Over the last few years I think I have become partially immune to stories about the cuts that local authorities are still required to make. In part this is because the cuts have been such a part of our life for over four years now and have sort of just become part of the context of local government. However, I also think part of it is that the narrative in the sector has, as so often with local government, moved away from the problem and moved firmly into the solutions.
And yet, if anything, the cuts are now biting even harder than they ever had.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, many councils have already taken the medium risk savings (the low hanging fruit was largely a myth but was gone by 2010) and are now moving onto the far more painful savings, some of which may not even be deliverable. More importantly, the Government have continued to keep the squeeze on and have factored in ever more savings over the next three to four years.
I was reminded of this over the weekend when reading this story about Coventry Council who are set to lose another 1,000 staff on top of the 1,000 who have already left. The move equates to 1 in 6 members of the current workforce being made redundant or retiring and not being replaced and will hopefully save the council another £60m by 2017/18.
The Leader of Coventry Council summed it up:
"The worst is yet to come"
The big picture is just as bad. The LGA published their 2014 Future Funding Outlook earlier this month and despite being local government finance being fearfully complex (thanks to @flipchartrick for notifying us to its existence) the document paints a very stark picture.
As Sir Merrick Cockell details in his introduction:
‘Where councils have continued to balance their budgets, the funding gap in local government is still growing by £2.1 billion each year. Closing the gap each year demonstrates councils’ resilience but each efficiency saving that is found reduces the potential for efficiencies in future years, so many councils are forced to look for savings from service reductions.’
The below chart shows the looming gap between funding and expenditure.
I recommend that readers go and check out the whole document but there is one other chart that caught my eye:
As the report states:
‘With social care and waste spending absorbing a rising proportion of the resources available to councils, funding for other council services drops by 43% or £11.6 billion in cash terms by the end of the decade, from £26.6 billion in 2010/11 to £15 billion in 2019/20. But even this significantly understates the scale of the problem as within these “other services” are many statutory services which cannot be cut significantly: concessionary fares, minimum revenue provision, waste and transport levies and other statutory services.’
Local government has achieved a lot but the challenges we are still facing are probably twice as tough as what has gone before. As the Leader of Coventry says:
"The worst is yet to come"
And that genuinely scares me.
28th July 2014
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is currently under investigation for allegedly diverting £2m in public grants to Bangladeshi and Somali groups.
This investigation was triggered by a prime time Panorama investigation into goings on in the London Borough and allegations that the Mayor (then and current) has pressured officers to allocate funds to organisations which under a fair and free process would not have received them. According to latest blog from the Guardian this investigation is still ongoing with PWC requesting 10 million pieces of information and Tower Hamlets requesting a Judicial Review into the proportionality of the investigation.
I was reminded of this last week after reading this excellent post from Toby Blume about the award of grants to the Big Society Network. Toby reviewed a recent NAO report into funding given to the Big Society Network and Society Network Foundation and reported:
Among the findings NAO report were:
That the Cabinet Office meddled with the administration of the Social Action Fund that it had commissioned Social Investment Business to run. They told SIB to ‘look again’ (subtext – until you find the right answer) at four bids it had deemed ineligible, including one from Society Network Foundation. And just to make sure the correct answer was arrived at they changed the eligibility criteria after the closing date for applications. When the project was going badly, they put more money in to ‘try and bring the project back on track’….rather than accepting they had made a horrible mistake. They also made further payments even though Society Network Foundation’s own figures showed that the project hadn’t spent the money they’d already had.
This was followed up by a report over the weekend from the Independent which reported that, among other things, the grant process to award funds to the Big Society Network was unduly pressured by Government Ministers. To quote the paper:
Two senior figures on government grant awarding bodies have also made allegations that they were pressured into handing over money to the Big Society Network despite severe reservations about the viability of the projects they were being asked to support.
Liam Black, a former trustee of Nesta, which was then a public body sponsored by the Department for Business, said Nesta had been “forced” to give grants that totalled £480,000 to the Big Society Network in 2010 without a competitive pitch. He described it as a “scandalous waste of money”.
Another senior figure involved in the decision to award £299,800 from the Cabinet Office to the organisation said the funding request had initially been turned down.
“When we did the analysis we turned them down because the bid did not stack up,” they said. “But we were told to go back and change the criteria to make it work.”
The Big Society Network is currently being investigated by the Charity Commission although as I read the story they’re being investigated for reasons not related to the giving of the grants but instead to do with their governance. However, the Labour Party have written to the Cabinet Secretary asking for an investigation into the grant giving much as Eric Pickles sent in PWC to investigate Tower Hamlets.
If we move past the obvious disparity in the way the two issues are being dealt with – where’s the PWC investigation into the Cabinet Office and Panorama investigation? – the more interesting question is whether political interference in grant processes is actually ok.
A generous interpretation of the Big Society Network grant process is that Conservative Ministers influenced the grant process because they wanted to ensure that the grants were given to organisations who shared their ideology; part of which had been a central plank of their manifesto. Similarly in Tower Hamlets a generous interpretation would be that Mayor Rahman had wanted to ensure that a complex grant process did not deny community groups which he knew were good service providers from getting funds.
In both circumstances isn’t that the role of politicians? After all, designing the perfect grants process is nearly impossible and I don’t know of any one that hasn’t resulted in at least one slightly perverse outcome (all of which we learn in hindsight). Likewise, politicians are directly accountable for the grants so why shouldn’t they have responsibility for influencing that spend?
The less generous interpretations both revolve around nepotism.
I have been weighing these issues ever since the Panorama ‘expose’ and despite the obvious risks (as possibly demonstrated by the Big Society Network and Tower Hamlets examples) I would rather have politicians involved and actively influencing the grants process. The key issue, if we allow this, is to ensure that whenever a grant is given based on a political overview it is made clear in the grant notes. Then the public would know and opposition politicians, journalists, citizen auditors and voters can judge politicians on the decisions they make.
The current situation pretends that there is no political influence in spending money; a position which is obviously not true and because of this pretence denies the public the chance to make their own judgements.
If the Conservatives want to invest £2m in a network run by one of their former staff or Mayor Rahman wants to invest £2m in community groups he believes in we should accept that they were elected to do just that.
The public just have the right to know so that when it all goes wrong we know who to blame.
I hate maths. Well, I hate teaching maths. My children are all at an age where they are starting to get on to more complicated calculations, and I’m struggling to adequately describe to them how to get from A to B, or more appropriately 294 to pi.
The trouble is that in my head, I just do it. I don’t quite remember how I developed all of the techniques of chunking things up, rounding them up, doing a few separate sums to get each component correct and then recombining them at the end to get to the answer; I just sort of do it all in my head and blurt something out. My teachers hated teaching me as I’d usually get the right answer, but rarely adequately showed my working out.
The reason I mention this is that I came across a similar situation recently at an event which really got me frustrated. Picture the scene: a circle of senior Council staff from across the country, each describing their challenges and each looking to get some help and support to come up with solutions that will balance the books whilst delivering all of the services needed to those who need them. A few members of the group are taking part as they have been invited to speak as experts, sharing their stories and describing how they are in a better place than many others in the room. One of the group asks them how they can get from where they are to where they need to be; their answer?
“Well, you just have to do it. We do, and we’re great, so act like us.”
I paraphrase, but effectively that is all they ended up saying. There was no thought to the years of preparation that went into all of it, the discussions, the arguments, the position papers, the cajoling, the business cases, the low hanging fruit, the media preparation, the vision statements, the risk assessments or the sheer dumb luck factor; all the advice given was to jump to the end point with an expectation that the intervening steps actually wouldn’t be necessary or difficult.
As I mentioned recently on our podcast (did you know, we have a semi-regular podcast?), in some ways it reminded me of childbirth. While going through pregnancy there is trial after trial, adjustments to arrangements and a lot of negotiation about how things will work afterwards, followed by some extremely painful and difficult birthing pains after which all of that gets forgotten as you look into the baby’s eyes and resolve to have another one as they are so fantastic. You develop a form of pain-amnesia, forgetting all of the hurt and focussing on all that is good about the end product.
Whilst in evolutionary terms this is perfectly reasonable (otherwise our species would be far fewer in number), when it comes to organisational and cultural development it is possibly the most dangerous and/or useless stance to take when people come to you asking for advice. It leads the questioner to end up with one of two visions for success: either do just jump in with both feet and act in that way, or give up as there is just about no help out there. Whilst the latter results in little progress, the former would be far more serious as the internal knowledge and expertise built up during those long fights and debates simply won’t exist.
It is only by fighting the fights and beating down the doubters that a good, innovative idea can truly be tested, and the staff involved build up the required skill set and mental attitude to enact it. Sometimes it may be a case of living up to the adage that timing having an awful lot to do with the success of a rain dance: it might not matter how good or bad you are, sometimes everything just aligns perfectly and works first time. However, more often than not it will require a lot of work and learning to take place along the way.
It seems to be these stages of learning which we are not good at breaking down. We tend to look back and remember the good parts, rather than what we did to get from one stage to the next. We also condense these lessons down to very few, often focussing on the individuals involved rather than the processes we went through. We also rarely talk about any dead ends or failures, a cardinal sin when it comes to learning.
It is always useful to have examples to inspire others, paragons of virtue which we can all point to and say “I want to be more like them!” What we need more of is the real, honest analysis of how they got to where they are so we can then apply this to our own settings and devise appropriate strategies to make progress. Just saying “be more like us” not only does others no good but it does a huge disservice to those who are good, not valuing the effort that went into things and making it seem as if everyone could do exactly the same by tomorrow. Some may say “we were just lucky”, but in my experience there’s no such thing as luck; luck is simply preparation meeting opportunity.
Being open as you go helps as you don’t then need to go back and work out how it all worked. We all need to get a little bit better at showing our workings, lest we end up with a load of sums and answers but no idea how we got there, or even if they’re correct.