Tattoos are a choice you will need to live with

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Billy Connolly once relayed the story of the moment he got his first tattoo, when the tattoo artist looked up at him after the first stroke: “that’s brilliant,” Connolly was told, “now there’s one more of us and one less of them.”

In the modern age, for many people with a tattoo this holds true. Tattoos can be a symbol of a person’s individuality, of their own personal style, thoughts, attitudes and life journeys. Alternatively they can be a drunken misspelling of a semi-famous quote (don’t even get me started on badly drawn portraits or cartoon hearts with the word ‘Mum’ in it). Whatever they are, they are pretty much irreversible and something which says something about the wearer.

A recent BBC article asked the question whether or not people with tattoos should be protected from anti-discrimination laws in the same way as other people who feel discriminated against either in the workplace or the hunt for jobs. The argument used within the article was one of capability rather than appearance: "If someone can do a job, they should be equal with the next person who has the same CV."

In local government I’ve not heard the arguments for and against such discrimination played out at any length or volume. It seems to be something of a hidden topic, not out of shame or fear but out of disinterest by many, though it may be one which is worth exploring. Should local government universally be able to restrict people with tattoos, visible or otherwise, from working for it if they so choose?

I'm saying tattoos in general – no way, but visible tattoos – yes.

Up front, I need to declare a bit of a conflict of interest in that I have a few tattoos of my own; some swirly designs on my upper right arm and across my shoulders, as well as a small family symbol a couple of inches in diameter at the base of my neck. None of these are visible when I’ve got a shirt on, which was a very deliberate choice I made when these were all done several years ago. I didn’t work in local government at the time, nor did I have any immediate plans to do so, but I felt that in any role which would involve regular interaction with people outside of direct work colleagues, i.e. the general public or other organisations, visible tattoos would carry a degree of stigma.

It’s a strange thing really. Obviously, when people meet someone of a different gender, ethnicity, age, physical ability or other attribute we’d like to think this doesn’t matter when compared to their ability to do their job. Yes, discrimination does unfortunately still exist, but as far as facts go none of these things make a blind bit of difference to competency, and therefore should not affect how you feel about someone you are interacting with. However, if you go into a meeting with someone sporting a large tattoo on their face, covering much of their neck or wandering down onto their hands this tends to cause far more reaction than it really should.

Unlike the attributes listed above no-one is born with their tattoos – they are all conscious choices made by adults at some point in their lives. Some are relatively banal; flowers, abstract shapes or numbers, whilst others say something far more personal about them or their beliefs. Having those beliefs is of course entirely their right, but as soon as they put ink to flesh they are publicly making a statement and projecting those beliefs outwards.

Even those more extreme tattoos, the Mike Tyson facial designs for instance, do not change who they are as a person; they would still be able to do their jobs from their perspective as well as before they got inked. What changes however is how they are perceived by others. Rightly or wrongly, obvious tattoos cause a sense of aversion in many people and distract from who the person is, focussing instead on what their tattoos say about them.

To provide an example, let’s put a situation out there. Imagine that you are a council tenant and are having problems paying your rent this month. After a lot of effort you finally manage to make an appointment to speak to someone at the Town Hall, so in you go with a mountain of paperwork and a story to tell. You sit down with a very nice young lady, go through things and are greeted in a friendly, sympathetic manner before working through your options.

Now, picture exactly the same scene but add that Mike Tyson tattoo. Would you still feel exactly the same about her? Would you be just as comfortable, just as trusting in their abilities? Of course all of us intellectually will insist we would be, but many people wouldn’t. They would be asking what life choices this person made to get to the point where they got such a tattoo, and whether they had sufficient judgement to be able to actually help them.

The Mike Tyson tattoo is certainly an extreme example, but others are also out there. I recall seeing someone in a short sleeved shirt at a number of meetings who had a full sleeve of tattoos, ranging from football crests to deaths heads and Christian crosses. He had the archetypal ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on his knuckles, which all juxtaposed wonderfully with the financial savings associated with managing health and safety which he was always talking about. I know I was often distracted by his tattoos despite the fact they made not one bit of difference to his work; I daresay that if I’d only seen him in winter and not paid attention I wouldn’t have even known about them. However, I did notice them and wondered at his back story.

Some may point to the fact that increasingly young people are getting tattoos in their earlier years as a fashion statement which they can then go on to regret later in life, rather than through any affiliation to a particular group, gang or culture. I know people with faux-religious scripture scrawled up their necks, stating that no-one but god can judge them despite the fact that they’ve not set foot in a church since they were in the Cubs. I know people with #YOLO tattooed on their hands. I know people with teardrops on their faces, not because they know the meaning of it but because it’s what all the men in their family have.

Yet each of these are choices that have been made which will perhaps one day have consequences. People make decisions all the time which have repercussions further down the line, positive or negative, though I struggle to think of an instance other than bonding with others who have tattoos where the repercussion would be positive.

Having tattoos is not a bad thing. They are a personal choice, and express something about an individual. Having visible tattoos, ones which are on display while wearing normal work clothes, muddy’s the water in that it depends on what the tattoo is of, how large it is and where it is positioned. A star on an ankle is one thing, whilst a badge saying ‘F*** the Police’ on the neck would be something different. There can never be a definitive line to be drawn for local government, saying that this tattoo in this place is fine while that tattoo in that place is wrong, but local government needs to retain the ability to make a judgement as to what it feels is acceptable for every role and every situation.

Tattoos are a personal, active decision made by people which will affect how others perceive them. Outside of a tiny number of instances nobody forces anyone to get tattooed at all, let alone where and what is delivered. Staff – both current and prospective – need to bear this in mind as they flick through the catalogue of artistic designs in the tattoo parlour. It may not change their ability to do their jobs but it will affect others opinions, and if that in turn affects their ongoing ability to perform then there will – and should – be consequences.

Councils must retain the ability and strength to decide what is acceptable for the people who are the face of the organisation. Some insist on uniforms for certain roles, others have dress codes all of their own, but they have the ability to decide which things are acceptable and which are not. Unless it is covered by anti-discrimination law or something which a person can’t help, it then becomes a case of the Council setting its standards and then applying them across the board. If it says that visible tattoos are unacceptable then that is entirely its own decision, to be supported or challenged by its staff. But it is their decision to make, not anyone else’s, and as long as it is made clear to existing and prospective staff then they can make their own decisions as to whether or not to get inked.


Now, I’m off to get the WLLG heart done across my chest…


Speed Dating and Magic Beans: Social Care in 2014.

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog those of us toiling away at WLLG Towers there is never - never - a nicer moment than when an e-mail pings into our inbox starting with a phrase along the lines of "I've got a guest post for you..." Those are the moments when we can sit back and be happy that people know they can send them to us (and you can too, you know), safe in the knowledge that they will see the light of day. With that in mind, here's a brilliant piece for you to read through about a pretty serious topic; social care...


I will ease you in with a simple thought- the way we care for one another matters most about society. We all have a right to equality, dignity and fairness


Happily this thought underpins the new Care Act; as it did in 1947 when the National Assistance Act was written.  


Our systems are not perfect. They do not always adapt to meet the needs of the individual. Appalling abuse, neglect and system failure has a relentless place in every Serious Case Review. When things go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong and people experience inequality, degradation and unfairness. Systems must be held to account by the people they serve. This failure must power a relentless drive for improvement; the status quo can never be accepted.


This article is not a passionate defence for the system but for social care itself. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Care has recently stated that social care in England is fast becoming “unsustainable.” Gone is the era of moderate needs and discretionary spending. Half a million people who received care pre-2009 order no longer do so. £3.53 billion has been taken out of Local Authority budgets (a circa 26% cut) and yet political expectations continue to ratchet up. Social Care is to achieve: fewer hospital admissions, integrated health and social care, a living wage for domiciliary care workers, increased choice of care provision and personalised care and health. There is also a new range of statutory duties: support for Carers, preventative services, a cap for social care spend and many other (formerly discretionary) facets of social care that are now law. The public is therefore entitled to align expectations accordingly.


On the demand side there is significantly more demand for primary and secondary mental health services (poverty and poor mental health are clearly related); increasing number of people aged 85+ with dementia and people with learning disabilities.


Nothing (worsening mental health aside) above should be viewed negatively. The Care Act is a modern take on equality, dignity and fairness. Carers deserve to be paid properly for the increasingly complex and skillful jobs they deliver. Hospitals should be a place of last resort. The problem is that the gap between political expectation and reality is widening at pace and the electorate aren’t yet at the party.  


The majority of people (myself included) don’t think about social care until they need it for themselves or a loved one. You may need a hospital at any point in time but the idea of relying on others for care; especially professional care; is too much for most of us to get our heads around. Elections tend to be won and lost about wars, immigration, taxation, crime, unemployment and mortgage rates. A Prime Minister is unlikely to be swept to power on the crest of a radically new approach to dementia care. Social Care isn’t Top of the Pops and it is being treated like a bad tribute act accordingly.


Councils must take some responsibility. Too much defaulting to positive on efficiency surveys and equality impact assessments. Too much bidding for integration initiatives with undeliverable performance targets and the allure of “pathfinder” status. It all smacks being alone for the last two minutes of speed dating, wild and desperate.

There should be more painting the picture of local impact; articulating the story of people who are socially isolated, not ill enough yet to pass threshold: crises waiting to happen.


The case for Health and Social Care is not helped by very high profile instances of misused resources; the scandal of £3,500+ per week beds in assessment and treatment units for one example. This does not mean the system is adequately resourced.


There is a wider context alongside the stick social care is regularly battered with. A few observations:

·         Real money is better than virtual or recycled money. Real money can be spent on the care and support people need. You can waste a lot of time and energy with partner agencies arguing about how to make virtual money real and much like magic beans the success ratios are limited.

·         Social capital doesn’t mean every neighbour opts to deliver complex care overnight

·         If you want to achieve integration you can’t give the NHS (a monopoly provider with tariffs/payment by activity targets) an effective right of veto. I reckon they’ll use it.

·         Taking 26% out of any system, saddling it with swinging cuts until at least 2020 and raising public expectation at the same time isn’t cricket.

·         Promising people free care, then a cap on care, then a policy that means the typical homeowner has to live for 4 years after death to quality for state assistance isn’t entirely transparent

Let’s dispense with the magic beans and speed dating. It isn’t working for anyone.  I want equality, dignity and fairness for social care. Granted this won’t put anyone in No.10 but the millions of people who use and work in social care would love it and maybe it is just the right thing to do.


Running before you can walk; Government plans to share your data

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

According to a story in Monday’s Daily Telegraph the Government is going to propose a massive extension in the amount of data that can be shared between Government departments. To quote the story:


Details of the financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons could be shared across Whitehall for the first time without their consent, the Telegraph can disclose.


Information including voters’ driving licences, criminal records, energy use and even whether they use a bus pass could be shared under a radical blueprint to link up thousands of state databases used by schools, councils, police and civil servants.


The proposals are likely to ignite privacy concerns if officials are granted unprecedented access to citizens’ private data. 

The rationale behind this type of sharing seems to be fourfold; again from the Telegraph:


  • Ministers believe the ability to aggregate and “mine” citizens’ data under a new legal framework will allow them to better monitor economic growth and population movements, identify troubled families and elderly people in need of support, and cut fraud.
  • They want to copy sophisticated customer analysis techniques developed by retailers such as Amazon and Tesco to develop a significantly more “intelligent”, “nimble” and cheaper State.
  • People tend to assume that Government can share data between departments to complete simple tasks, and are surprised to learn that it cannot.


    Removing barriers to sharing or linking datasets can help Government to design and implement evidence-based policy – for example to tackle social mobility, assist economic growth and prevent crime

I like the idea of ‘Big Data’ and agree with the Government (via the Telegraph’s story) about the potential benefits but I do have this sneaking suspicion that the Government are, in their enthusiasm, trying to run before they have even learnt to walk.


Probably the biggest area where the sharing of data and information could benefit the public is in the sharing of data within health and social care. The Government have tried a couple of routes to solve this problem and both have had their problems. The first was the Caldicott 2 review which included within its diverse recommendations a ‘Duty to Share’. The recommendations were accepted by the Government and many of them then left up to local bodies to implement.


I’m not going to pretend to be a full expert on information sharing but my experience so far has been that even with the ‘Duty to Share’ the barriers to sharing are more cultural and practical. Organisations don’t have proper information sharing agreements between them, consent is not gathered from the public in a systematic manner and even if the first two are sorted out the IT makes it difficult to share appropriately.


Secondly, the Government tried which would have collected a large amount of health data, packaged it up and then provided it, anonymously or pseudonymously, to researchers, private organisations and others with an interest in health and improving health outcomes. All of this would have been done without consent and once the public found out about it there was a fairly large backlash and the plan was postponed.


The two examples taken together explain why I am nervous about the Telegraph’s report. The fiasco has made the public nervous about the Government’s intentions when it comes to data sharing and any plan to share ‘financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons’ is only going to make the public even more sceptical about data sharing and the Government holding their information.


Meanwhile, the bigger issues surrounding data sharing amongst professionals where the sharing could directly improve the services received by the public are not being addressed. The Government has recognised some of this by including data sharing targets within the Better Care Fund but they could do a lot more.


Then, once the public are comfortable with providing consent for data sharing that directly benefits them it is easier to ask them for consent to share information in other ways.


The British public share their personal data all the time with all sorts of people. The difference here is that they don’t trust the Government and can’t see the direct benefits to themselves; I’d hope the Cabinet Office would focus on those two issues and keep the grand plans until they’ve proven to the British public that they’ve learnt to walk the walk.


Cricket and Councils; more alike than you'd think

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

I’ve recently been spending some time attempting to do my own bit of good for a colleague’s soul by introducing to them the beauties of one of mankind's greatest inventions; cricket. The sound of bat on ball, the hushed tones of the crowd as the ball is sent down the wicket on a bright summers day, the tension of a perfectly balanced game after five days of toil and struggle; it truly is a sporting battle fit for kings.

It turns out that most of the people I know who like cricket also happen to work in local government, and this got me thinking: where are the similarities between these two oft misunderstood giants of British society? In an effort to educate and convince my colleague, here are a few off the top of my head.

1.       Despite appearances to the contrary, neither are boring

One of the most often quoted lines when anyone mentions cricket is “but it’s so boring!” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; if you take a step back and look at a match rather than every second of it. Yes, for large periods of time it looks like players are standing around doing nothing, but this hides the fact that mentally they are switched on permanently, staying ready to act as and when needed and responding instantly to demands to change gear and direction. Taken over the duration of the match titanic struggles are played out, with the balance of success teetering one way or another rbased on the decisions of those taking part combined with a slice of lady luck.

Local government is the same; it may feel at times that decision making moves glacially slow, but that belies the work going on to mve things forward and the exciting bursts that happen from time to time. Much of the most important and interesting work goes on out of the public glare so is often forgotten about; anyone who thinks all local government is about is committee meetings and form filling has clearly never spent any time working there.

2.       It’s a team game for individuals

A cricket team is made up of eleven players, though a glance at any one stage rarely seems to show much in the way of teamwork. All of them have a specific role to play, even those who look superfluous standing on the boundary, and whilst every person acts individually on their own areas of expertise these all combine to create an effort greater than the combined sum of its parts. Individuals may make an impact on a game, but unless every individual is performing to at least an acceptable standard the rest of the team suffers.

The typical council is made up of huge numbers of teams and services, each of which has a greater or lesser degree of autonomy from the others and rarely works perfectly in harmony with every other team and service. However, a poor performance from any one of those teams seriously impacts upon the standing and reputation of the council, which in turn hinders the other team’s ability to perform effectively. Every service, team and officer may feel like they are working on their own at times, but they all are an integral cog in the grand machinery.

3.       Captains are more important than most people realise

Alistair Cook has come under a lot of flak recently for poor captaincy (and rightly so in my opinion), but some people feel he should be given a lot less grief and pressure as he’s not the only one letting the side down. True as that may be at a certain level, the role and influence the captain has on the rest of the team cannot be underestimated. They set the field and in doing so establish the mindset of the team, they work to keep morale up, they have a quiet word to encourage new players or tell underperforming stars to buck their ideas up or else. They are respected by their peers and perform unflappably in the public domain when the cameras are rolling, explaining the team’s approach and taking responsibility for remedying any problems.

Many surveys conducted with the public result in the sound bite of “get rid of the chief exec and senior staff”. A council without these individuals runs a very, very real risk of listing aimlessly without a clear direction being set. They have no-one to step in and fix problems, to establish and drive through a vision for success and to publicly stand up for their staff and have their collective backs. Sometimes a team of managers can come together to perform this function, but invariably one of these ends up taking on the chief leadership role anyway, ergo becoming the de facto chief exec.

4.       The captain and coaches need to be on the same page

The very best teams have a clear, strong bond between the front and back room staff. The captain manages the players and the tactics, while the coach manages the support staff and sets the overall long term strategy. If there is a lack of harmony between these two friction is inevitable, which undermines the efforts of both and causes confusion and dissent on both sides of the line.

This is identical to the situation between officers and Councillors. Councillors are voted in to set direction and strategy, which is then enacted by the chief exec and their officers. As has been seen before, friction between these two leads to disaster; inevitably one side has to go, and as councillors are voted in for set periods of time invariably it’s the officers who move on, no matter how good or in the right they are. However, a smoothly oiled machine, with clear communication between these two sides of the same coin can result in truly remarkable progress being made.

5.       Technology is slowly but inexorably moving in

There are people (from India predominantly) who think technology has no place in cricket and refuse to accept the use of DRS or pretty much any form of technology intended to aid the umpires. Their rationale is that cricket needs to be the same at the top and the bottom of the game, and that none of the technology can be deemed 100% accurate. The rest of the world however is more enlightened than this, and accept that 99.9% accuracy (or better) is actually pretty good. They are using technology to improve the decision making process, and games are improving exponentially as a result. That’s not to mention the small improvements to bats, groundsmanship, stadiums, coverage and more which are revolutionising the game whilst keeping everything about its core effectively the same.

Local government in places has seemed resistant to change, with some councils restricting the use of online tools for little reason other than fear of the unknown. Teams still go out with paper notepads, taking notes which then need to be typed up and sent to another team to input onto a system which generates a printed letter to send on to someone. However, the times they are a’changin. Councils are understanding more than ever the million small ways in which technology can help them perform their duties more effectively and efficiently. It’s not about playing with the latest toys, it’s about using the best tools for the job; if those tools improve, then use better ones. Better tools in skilled hands result in better jobs.

In conclusion…

I admit to being a huge fan of cricket so am able to appreciate its finer points; the beauty in a Gower cover drive, the heart-pumping-fear-inducing nature of an Ambrose fast ball, the grace of a Pieterson catch deep on the boundary and the meandering ability of the TMS team to fill five days – DAYS – of airtime with descriptions, anecdotes and random musings of the highest order. To the modern casual observer, with an attention span measured in minutes, cricket can seem slow paced and full of inaction, but that is why you need to step back and take a wider view of all it encompasses in order to truly appreciate it in all its glory.

Local government likewise appears to the casual observer as an archaic behemoth which lumbers and stumbles its way towards progress without ever really changing, which in fact couldn’t be much further from the truth. The work needed to be delivered may not be fundamentally different, but the ways in which it is delivered is; services are evolving at a rate that would make Darwin proud. Officers and Councillors are responding to pressures placed upon them by working together in new and exciting ways which mostly go unnoticed but which make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, and which if observed from a distant enough viewpoint have a beauty all of their own.


Both of these very British institutions are throwing off the shackles of generations of tradition and rebuilding themselves to respond better to the modern day. If only people took the time to look a little closer, maybe they’d be a little more interested.


The worst is yet to come

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

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.

Jaws of Death 14/15


I recommend that readers go and check out the whole document but there is one other chart that caught my eye:

The service squeezeAs 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.

Log in to leave a comment

Welovelocalgovernment is written and produced by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or contact us