Yours, angry of Spelthorne…

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

The LGIU Daily Briefing is a valuable resource for local government officers and I try to make time to read it every day. Most days I find it a useful source of context and stories; some relevant to work and some just stored away in the memory bank for future reference.

Last week however, the briefing made me angry. The offending article was as follows:

Councillors fail to pay taxes

Spelthorne Council has admitted that six of its elected members have not paid their council tax for three years. The six, who cannot be identified due to the Data Protection Act, have fallen behind with their payments since 2011.

The Daily Telegraph, Page: 5

I know that councillors not paying their council tax is a fairly well-worn story beloved of local journalists but it is no less shocking even for its regularity. Plus, and more important in this context, I live in Spelthorne and as a local resident and taxpayer am just a little pi55ed off about that my local councillors have the bare faced cheek to not pay their taxes.

I know this is probably obvious but let me explain the reasons for my outrage:

1)      The council sends me demands for me to pay my taxes. These demands come from decisions made by the council, as in the councillors. What right do they have to demand money from me if they are not paying it themselves

2)      Surely people are elected as councillors because they care about local services. And if you care about council services how can you then not pay the taxes that fund those services? Anyone who would act in that way is probably not the sort of person who I want to represent me and to be honest I’m not even sure why they would bother to stand if they would act in this way?

3)      They get paid by the council for being a councillor. At the very least the two could offset?

4)      There is no punishment for not paying their taxes

5)      I have no idea who it is who is not paying their taxes and thus I can’t vote against them.





Add all that together and you can understand why I am a little miffed.

What is more on a personal level I just don’t understand how someone elected as a councillor could have so little concern for the probity we expect of ordinary members of the public, let alone councillors, and could act like this. I know we want normal people with normal problems to be councillors but I think this is one expectation that is eminently reasonable.

There is, in my mind, a simple solution to this; if councillors fall behind with their tax they should be barred from taking part in any council meetings until their account is settled. We could also publicise the ‘banned’ list (which I hope would be empty) at the start of every meeting. It’s easy to do and I can’t imagine any member of the public objecting to it.


In fact with an election coming up does anyone want to join me in proposing this as something for the party manifestos?


The boy who cried wolf

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

Like Glen, I haven’t written a post for this site for months. The reasons for this are multiple but can broadly be summed up as child, work and chicken-ness. The first two are fairly self-explanatory; as the amount of time and mental energy spent on each of them increased the amount available for blogging and thinking about interesting things to write decreases.

The latter point – that of my general chicken-ness – stems from a combination of a lack of anonymity (gone are the good old days) and the fact that my work now leads me slap bang into the middle of many of the controversies of local government in 2014.

If you are non-anonymous and right in the middle of things the two options for writing available to you are fairly unattractive. Firstly, you could play the renegade and question the actions of your local authority, or local government in general. Unless you can back this up with action in the workplace, or handle it very sensitively, this is a quick way to bring trouble upon the heads of your employers and is unattractive. In my case, it would also mean decrying my own work - which would be particularly disingenuous. The second option is to use the blog to try and make sense, and defend, the work I am doing and the rationale for it. But this isn’t my role either and there is a danger of being the man who doth protest too loudly; especially when there are local residents, and possibly politicians, who would find my arguments to be disagreeable.

I describe the above as chicken-ness because both arguments are overcome-able but nonetheless the caution exists and I have found myself not blogging.

However, like Glen, I do miss it and thus when I found myself staring at a computer screen with a spare hour or so I thought I’d try and craft something that looked back at 2014 and peeked forward too.

2014 was, in many ways, the year in which the penny dropped about local authority finances. Despite Kris Hopkins’ brave defence of Government spending cuts – which basically consisted of bad maths (1.8% - really?), council reserves and local government being akin to the boy who cried wolf – there seemed to be a greater recognition that services are about to decline and decline badly.

Andy Burnham referenced social care cuts when talking about the A&E crisis, local government reform featured in the Scottish referendum debate and the local government spending announcement was the lead story on multiple news outlets this month.

However, I do wonder if this is a bit too little too late for local government.

I mention the boy who cried wolf as I think it is applicable here. Every year since 2010 councils have argued that the cuts are putting public services at risk and every year we’ve sort of muddled through; indeed, in many cases we've done better than muddled through and protected valuable public services even whilst our budgets have been slashed. Indeed, as Kris Hopkins pointed out council reserves (however dreadful a measure this is of anything) have actually gone up during this time. This continued refrain starts to challenge the public’s credulity and makes it difficult to be believed – even when the Government figures are specifically disavowed by CIPFA – a body of accountants!

And yet; if local government is the boy who cried wolf and is therefore no longer believed when they spell out how bad things are going to be let us remember one thing – the boy who cried wolf was eventually eaten.

The next few lines of this post should involve me trying to explain the cuts that are going to hit my authority in the next three years, the impact of these cuts on real people and the challenges we face in delivering them. But that’s not the story for today; theoretical cuts are not going to cut it in the pantheon of public debate. The fact that we are projecting the future through our work does not the future make.

Until the public see the wolf (as they are currently seeing with A&E services) the cuts will be allowed to continue – if only because no-one has thought of anything better to replace them with.

This leaves us with the largest of challenges – on the one hand we need to make it clear how bad the cuts are and the impact they will have on real people and the services they use. On the other hand we need to work as hard as possible to make the cuts as painless as we can. In effect we are both crying wolf and running from the wolf simultaneously.

No wonder the public are confused and the DCLG’s narrative dominant.

And this is what leaves me confused as we enter 2015. One the one hand I want to stand on the highest mountain and scream at the top of my voice:

‘Look at that wolf – it’s huge and it’s coming for us all’

And on the other hand I marvel at the ingenuity of the human race and particularly the people in local government I work with, and wonder whether once more we might just be able to out-run the wolf and make it to the end of this batch of austerity – if that ever happens – bruised but essentially unscathed.

It is of course possible that both of the above scenarios will happen simultaneously – we might, on the basis of our ingenuity and the resilience of our residents, survive but the State might be so fundamentally changed that it represents (to continue our stretched analogy) a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

As 2015 kicks off the potential for all three scenarios stretches before the sector and as an officer the fact that there are still options open to us excites me. I’m still worried about our collective future and less certain about where everything might lead than I have been in many years but the hope is still there.


This might be naivety, my inability to recognise the evidence right in front of my face, or just the optimistic foolishness of a new year but I’m not quite ready to climb the mountain and wave my hands yet – it doesn’t mean the wolf isn’t close; it’s just that I still fancy our chances of outrunning it. 


Writing about writing

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Dorothy Parker once said “I hate writing, I love having written.” It wasn’t until I started writing semi-regularly that I knew what this actually meant. The process of writing can be difficult; you come up with a dozen ideas, select which one you want to extend, draft out the outline, go back and fill in the blanks, research some quotes to insert, tidy up all of the grammatical and spelling mistakes, find an appropriate image, upload it all to the internet, then realise it was a poor article with a weak argument to begin with so go back to square one.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the words just flow; I call these first-drafters. These are the times when the words form in front of your eyes, when the argument is so clear and well-reasoned that you don’t need to think it through, you just need to get it down in print as quickly as possible so it will work itself out.

Over the past year or so I’ve not found the time to open myself up enough to either approach. Actually that’s wrong: I’ve not made the time. I never had the time available in the past, when between us Gareth and I turned out a different and detailed piece every single day of the week. No, we simply dedicated ourselves to doing this and the words just came; we made the time to find them and they were there.

Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes events conspired to put a story in front of you which you had a strong opinion about and which you were happy to mentally spark about until you could make a few minutes to note them down and flesh it out. Sometimes this happened more than once a day, meaning that evening you could prepare half a dozen posts and schedule them for coming weeks, bumping some of them back as more time-bound or urgent pieces came to life.

Other times though, it was hard. Ideas were there, but never at a time when you could note them down. Sometimes they simply didn’t stand up to more scrutiny; what was a pithy and fun one liner or introductory paragraph could actually go no further, so was filed away in the folder marked “things to finish”. Sometimes there was simply little to talk about, meaning you plucked random things from the air and practiced creating an argument for its own sake.

And of course, increasingly you had lots to say about something but knew it was not appropriate to be writing about it in public. Moving slowly up the middle-management ladder exposed me to things which I knew I could talk about, but which wouldn’t necessarily endear me to my workplace. Be it comments on government policy, criticism or support for the work undertaken by particular political parties or simply a view which was a little controversial and which showed up deficiencies in thinking or action at places I had worked or knew well; some things just raised flags.

This puts a real clamp on things, and forces you to second-guess yourself constantly. I found myself writing things which, in the good old days of anonymity, read really well and were perfectly balanced, but in the new era of writing under my own name could have things read into it which could make life awkward (rightly or wrongly). I’ve had posts which were entirely innocent in intent pulled up by senior staff who thought I was talking about them, their work or something they had said to me, when in reality it was nothing of the sort. It was a strange sort of paranoia, played out on both sides.

This knocked me out of the habit of writing, and that’s a hard habit to pick up again. The act of sitting down at a computer and typing thoughts, forming them into an argument and then putting it out into the wild is fantastic, but requires a degree of confidence and ego in combination with time and motivation if it is to be done well.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I also discovered a strange split in terms of content. I wanted to write about the sector in general, as well as about things I was learning in particular. I wanted to discuss things close to my work and areas of interest without necessarily relating them to work programmes I was delivering, though I was also keen to use writing as a method of driving thought processes forward internally as well as externally. This is a hard circle to square, as these each require subtly different approaches if they are to be both allowed to happen, as well as if they are to actually achieve anything.

I’ll be honest; when I began writing post this I didn’t actually have an end point in mind. Part of me hoped that it would turn into a first-drafter, that the argument would lead me, logically or not, to a pithy end point and conclusion, but I’m not sure it has. I suspect this is in no small part down to a lack of practice, that my writing-mind has atrophied somewhat through a lack of use resulting in this becoming something of a ramble, but I also felt that it was important to get even that down in words. It’s only by writing, and writing more, that I will bring it back up to speed and to a level where I am comfortable with doing it more.

I can’t say that I’ll commit to daily blogging ever again, certainly not in the immediate future. I can’t even commit to regular blogging at all; but I can commit to trying. I will be looking to write more regularly, both here and also through my new day job. Yes, in an effort to force me to keep fingers to keyboard I plan to write for my work a bit more. Some posts may end up being reblogged here if they are interesting, relevant and appropriate, but some may stay on our work blog. Who knows?

One thing I do know is that 2015 will see a lot more public writing from me, one way or another.

I apologise in advance.



The Comms2point0 Unawards are coming...

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

It will be entirely unsurprising to know that we at WLLG unTowers love a guest post, so when this excellent unexample flew in from the superhuman Dan Slee we just ahd to share it.
If you are comms or pr you must enter the unawards
There used to be two steps cycle in comms when a good piece of work is finished, but rarely this happens anymore.
The first step is your boss says 'well done,' and pats you on the back. That still happens. Not as much as it should. But it happens.
The second step is that it gets put in for a glittering award which means a trip somewhere and maybe a one in four chance of walking off with the Big Prize. Big hoorays all round an an appearance in the staff magazine along with the service area you did good things for. In other words, the profile of your team gets raised with the people who matter.
Long ago, before the crash, I used to think that comms people should be seen and not heard in an organisation. What utter rot. Shout about what you are doing. Shout really loudly so your boss and your bosses' boss can hear. In 2014, in a landscape of cuts people really should be shouting. That's where awards come in.
Trouble is in local government these days that has all too often gone out of the window. 

The hurried well done is replaced with a request to help with firefighting and there's an elephant in the room too. This elephant is that your boss would love to put you in for an award, the posh London hotel, the train travel and the overnight London hotel. But your boss doesn't have a spare £600 anymore.

So, that's why we came up with the comms2point0 unawards. It's an awards event that we would want to go to ourselves. It's free to enter. It costs £20 for each member of your team to go and it's in Birmingham. Or to be more precise, the oldest working UK cinema. That's in Station Street. Two minutes from the newly revamped New Street station. Just around the corner from the shopping destination the Bullring. It takes place between 10am and 2pm on Thursday November 11.
What will happen? We'll give out some awards and then we'll sit back for a special screening of comms classic 'In the Loop.'
It's for public sector people. So if you are local government, social housing, central government or the third sector then enter. There's also a private sector category too. So, enter. Only thing is the deadline for entering is November 12.
If you or your team have done something good in 2014 then enter.
If you want to end the year on a prize-winning high then enter.
If you fancy doing something that is Not London then enter.
If you are fed-up of doing a pretty decent job and then not getting the recognition then enter.
And if you just fancy watching 'In the Loop' then just come along anyway. Just buy a ticket.
The comms2point0 unawards categories

1. Best communications team  - chosen by the overall event sponsor

2. Best communications officer (this includes digital too) public vote sponsored by Alive - The Ideas Agency 

 3. Best small team (from one-man band up to three people max) public vote sponsored by David Banks Media Law 

 4. Lifetime achievement to comms public vote sponsored by Touch Design 

 5. Best post on comms2point0 in 2014 public vote sponsored by Alive - The Ideas Agency 

 6. Best internal communications campaign sponsored by All Things IC 

 7. Best communications for change activity sponsored by Public Sector Customer Services Forum

8. Best piece of creative comms sponsored by Capacity Grid

9. Best freebie or low cost communications campaign

10. Best email marketing sponsored by GovDeliveryUK 

11. Best social media campaign sponsored by Digital Action Plan

12. Best private sector/agency comms campaign or initiative sponsored by Lesniak Swann

13. Best ‘Worst comms’ (this can be anything from use of clip art, worst poster, silliest random request - feel free to be creative) sponsored by Alive - The Ideas Agency 

14. Best collaboration Sponsored by Knowledge Hub

How do you enter? More details here but it's breathtakingly simple. Pick a category, tell us in 400 words why you think you should win and then email dan@comms2point0 or darren@comms2point0 by 12 November with your entry.  

For more details about the event click here:

FOI in five words

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

I had a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in my life I put in an FOI request. It was sent to six local authorities, and asked them three or four questions about a topic which wasn’t available in the public domain already. I’d looked through committee papers and spoken with a few people I knew, but FOI was the quickest, most reliable way left to me so I took it.


I took my time crafting the request, remembering the countless frivolous, vague or overly complicated ones I received over the years and made it as succinct and easy to understand as possible. I chose six local authorities who I believed would be able to answer my query and hit the send button, waiting excitedly for first the acknowledgement replies to come in before the information itself.

It’s amazing what it feels like to go through such a process from the other side of the fence, and I've a new found understanding of just why so many people get so frustrated with some local councils.

I’ll break my request down in general terms in order to demonstrate my point. I asked whether they had done something in particular; if so, what were their reasons for, and if not what were their reasons against. I then asked if they were planning on doing it in the future; again, following up with reasons for or against. I also asked whether they expected it to result in any savings, and if so how much.

The acknowledgements trickled in over the next day or two, telling me that it would be dealt with within 20 days which was all as expected. When I in fact got in after the weekend and found not only an acknowledgement from Wigan Council but a response as well I was on a high! “Wow!” I thought, “these guys are really on the ball! I know it wasn’t a complicated request but I didn’t expect them to respond quite so quickly!”


Imagine my disappointment when the respons totalled up to five words and an acronym. Five words: “no”, “n/a” and “not at this time”. Were these responses factually correct? Yes, I suppose so, but the tone of them and the lack of any form of personalised response was very far from what I expected. It takes all of two minutes to type out a sentence to soften those edges, and has not left me with anything like a warm, positive feeling and an appreciation for them taking the time to share some information with me.

This was the first and to date only direct engagement I've had with Wigan Council, and it’s not given me a very positive impression of them. I know they must do some great work, and their website is referred to as an example of good practice, but they let themselves down with such a curt response to a request which should have been right up their alley.

Thankfully though, not everyone is like that. The very next day I received an email from Monmouthshire County Council. I’d not received an acknowledgement from them yet so I nearly dismissed it, before noticing that instead of putting me in the standard 20 day holding pattern they had in fact responded in full. They told me that they hadn’t done the thing I was asking about, and then gave me a few reasons why they might be looking at doing it in the future.

It wasn’t rambling, it didn't go around the houses and bamboozle me, it didn’t refer off to random committee reports which half answer a related topic: it clearly and succinctly answered my question and made me feel like they had appreciated what I wanted rather than simply working out the fewest number of words to respond in.

In short, I was happy to have received it.

FOIs can be a funny thing; advice to officers is usually to provide answers only to what is requested rather than to try to figure out what was intended. This means officers don’t get accused of misleading through their responses, but can also mean plenty of follow-up enquiries as the requestor refines their question and narrows down the scope of investigation. Each of these gets the mandatory 20 days, so it can be months before a simple answer is given. It also is misinterpreted by some to mean keep the information to a minimum, and style to zero. I can handle no style, but would prefer not to handle no courtesy.

Yes, technically officers can (and should) get in touch with the enquirer if they aren’t clear about things, but I rarely hear of this happening. If all of the answers I'd received had been like Wigan's then this post would have been a lot more ranty.


Thankfully Monmouthshire provided the ying to Wigan’s yang and came across as a help rather than a hindrance. Fingers crossed that the remaining responses are on the helpful end of the great FOI spectrum.

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