of the government system as it exists today, nor the people who are and who have been in the position to actually do something about it – even now.

Let us be in no doubt, child abuse is horrific however you consider it. Public officials failing to protect, safeguard and prevent the abuse of vulnerable people of any age within our communities is an inexcusable act in every sense.

But it has happened, and it is probably happening in places where we wouldn’t dream it to be even remotely possible, right now. And it may well have been missed because public servants were doing exactly what they understand their job requires them to do.

Whilst this one emotive subject has captured the public imagination and the vote-seeking cynicism of one political party as it thinks of the General Election in May, lack of responsibility on the part of public servants extends way beyond the realms of what government currently calls ‘safeguarding’.

There is an institutional failure at work, which permeates every part of the political, executive and administrative tiers of government, NGO’s and public services.

Decisions effecting the lives of you and I are in no way guaranteed to be made in our best interests by the very people we have elected and who have been employed to serve us.

Just as children have and may still be being abused when someone might have been able to stop it from happening, other people may actually be dying because people with responsibility for others at many different levels are not considering the real impacts of their decisions on the people in their care, when we all objectively know that they should.

Outrageous as this all may sound, tackling this problem, whether it is the way that a medical product is purchased within the NHS, a planning decision is made within a district council, or the action taken within social services means that a child is left exposed to the influence of someone who is considered as the member of an ethnic minority first and a pedophile second, may in no way be as simple as it may look.

Solving these many problems facing our public services is not as straightforward as punishing individuals for overlooking, or deliberately ignoring information or experiences that that public servants have had in their roles.

Before anything else, we have to understand at least some of the basic rules of the protectionist and ineffectual culture, which exists throughout our Public Services.

Only then might we begin to find solutions without automatically attacking those, whose actions would perhaps look very like many of our own, were we to find ourselves working and considering where our own responsibilities would stop in the very same circumstances.

Government is not a happy place. It stands to reason that if the people who are sat at the top of the tree behave in a certain way, the same kind of behavior will soon begin to manifest itself throughout the branches and departments of the organisation below, often with consequences that could never have been foreseen.

My own experience comes directly from working within a local authority, with a national charity, as a politician, and anecdotally through third hand contact throughout. Its real, its tested and I have experienced first hand how the whole system is failing us all, because it is fundamentally, institutionally and culturally sick.

What follows is an overview or perspective of Local Government alone. However, many of the points raised will be applicable to any government body or what we would call a public service.

Whilst I have attempted to focus my thoughts on specific areas, the reality is that there is significant overlap, and the behaviors, processes and methods discussed are very much interdependent, effecting and effected by many different factors and the input of Officers, Politicians and Central – or Westminster-based Government alike.

  • Managers are increasingly becoming qualification rich and experience poor, as part of a ‘textbook technocracy’. The system rewards those who dedicate themselves to playing the progression game, much as it does the politicians. Those climbing the career ladder are usually specialists in one area, rather than having had a grounding in a variety of operational areas where they will have gained a broader understanding not only of the technical aspects of other service areas, but of the life issues and behavior of the wide variety of people from different backgrounds that the staff they will soon manage are interacting with daily. This is not a problem that is exclusively attributable to the most senior levels of management. With an increasing push to share services and responsibilities both within and with other authorities, lower tier managers are now finding themselves with roles where frontline experience of service provision can be critical across many disciplines. The results are plain to see, and as experience is lost through natural wastage, redundancies and attractive jobs with private business, good management is increasingly becoming reliant upon luck, rather than good judgment. When you have deficient management, you then become reliant upon political leadership and that is often as inadequate, if not more so than the relevant officers within the executive itself.
  • Many people are unaware of how desperate the financial circumstances facing the Public Sector actually are. In local government, funding for services is not solely raised by Council Tax alone, and what we pay each month is itself shared out between our local parish, district, county and police authorities. Central government provides an annual settlement or grant to our councils which is being continually lowered and this process has been speeded up throughout the period of Austerity. Some of this is being given back in the form of incentives, such as the New Homes Bonus, which relates to the number of new homes built in the area of the Authority during the year. Unfortunately, payments like this are a two-edged sword and are effectively a way of coercing local authorities to implement government policy and keep doing so, simply to maintain income which is otherwise irreplaceable without cuts.
  • Current Government Policy is not normally to allow rises in Council Tax above 5% annually. But even with this, there is a tendency for many ruling Political Groups to keep this figure as near to zero% as possible, simply as voters are likely to respond to this form of taxation and the way it has been decided than any other. The downward side to this ‘crowd pleasing’ approach is that Council Tax income is often not increasing in line with normal price rises (inflation), whilst other forms of funding are also being cut. This means that authorities aren’t even financially ‘standing still’, and have no option but to cut services, reduce staff or share services with other authorities, which is a process which ultimately takes power further away from the people. Money is tight and decisions are being made that are effecting lives, based upon funding alone. It’s not necessarily because the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t care, but because they have to decide who gets the fixed amount of money (the budget) that they have available.
  • Politically speaking, ‘can do’ is actually ‘can’t, don’t’. As is the case nationally, local government is experiencing a critical shortage of politicians who are ‘in it for the right reasons’. Of those who are – or get first elected on the basis that they are, many are simply not equipped with the experience or leadership-related–confidence that ALL politicians, at every level of government need to effectively represent the people who elected them – within what is actually a leadership role. This functional naivety leaves party dinosaurs unchallenged from within their own ranks, and officers increasingly able to guide policy on the basis of what works most safely for them, or for the furtherance of their CV’s. The situation is growing progressively worse and is only becoming enhanced further by the policy coercion which comes either from Government, or from the National Party HQ’s.
  • Despite the perception that local government makes decisions, much of its responsibility lies in the form of interpreting law and legislation which has been created by MP’s and civil servants in Westminster. Central Government retains the right to overturn local decision making that doesn’t meet the rules that it has set. The reality of this is that decisions are increasingly made on the basis of strictly adhering to central legislation, rather than what local need may actually require. The most obvious manifestation of this can be seen within the Planning and Licensing functions, where decisions are made that are openly transparent within a process with which members of the public or business community interact. When even our local policies are made very much on the basis of frameworks which have been set in London, politicians and officers alike are becoming more and more inclined to defer reasoned judgment on real life decisions they are facing on behalf of the public, to a subservience to a ‘greater power’. The financial, cultural and institutional aspects of the problem play heavily into this process also, but the greatest irony of the controlling way in which Central Government runs every part of the government, is that the structure already exists which would allow power to be well and truly devolved to local people – were it able to work as it could. The legislative problem is reflected in the attitudes of politicians and officers alike and is becoming ever more obvious to observers. Policy making has become a truly questionable process, the machinations of which were once only thought of, or perhaps spoken about behind closed doors. It is now openly discussed in public in a way that simply beggars belief.
  • The bureaucratic structure within Government is continually tightening, despite the messages we hear in the media to the contrary. Common sense; being allowed to think on your feet; taking into consideration all that factors which are specific to each and every case. These are all no more than ideas in a heavily proscribed environment, which leaves officers and increasingly elected members also having to adopt a highly arbitrary approach to decision making. The Influence of the rights culture has come significantly in to play and the creation of increasingly detailed and instructive processes are removing the human touch from interaction between councils and their customers, all to ensure that risk is limited to the remotest degree. Put simply, decision-making has become increasingly black and white when real life is a very grey area. Managers report upwards through respective line management to their CEO, who in turn reports to the political leadership of the council. Less senior politicians have very limited means to address performance issues relating to officers, which have to be passed to department heads, or to a council’s delegated committee which deals with employee issues – one which is often assembled politically. When both the political and executive leadership are incompetent, there is no robust system in place which will enable anyone to do anything about it. For a complainant, speaking out to the media is a highly risky approach to take, and one which is seriously frowned upon, when you are effectively bringing in to question the actions of the Authority of which you are yourself a part.
  • Officers operate within a protectionist system where responsibility is the equivalent of risk and where risk is to be avoided at all costs. Staff are closed down to wider issues affecting the organisations they work for and operate often with a kind of tunnel vision which effectively thrives on passing the buck, or more often than not, simply assuming that someone else will pick the issue up departmentally or organisationally – either because the person who raised it will just assume they need to go elsewhere, or because they just don’t have to deal with anything that sits outside of their job description. The way that we see this manifested most clearly is by the way that consultants are often employed – at great cost – to write reports, giving conclusions or recommendations which departments and whole organisations already understand and will normally have had skilled staff employed to know very well before. The views of a third party are somehow and mistakenly perceived to give a level of legitimacy that nobody employed to actually do the job could provide. Decisions often become assignments for ‘contractors’ by being passed from one level of management to the next. Nobody wants to rock the boat and put at risk what has historically been one of the safest occupations to have, with gold-plated consequences at the end of a highly uneventful career, doing all that it takes to keep your nose clean.
  • Managers have a clear distrust, and in many cases open contempt for the members of the authorities that they work for. This is a situation which has been exacerbated by the lack of interest that many politicians actually show in the areas of responsibility that they have – if they understand them in the first place. Managers often forget that they are employed by the council itself – which is the body made up of the elected members. Indeed, even a CEO is technically the clerk to the council, a point which is well illustrated by the role and position they often take up in council meetings.
  • The business of government today is more autocratic in nature than it is democratic and could easily be compared with the feudal system. Democracy leaves the building almost as soon as the votes have been counted in elections and then decisions are nearly always made under the guidance of those politicians upon whom power has been centralised. Genuine debate is stifled by restrictive procedures and processes which effectively enable officers and politicians to duck drawn out examination processes which would allow real answers to be produced within public forums.
  • Scrutiny processes are generally very weak, ineffective and are failing to serve the public interest in any way. Scrutiny is often treated with distain by controlling political groups who believe that their elected majority gives them and specifically their leadership a level of legitimacy that should not be questioned. Scrutiny cannot be relied upon by opposition groups who are unlikely to successfully influence the decision of a majority using what is currently an arguably worthless ‘checks and balance’ process, unless there is a problem so clearly obvious with a policy, that it almost certainly wouldn’t have been adopted anyway.
  • The political system does not currently encourage strong leadership – usually based upon experience, which is often perceived as divisive in a system where it is normal for politicians to be working to an agenda of some kind. Ineffectual or ‘all things to all people’ styles of leadership are however in practice very weak, opening the door to poor guidance from officers which in such circumstances could be viewed as almost being coercive. When that executive leadership is itself weak, inadequately experienced or just as self-serving as many of the politicians, the results will speak for themselves.

The issues are different for each and every public service organisation, and will almost certainly cover areas that go way beyond what has been described here.

There are also many exceptions. There are some truly exceptional officers and politicians in local government who are doing what they can to ‘get it right’.

There are many more officers and politicians who could be just as exceptional. But the system simply doesn’t encourage them to give the public service that they are capable of giving, and that we, as taxpayers should reasonably be able to expect.

If you consider all of the points that have been made; allow for them to be adjusted, moved or even considered in a different place, you might begin to be able to visualise just how complex the institutional crisis facing all government or public sector organisations actually is, and how critical it has now become that meaningful reform be enacted throughout, for the best interests of all.

The required process of change can only begin from the top. The legislative levers that must be moved to instigate change, are more than ready to be pulled.

The change needed has to be undertaken with the level of understanding, impartiality and diligence that will be essential in ensuring that all forms of self-interest are not only removed, but no longer tolerated within an extremely complex system that exists and should only ever exist to serve the public.

Decisions are being made right now on the basis of ‘what if’ and ‘what will be the consequences for me’ throughout the system.

Officers and politicians are not working within a culture which equips, enables or encourages them to empathise with the people they are supposed to help, or to look beyond and consider the consequences of their decisions and actions for others in any sense.

This is itself highly reflective of the processes which successive Governments have inadvertently nurtured, maintained and developed, and there would be great difficulty in criticising officers within any authority operating at any level for taking this approach, when the example that they continue to be set by Westminster is simply telling them that this is an acceptable way to carry on.

Public servants who fail the people they are employed or elected to protect should be expected to take full responsibility for their actions.

But when the institutional culture of government and public services tells them to do everything but make reasoned decisions alone, it must logically follow that those responsible for the system itself must take responsibility for the faults that lie within it.

So before doling out 5-year jail terms for the people who may just be scapegoats and the easiest to blame, should David Cameron perhaps be volunteering for 5 years in Prison rather than another jolly in No. 10?

image thanks to unknown

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