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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

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.

The questions of Scottish Independence, English Devolution and voter disenfranchisement could be solved in a matter of months. But control freakery at the top will only pay lip service to genuine devolution and it would be far too simple for them to use a solution that already exists…

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Last Fridays meeting between David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon will surely prove to be yet another monumental milestone in the future of the Union.

Attempting to take the whole mile after they had been given Cameron’s proverbial inch may well have been Ms Sturgeons modus operandi all along, but the Prime Minister would do well to bear in mind that the momentum is all with the SNP at this moment in time, and especially so when it was the manipulated public awareness of that very fact that arguably put the Conservative Leader more comfortably back in No. 10.

The words of hollow statesmanship may be contrived to sound like the PM is being tough. But the word ‘no’ can all too quickly be overused and the only way that the Union may now be truly saved, will be for the Government to begin saying yes to the questions that the grassroots Scots have not even outwardly asked.

Devolving power only as far as the Scottish Parliament will do much to enhance and progress the march of the SNP towards the Independence which many of us no longer see as being any more than perhaps a few years away if things continue politically as they are. Scotland’s leaders will surely get closer and closer to attaining the level of power that they so badly crave but could never realise as long as they continue to be part of the UK.

But the people, the voters, the electors who have facilitated this Westminster-bound charge will see no real change in the lives that they live. Indeed, they may well find themselves much more poorly off and continuing to be just as disenfranchised, all because another set of politicians have sold them short as currency for their own personal and self-motivated gain.

The sweet irony of all this is that everyday people across the UK feel just the same and just as disenfranchised as the Scots, but do not experience the same kind of tribal feeling of belonging or commonality between people which has been supercharged in this instance by the promotion of Scotland’s national identity.

Nationalism in this sense truly has become far more of a danger to any semblance of a healthy basic standard of living or status quo than even austerity in time could prove to be, and the reality is that the Scottish Question could be solved in exactly the same act as any questions that have arisen about English, Welsh or even Cornish devolution.

So why exactly, are the politicians not pursuing what is arguably the most simple, straightforward and easy to implement solution. One which would connect people with decision making on their doorstep, whilst removing any need for side-stepping ruses like City Mayors. A change that could bring talk of independence to the immediate halt that anyone living in the real world knows is where it should actually be?

When you consider that this solution already exists right across the Country and would have the ability to administer the devolution of decisions that should be made locally, rather than by a Parliament that seems to many so very far away, any sensible person would be hard pressed not to ask the question.

So then; consider that below the tier of Westminster based government, there is not one; not two, but three tiers of localised government operating, with representatives in most cases already elected by the people, who could and no doubt happily would assume much more responsibility for the decisions which really matter to the localities in which they live, if the Government were to relinquish the appropriate powers and let them do so.

Parish and Town Councils are the most localised and arguably most accessible form of Government in the UK. Yet their responsibilities seldom extend beyond buying and locating dog bins or bus shelters and looking after community assets like small play areas, recreation fields and perhaps an historic Town Hall.

Next comes the District level authorities which harvest our council tax and assume responsibility for matters such as Planning, Licensing, Environmental Health and collecting our waste.

Then there are the County level authorities which look after the not-so-important roads, Education, Social Services and interact closely with services such as the Fire Brigades.

They all sound very administrative or bureaucratic and that’s because they are. People vote to elect the members or councillors that represent them on all of these authorities. But much of the responsibility many people understand them to have isn’t theirs at all. It actually reflects Laws and Policies which have been created by Westminster.

The wriggle room or space for decision making which is truly independent of the Westminster influence is scarce within local government. In reality, it is just sufficient enough that central Government can blame Councils or use them as a convenient scapegoat for political expediency. For instance, Westminster happily passes the buck over the true causes of cuts to local services whilst reducing the size of the bottom line they themselves have to account for in the drive for greater fiscal austerity.

The irony should not be lost on any of us that like most areas of government, local councils are being forced to change the way they work to save money, but the powers to instigate the changes that they really need are held back by a distant political elite which is obsessed with monetary cost rather than the real-life impact from a lack of meaningful reform.

As power is increasingly centralised towards London through the sharing of services and amalgamation of local authorities, power is being taken further away from people at every turn and it is this very act which is continually fanning the flames of discontent within an electorate that quietly knows its influence over even the most practical parts of their lives is becoming ever more remote.

The reality however, for those who have worked closely alongside all the lower tiers of government, is that when those rare moments arise when people sense there is a real chance to influence change, the presence of that opportunity can literally electrify interest in local administration and reconnect the electorate in a way that even the phoney wars which serve as our elections cannot do.

For those who have experienced this connection first hand, there can be little doubt that bringing real power back to street, neighbourhood, village and suburban level would quickly re-engage the electorate and have the potential to bring in a whole new generation of politicians from the grassroots level who didn’t simply join a political party one day because they thought they would be a pretty good prime minister.

The question is of course, why is Westminster not using the existing machinery of government to solve the bubbling crisis created by the SNP leaders and the mishandling of the issue of devolved power, when every thread of common sense and voter-centric thinking says that is exactly what they should do.

Indeed, we might also ask why the promise of City Mayors and the creation of yet more tiers of government and the political stooges that will inhabit these roles is necessary, when many councillors are already in place across the UK, who have distinct connections to our localities that focussing power on just one person at a greater distance could never achieve?

For those who have swam around the political goldfish bowl with their eyes open the answer is regrettably simple.

Its all about control, and despite the political system being infested with the self-serving at every turn, you could quite easily say that there are no greater control freaks at work right now than the occupant of no. 10 and the leader of the SNP.

Both stand to gain personally by concentrating as much power as they can within the realms and reach of their particular roles.

To one, devolving real power to potentially thousands of others who they cannot control politically makes absolutely no sense at all. To the other, giving credence to the idea that power should be focused as near to people as it is possible to do so would instantly destroy the dream of becoming the player on the international stage that British politics is otherwise currently only able to allow of the leader of one of the two main Political Parties.

Some would quickly argue that the lower tiers of government are not equipped to deal with real decisions; but that is exactly what they have been elected to do.

Others would say that responsibility needs to be taken by the people who are most capable of using it with the hint of blind acceptance that MP’s should automatically be assumed to be ‘the right people’ to govern our lives. But we might rather ask, who is better qualified to choose those representatives than the people themselves, when Westminster is now constructed of people who did no more than tick all the right boxes for their political parties and thereafter, did not do a great deal more than sign a series of forms. Can we really say that career politicians with no experience of the world outside are really the people we should entrust with the decisions that affect us all in every way?

The danger of Cameron playing power games with another political leader who is arguably far more awake and attuned to the realities of playing the public song than he could ever do so, is potentially very severe indeed.

Empowering existing councils and creating new ones where they don’t exist could potentially remove the need for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in one swift stroke. It would undoubtedly answer the question of voter disenfranchisement across England too. But it would also require true statesmanship of a kind that many of us have simply never seen.

The very regrettable and destructive alternative is the continuing empowerment of a different kind. That of Scottish, then Welsh and then potentially even English Regional or County Independence with a widow’s web of bureaucracy and additional cost that simply doesn’t bear thinking about. A concept which may play very well into the federalist plans of a politically united Europe, but would ultimately leave the real power for issues that matter to real people in their everyday lives, lying in the hands of a majority of non-elected bureaucrats and foreign politicians who were neither born here, nor have nor ever will live anywhere within our great and currently unified land.

 Top image thanks to http://www.dailyrecord.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

Bankrupt Britain: Is the death of Local Public Service provision avoidable and will it lead communities to provide their own not-for-profit services?

November 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Whilst it may not be generating the media frenzy or sensationalist prose that usually grabs everyone’s attention, recent days have seen a number of different stories emerge that confirm much about the state of Local Government and the services we contribute towards with our Council Tax.

The common theme is of course money – or rather the lack of it.

Those of us taking the collapse of local public services seriously may already be well aware of the perilous state of funding and how bleak the outlook actually is.

However, despite the many cuts and reductions in services that people have witnessed across the UK already, it is the continuing reliance that today’s politicians have placed in using yesterday’s methods to solve tomorrows problems should perhaps give us even greater cause for concern.

This week alone, one Police & Crime Commissioner covering a Conservative area has suggested that he will seek a referendum on raising the local Police Precept element of Council Tax by no less than 25%, whilst the Leader of Newcastle City Council is now on the record as suggesting that the reduction of funding may soon lead to social unrest, with an expectation that an incoming Labour Government will simply change the ‘settlement’ – and thereby solve the problem after May.

Whilst both of these Politicians are in unenviable positions, neither plan would work in the best interests of the electorate, even if they were to be seen to solve the problems in the immediate term. And by immediate term, we are probably talking just 12 months before the very same problem is there to be solved all over again.

Adding yet more to the Tax burden of individuals and households may be an easy decision for politicians, but isn’t sustainable for the people who are paying.

Meanwhile, more money coming from central Government when the Country is already effectively bankrupt spells disaster of another kind, as the accumulation of National Debt simply cannot continue with each successive Government that comes along attempting to shelve today’s problems for tomorrow by printing money like it was all some kind of game without any real cost.

The system of local public service delivery is broken not just because of a lack of funding today, but because of decades of mismanagement focused on targets, working conditions and the development of the protectionist culture which serves everyone’s interests but those of the very people who the services were initially created to serve.

These cultural and institutional problems have not been created locally, but they are certainly propagated locally.

One of the most serious ‘injustices’ served upon every Council Tax Payer, is the seismic amount of our contributions that actually go into the Local Government Pension Scheme. It has increasingly done so since the then Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown raided Pension Funds in 1997 and left the general public to pick up the tab for the subsequent deficit which would otherwise have surely obliterated gold-plated Local Government Pensions.

It would certainly be advisable to have a look at your Local Council’s Annual Budget and see just how much of your money goes into this Scheme. A good guess would be that rather than being anywhere near the red, your local services would be well and truly in the black if you weren’t funding someone else’s retirement plan, just because of the last Labour Government’s fiscal free-for-all, which removed many of the regulations that actually helped a great many of the very people who supported them.

Solving the problem of how to afford what local public services cost us without losing services, reducing services or there being a need to dispose of assets which basically belong to us all, may have already reached a stage where it will seem impossible to do so without the measures already discussed.

But with such options not being real choices, we will all soon have to accept that the way local public services are delivered is going to change; and that the change that comes may not be in anyway better.

Service sharing between Authorities and even Police Forces is now well under way and is likely to accelerate significantly as the reality of the UK’s financial predicament continues to bite hard.

However, the distinct irony of this pathway is that sharing services does indeed take the management and handling of public services further away from the people themselves. And the point should not be lost on anyone that the real cause of much of today’s political disquiet – i.e. taking decisions further away from people will only be made worse by what is yet to come as a result of this.

The political and government infrastructure that could have solved problems like those raised by the Scottish Independence question has already existed for at least two generations in the forms of Parish & Town Councils, District Level Councils and County Councils.

The problem is that Westminster based politicians do not want to empower local representatives at any cost.

Whilst continually paying lip service through concepts such as ‘Localism’ – which has been such a big sound bite of the Coalition era, the reality has been that all changes within Local Government have simply been pushing more and more power back to London, rather than devolving local decisions to local people as any Government focused upon what is really best for the electorate surely would.

This reality may well give the lie to the ‘vow’ which we all awoke to on the morning after the Scottish Referendum. It almost certainly paints a picture which doesn’t look good for us all locally. But when local politics is itself arguably just as rotten and as focused on itself as Westminster is, what can we really expect?

The reality of what lies ahead should hit us hard, because much of what we today take for granted in terms of services supporting both communities and individuals may soon be simply unaffordable – even though we seem to be paying through the nose for it.

With Government Organisations and structures maintained by a culture which nobody is willing to reform, Local Authorities are likely to lean ever more heavily in the future upon contractors and trading companies.

This is a considerable leap in the direction of privatisation and one which could very quickly lead to the token ability of Local Council’s to affect change and decision making on the part of the communities that they represent to be seen for what it really is.

It is a very real prospect that the only services that many people perceive as being what they receive for their money will be handled by private contractors. Companies who are delivering services to the public whilst making a profit at a lower price than what it would cost the public to deliver itself.

With even fortnightly bin collections now at risk, it is not in any way hard to imagine paying for your rubbish to be collected by a company you pay directly – as you would do with electricity, gas or your phone. Indeed it may be little accident that ‘utility’ companies already run such services on behalf of Councils and many of us will quickly wonder what we are paying Council Tax for if we don’t see any Police on the streets and have our rubbish collected by someone else.

Without immediate and meaningful reform, it is a good guess that social enterprise will be the only way that we will be able to have local public services delivered, which are seen to be free at point of delivery or kept at a cost which is both affordable for users and sustainable for the organisations delivering them.

This is unlikely to be restricted to just local service delivery, and whilst utilities, transport and communications are currently little more than the cash cows of the City and its Pension Funds, keeping it real dictates that sooner or later the political classes will have to accept that allowing our society to function at its most basic level requires nothing less than that all services provided for the benefit of the wider community and the individuals within it must be provided on a not-for-profit basis and with best value to the end user firmly in mind.

Regrettably, with much of the infrastructure already disposed of which will facilitate this at National Level, and the same process now progressively happening through the back door at local level, it is communities themselves that may well have to raise the funds to create the new trading companies that will do this.

With crowd funding a good example of the options now available, it is certainly possible to do so.

But as we also wonder why we are paying more tax on everything but receive even less for what we give…won’t we all be asking the question why?

 

image: dailymail.co.uk 

 

Council Spending Cuts: Savings must be the objective, not simply the means to reducing Local Authority expenditure and without providing the tools to affect real reforming change, it’s beginning to look like Eric Pickles is wielding a lot of stick without even a hint of any carrot…

December 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Local government conference

I don’t envy the position that any Government Minister has in respect of either the Deficit – which the Government are all too happy to talk about; or the escalating mountain of Debt – which they are apparently not.

Cuts in public spending are and have been inevitable since way before the last General Election. But it always seems to be the same ‘soft’ targets that get picked, rather than the controversial policy areas that make most MP’s go green, even if they are just asked to talk about them. Therefore, the announcement of a 2.9% cut in the Local Government settlement in 2014-15 is surely one of the most obvious cases of ‘passing the buck’ that there ever could be.

As both a sitting Councillor and past Local Authority Officer, I have no doubt that considerable opportunities to make savings continue to exist within most Council administrative, executive and operational functions. However, I also realise that making such savings is far from a straightforward exercise and particularly so when some areas of service provision simply cannot be cut, or in some cases will even require greater funding in the future.

Whilst cutting spending to reduce the National Deficit and hopefully at some point, start tackling the National Debt is a sensible aim, it should arguably be used as the objective rather than the means itself, and the failure of Central Government to support Local Authorities by providing the machinery of reform – whilst restricting the tax-raising ability that Councils have, is doing little more than necessitating the removal of structural security from within.

Councils are after all left with little choice but to consider and engage in the sharing of services not only between departments, but also within other Authorities as well. Whilst local politicians can already speculate about a hidden agenda moving us all towards Unitary status, there is no question that any service shared, or even Officers being given cross-disciplinary responsibility is just another step away from the end user, in the level of quality of the service being delivered if nothing else.

That’s hardly Localism now is it Mr Cameron?

The reality of the situation is that the savings that will be required to sort out the mess that the UK actually is in may well necessitate a restructure of the way that all Local Government operates.

But we are not at that point yet and it would be far better that we be able to instigate the real processes of change right now in the hope of retaining as much in terms of local services delivered locally for local people, rather than waiting for a point where financial collapse makes even these possibilities we have right now unviable, simply because a Westminster Government decided that it would be easiest inflicting budget cuts on others in the wild hope that somebody else would be responsible enough to bring about change.

Image thanks to http://www.guardian.com 

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