Local Government

Private Eye on Suffolk libraries plan

Much excitement today about an item in Private Eye’s Library News which compares Suffolk county Council’s suggestion that a community interest company should be responsible for its libraries with problems over a CIC in Glasgow.

The Eye says:

Before Suffolk rushes ahead, a glance at Glasgow might be informative. in 2007 the city council there outsourced all its museums, libraries and leisure centres by setting up Culture and Sport Glasgow, an arms-length charitable company with a CIC to operate as a “trading arm” and do the things a charity legally couldn’t.

There are cuts and redundancies facing all the services provided through Culture and Sport Glasgow, now expensively rebranded as Glasgow Life.

But while we know little about Suffolk’s plans, which seem to be for a social enterprise, possibly a CIC, to administer the county libraries, the comparisons with Glasgow are limited.

The CIC in Glasgow was set up to handle trading parts of the organisation, in much the same way as other major charities use them to run their shops. It represents a tiny part of the service.

Glasgow Life is a charity, funded largely by the City Council, which has got to make savings of £10m over three years (BBC). But this is on a £100m plus annual budget (Glasgow Life annual review).

That is a small cut compared with the 30% saving Suffolk CC is demanding in its library budget over thee years.

Outsourcing and contract management in Suffolk and Barnet

The easyBarnet outsourcing scheme, to which Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction bore some uncanny similarities, has come under pressure this week with a damning audit report on a security contract.

Patrick Butler, in his cuts blog at the Guardian, examines how the MetPro scandal was uncovered by bloggers. His post starts:

After the demise of Suffolk’s “virtual” council (and the electoral scuppering of Bury’s “enabling” council) it is the turn of the daddy of all Conservative-led, outsourcing-driven council reforms programmes to come under the critical spotlight: Barnet’s Flagship “easy council” project.

MetPro was given the security contract without any of the basic checks and without putting the work out to tender. But it was filming of members of the public attending council meetings that brought it to attention of Barnet’s effective group of bloggers.

It was also Barnet bloggers who first spotted the co-incidence of the similarity of the Barnet and Suffolk councils policies and the common factor of Max Wide, who had been seconded to both councils by his employer BT.

He has been described as playing a pivotal role in both policies. See my earlier post, Has BT gained too much influence in local government?

As in Barnet, the control of contracts is an issue in Suffolk. Michael Gower, who resigned from his job as head of supplier relationship management at SCC a year ago, told the Guardian he had made proposals to cut costs in the £100m Consumer Services Direct deal with BT. He continued:

Every attempt to make these changes was frustrated, mostly as a result of interventions by the chief executive.

Suffolk county council is not getting value for money out of one of its largest contracts. We were incapable of making the decisions needed to deliver the multimillion pound savings to the benefit of the council taxpayers of Suffolk.

Realistically, the new leader of the Suffolk Council, Mark Bee, has not had the time yet to address this issue and follow his mantra of transparency by telling us what he has done.

The council has announced it is to press ahead with the sale of elderly care homes, after the Southern Cross debacle (Evening Standard). The company owns eight homes in Suffolk.

Lib Dem councillor Caroline Page has quoted Age UK as saying:

In future, we would like to see all home care providers having to demonstrate to regulators a solid business model. Without this they should not be able to run care homes. The sector would benefit from greater transparency.

It would have been good to hear a similar endorsement that view from Mark Bee and the ruling conservative group.

And this week the scrutiny committee’s libraries report included this recommendation:

that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service.

Why did the all-party committee feel that needed saying?

It is reasonable to expect that SCC should provide credible evidence that its risk assessment, supplier management and audit systems are capable of effectively dealing with the complexities of outsourcing to private companies and social enterprises.

High court halts Gloucestershire library closures

The High Court today issued an injunction stopping library cuts in Gloucestershire until a hearing next month when  a challenge, supported by campaigners, will be heard.

The injunction’s terms include a bar on the county council transferring or agreeing to transfer any library building or lease or responsibility for any existing library, and transferring any mobile library or other library asset (such as computers, shelving etc). No funds can be withdrawn or library closed while the injunction is in force.

At the hearing next month the council will challenge the injunction.

The BBC quotes theleader of Gloucestershire county council saying:

This is very frustrating for council taxpayers and community groups. They are being forced into a costly legal process at a time when 20 communities have stepped forward with innovative and exciting business plans to take over their local facility.

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries said:

Whilst we regret it has come to this we did warn Gloucestershire County Council from the start that this would happen. 15,000+people signed  a petition calling on them to pause and carry out an impartial, independent review of their proposals. The“consultation” feedback shows  that the public overwhelmingly rejected their plans. There was coordinated day of protest in every library in the county. All of this yet they refused to listen and have instead chosen to walk into an expensive court case. We welcome this news we received today. At last there is some hope. We support the legal challenge and are raising funds for it.

The progress of this case has been followed closely, since its inception, by campaigners in Suffolk. While many aspects of the situation here are different there are significant similarities.

Sources: BBC, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries

Libraries: hopes of new meeting of community groups and Suffolk CC

On Wednesday I was a rather pessimistic (earlier post) about the previous day’s Suffolk County Council scrutiny committee where I feared the opportunity of opening further constructive talks on libraries had somehow slipped away.

Today things are looking more hopeful following a press release from the council and the reaction of one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee.

The press release, issued quickly and before formal minutes are available, clarifies the committee’s recommendations.

Colin Hart, who chairs the committee thanked those who had given evidence and said:

This was a valuable exercise in scrutinising an issue before decisions are taken and I hope and expect our recommendations will make a positive contribution to the new policy that is being developed.

The release which includes the valuable recommendations of the committee has not yet appeared on the county council website, but my copy is here.

James Hargrave, one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee, reacted on his blog saying:

I am hopeful that there is now an opportunity for all sides to sit down and discuss the situation and work together for the good of the counties libraries.

During the meeting on Tuesday a meeting was suggested, but it seemed to me that the opportunity faded away. Now, I hope it is back on track.

The press release quotes Judy Terry the council cabinet member responsible for libraries saying:

I am extremely grateful for the comments from committee members, representatives of various campaign groups and those who have submitted bids. We’re continuing to listen and will base future policy on exhaustive consultation with the people of Suffolk.

The scrutiny committee recommendations are:

  • the classification of County Libraries and Community Libraries referred to in the Consultation document is not a reasonable basis for a policy;
  • the potential community interest company agrees individual budgets for each library;
  • the business case considered by Cabinet should clearly demonstrate how the community interest company service would operate across the whole of Suffolk;
  • that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service;
  • any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk;
  • due consideration be given to innovative ideas that have already come forward and any others that are received  from communities on how their services might be run;
  • the policy on mobile libraries be clearly stated in the report to Cabinet;
  • the Council provide absolute clarity to communities interested in running their libraries on issues they were likely to raise such as finance, staffing and legal issues;

East Anglian Daily Times calls for 10% pay cut for top 79 county officials

Another day and another story about Suffolk County Council and money in the Archant newspapers. The East Anglian Daily Times “reveals” the pay of the top earners (79 of them).

The median pay is about £70,000 a year. The average would be  higher, largely because of the huge differential between Andrea Hill (£215,000) and the next highest paid (£125,000).

Jane Storey. deputy leader of the council, tells the paper: “Suffolk County Council published these figures last October as part of our efforts to be as open and transparent as possible.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Yes, they were published and I found them several months ago. But a look at the press release archive shows no evidence of a public announcement.

Publishing on a website without telling people is hardly being transparent.

The money paid to these senior people will shock many and some salaries will shock most people.

But caution is needed. The rates for many of the jobs need to be compared to those of other professionals, doctors, lawyers, head teachers and accountants for example.

The 10% (figure amended to correct error) across the board cut advocated by the EADT would almost certainly throw up examples of injustice.

While the paper produces the salaries as a list (not online), the  source document which is online is in the form of organisation charts. I am not management consultant but it looks to me top-heavy.

Do we really need to have three tiers of management above the head librarian? But that post has been made redundant while the upper layers remain intact.

In fact, a number of jobs in the list are now redundant or vacant.

A flattening of the organisation structure would not only bring savings but would make the whole organisation more responsive.

The EADT also mentions research by the Lib Dems showing that the total wage bill for high earners at the council had gone up from £6m to £16m over the last five years.

Ms Storey tells the paper that the number of senior management posts had been reduced and the council has the lowest cost executive management pay bill in all counties in the Eastern Region.

Suffolk CC urged by campaign group to delay libraries decision

Suffolk County Council will be urged tomorrow (Tuesday, June 15) to defer making a decision on the future of the county’s libraries by a new campaign group involving nearly half of the “community” libraries.

A press release says: “We believe that the Cabinet will not be in a position to make a properly considered decision because the information put before them will be incomplete and inaccurate.”

Tomorrow, at a meting of the council’s scrutiny committee, campaigners will present evidence, “showing how the consultation process begun this January is fundamentally flawed – not least because those delivering it have failed to follow Suffolk County Council’s own procedures.”

The Save Suffolk Libraries Campaign Network will urge the scrutiny committee to recommend that the council cabinet should defer any decisions on libraries at its meeting on July 19.

The campaign network says no decisions should be taken until the council has, “completed a review of the completeness and validity of the information they have received, assessed whether they have adequately gathered and listened to the views of the Suffolk people and have completed an appropriate Impact Assessment.”

The Save Suffolk Libraries Campaign Network was formed last week by campaigners supporting many individual libraries and has three objectives:

  • Network, share information, knowledge, ideas and expertise.
  • Coordinate countywide campaign activities
  • Work collectively on identified themes of common interest

The full press release can be dowloaded here.

A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

Suffolk Freedom of Information requests up 57% last year

Some Freedom of Information Act requests are frivolous although they can  provide the hard-pressed staff in what must be a sometimes difficult job with some light relief. Leicester City Council was asked about preparedness for a zombie invation (hat tip to @waveneydc).

I have not heard of anything like that being asked of Suffolk County Council but they are increasingly busy dealing with information requests as this chart which has appeared on their web page shows.

 

Rises since the implementation of the act in 2005 would have been expected but the big increase between 2009 (622 requests) and 2010 (978 requests) suggests that something more is going on. One would have hoped that the Act would have made the council more transparent, but it is clear that last year Suffolk people were resorting to FoI requests much more often.

The reasons are not hard to guess. But there must be a lot of similar or duplicated requests which could be avoided if all responses were published.

This would hardly be revolutionary. Government departments do and so does Suffolk Police.

And provided the new county council leader, Mark Bee, delivers on his promise of greater transparency the figure should start to decline. That is an easy cost to cut.

 

BT responds to examination of Vital Vision… sort of

It is nice to have a response, of sorts, to my examination of BT’s influence on local government and Suffolk county council in particular.

Notice on bt website saying file no longer available

The removed document is the entry for a BT marketing award by the Vital Vision programme. It reveals that it was essentially a sales and marketing programme designed to gain contracts by winning the hearts and minds of people in  public services. More in my post: Has BT gained too much influence in local government?.

However, the entry document is available here.

There is one thing I noticed while getting the “removed” notice. BT’s internal marketing awards are sponsored by Accenture. That is the company to which BT outsources its Human Relations work.

Now, why would Suffolk County Council decide to outsource its HR work to a company which has concluded that someone else is better able to manage its own HR?

Answers in the comment box below, please.

 

Hotel stays now part of Andrea Hill investigation

It is not surprising that Suffolk County Council is being very careful with the Andrea Hill inquiry following the Shoesmith judgment by the Appeal Court last month.

The judges ruled that the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith from her job as Haringey’s children’s services director, after the death of Baby Peter was  “procedurally unfair” (BBC).

After the meeting of the council’s disciplinary committee yesterday, it was announced that Andrea Hill, the chief executive would remain on  mutually agreed leave at least until June 24.

The committee received a report from solicitors Wragge and Co who were asked to investigate allegations, made by an anonymous whistleblower, about the treatment of staff in the legal department.

After the meeting a statement was issued saying that some matters had been resolved but others required further investigation. It also said that “as a result of FOI requests into expense claims by Andrea Hill the committee has asked the investigation team to review those claims”.

The East Anglian Daily Times says today this relates an FoI request it made which revealed the council had paid for Ms Hill to stay at Milsom’s Kesgrave Hall on two nights before early meetings and a night at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh.

When details were revealed of these stays and another at a hotel in Sandbanks at £205 a night during a conference in Bournemouth, while senior councillors stayed in a much cheaper hotel, they appeared to show ill-judgment. But they did not look like serious disciplinary matters.

The Daily Mail also says the hotel stays are the focus of the expenses investigation.

The Daily Telegraph is alone in saying Ms Hill was, “cleared of accusations about her management style, amid claims of bullying and intimidation”.

Intriguingly, LocalGov.co.uk, the online site of the Municipal Journal, referring to the whistleblowing says:

The letter, seen by The MJ, makes a number of serious allegations against more than one senior member of staff at Suffolk.

Whatever path the council is following, there appears to be wide political backing for it. The EADT quotes opposition leader Kathy Pollard, saying:

Obviously the public want a resolution to this but the council is going to have to go through all the procedures and make sure it dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts. People are going to have to be patient.

But the council has to do this properly otherwise it will cost them an awful lot more money.

I don’t think it [extending the scope of the investigation] has muddied the waters, it’s another line of inquiry that the council is pursuing. It’s right to do that.

Blogger James Hargrave wonders if it now the time to reach a deal by which Ms Hill would leave the council. He writes that while it would cost money it would seem an appropriate way for her to go.

But, as Kathy Pollard’s comment says, as well as ensuring the procedure is absolutely correct, they are anxious to avoid a large pay out.

Any settlement would be expensive and politically extremely unpopular. I can see the headlines pointing out how many school crossing patrols and libraries it would have paid for.

I suspect the council is hoping that Ms Hill will review the whistleblower’s allegations and the matters surrounding her expenses and decide to write a resignation letter before it all becomes much more public.

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