Local Council budgets – not the most scintillating of topics, right? Well – perhaps not. But from my perspective as a local government officer with responsibility for engaging with our residents about this topic and compiling their views and feedback to pass on to decision-makers, the online budget survey responses proved to be fascinating reading. From around 800 participants, almost one third were willing to offer their comments and feedback, over a range of topics.
Whilst not all of the comments were negative – in fact, several participants stated that they would like to see increased spending on frontline staff to ensure the quality of our services, that the Council should be spending more of their reserves and in order to preserve the level of frontline services, they would support higher levels of Council Tax and business rates – there were many which seemed to be rooted in some fairly common myths and misperceptions. I have to say, it was an eye-opener to see the proportion of comments and suggestions which related to a range of things which are either beyond our control or which relate to services delivered by other organisations, such as dissatisfaction with emergency services, welfare benefits, care providers and things that we are not able to influence such as changes to council tax banding or abolishing layers of local government. There is certainly a discussion to be had here around improving the way we communicate with residents, and how we ensure that they get the right information.
However, the more worrying thing, to my mind, was the significant number of comments which seemed to be of a certain ‘council-bashing’ ilk, often echoing statements from Eric Pickles or stories from tabloid and local newspapers. Everyone loves to have a pop at their local council, and perhaps there was a time when a certain amount of criticism and negativity was justified. I’m by no means suggesting that it’s unreasonable to criticise Local Government; we all know we are far from perfect. BUT – we are very self-aware these days; as a sector, we know what the difficulties are and we know what we need to do to improve. I would like an opportunity, here and now, to rebuff some of these ‘myths’, because I think many people would be surprised if they realised what a modern, efficient, well-run, value-for-money organisation their local council actually is. So here goes:
We sit around in the canteen drinking coffee all day
If anyone has been in to their local County Hall, they may indeed have observed groups of officers seemingly passing their entire day in the canteen. Why is this? Because we don’t have any meeting rooms! Ok, we do have some, but not enough, and they are never available. Or they are so poorly ventilated or heated that we don’t want to use them for health and safety reasons.
Try as we might (and we have), we won’t ever be able to eliminate the need to have face to face meetings. But in the Councils where I have worked, I have felt that the conversations usually lead to concrete actions and outcomes. Would just be nice if we could realise that whilst asset management is delivering efficiencies in terms of capital receipts, it’s not necessarily providing us with an appropriate working environment.
We waste money on support services
People often think that ‘back office services’ are a waste of money, and that this is something we can easily reduce spending on. I would say that this perhaps was the case many years ago, back in the days when every Manager or team had a secretary and there might have been ten different payroll and IT services within one County. But this has not been the case for a very long time now; shared services have become the norm, secretaries are more or less a thing of the past – only Chief Execs have an Exec Assistant – and we have greatly reduced admin costs by automating many processes. Increasingly, Councils are moving towards Managed services, therefore reducing staff overheads and outsourcing support services to the most cost effective provider. I would argue that we are as lean as we are ever going to get on this front, and further reductions will not only bring diminishing returns but hamper the day to day running of the organisation.
We waste money outsourcing our support services
Even when we take action to reduce our staff costs, some people are unhappy, because they imagine that paying a service provider and managing a contract must be costing the taxpayer a fortune. The thing is, if it cost more than doing it ourselves, we would just do it ourselves. From my own point of view, I feel that when I’ve worked in an organisation which had in-house provision of IT, for example, the service was far superior that that which I’ve experienced from an outside provider. If we were only concerned with quality of provision and staff satisfaction, we would never look to an outside provider. The key driver is and has always been cost.
Officer salaries are too high – particularly at senior level
LOL. No, seriously, I find it staggering that there are people who think that Social Workers are overpaid. Ok, perhaps what they mean is that more senior officers and those at the top are paid too much, but how much is ‘too much’? In Local Government we have an extremely transparent pay structure, anyone can look it up. And when you think about it, the salary, after tax, weighed against the level of responsibility and the workload. Managing a service like Housing, Revenues and Benefits or a Customer Service Centre for around £40,000 a year doesn’t look very generous in reality, especially when some of these jobs in the private sector would pay around twice that amount. It’s true that some Chief Executives are paid up to £200,000 a year, but again if you compare that to the kind of top level pay in the private sector, it’s actually pretty modest – remember, we don’t get bonuses for doing a good job!
Even if we halved the pay of every manager in the Council, or indeed halved the pay of EVERYONE who works for us, it’s not going to bail us out. Most councils are going to have to find millions and millions of pounds worth of savings over the next few years, having already done so every year since 2010. Sorry folks but cutting salaries is a red herring, not a silver bullet.
Our pensions are ‘gold plated’
This may again be a hangover from the ‘good old days’ when public sector pensions were worth a lot. Local Government pensions are not ‘protected’ any more than any other type of pension nowadays. And they are not substantially better value either.
We have too many layers of management
In my experience, Local Government organisations tend to be flatter and less hierarchical than you would think, especially at District/Borough level, where there are fewer staff in general and everyone wears several different hats. I can remember looking at an organisational structure chart when I started my first job in a Borough council and thinking blimey, I’m only two steps down from the Chief Exec – if he goes off sick and so does my manager, I’ll have to hold the fort!
Our processes are too bureaucratic, with too much ‘red tape’
I have a bit more sympathy for this ‘myth’, although personally I have honestly never worked anywhere less process-driven than in Local Government, the caveat to that being that I have usually worked at the corporate centre, not in a service. I have always felt that there’s been a lot of flexibility in the system, that I’ve been able to identify waste or inefficiency or needless bureaucracy in a process and eliminate it. We have been using streamlining methodologies such as Lean Systems thinking for over 20 years, and we are always trying to simplify things for our residents. I think there are still some parts of our service delivery which seem to involve complex and complicated processes. But we are aware of it, have been aware of it for a long time and we’re still working on it.
At the end of the day though, much of the ‘red tape’ exists because we are a public authority; we have codes of ethics and governance which protect the public purse from things like fraud and corruption, which we can’t just ditch or ignore just because they make things feel a bit tiresome at times.
We are not entrepreneurial and not innovative
Ok, we’re not always quick on the uptake in terms of new technology and we have tended to rely on tried and tested, ‘safe’ ways of doing things for a number of years. It’s true that as a public sector organisation, we tend to be fairly conservative and risk-averse. And in the past, we could afford to be. But not anymore. Public sector cuts are not a new thing for us; central government have been trying to reduce Local Government funding for over 20 years now, and we have reached a point where traditional methods and tried and tested solutions are no longer going to work. Reductions in capacity and resources have forced us to be a lot more creative in our thinking, and we are seeing more and more councils coming up with income generation schemes.
But it’s not just about better use of resources; it’s also about moving with the times and not losing our relevance. The biggest challenge we have is around Digital transformation; we have no choice but to innovate. This is a new frontier – there is NO option, no going back.
We waste money on paying people to do ‘non-jobs’
I wish this were true. I really that we could call the role of Equality and Diversity officer a ‘non-job’, in the sense that I wish they didn’t have any work to do, I wish the role was an anachronism, or surplus to requirements. But it isn’t. Sadly, in our Communities and workplaces, inequality still exists, and as local authorities we have a duty to do everything in our power to mitigate it and try to ensure that our services are delivered in a fair and consistent way.
What’s another of Eric Pickles’ favourite non-jobs? There were many, I can’t remember the exact titles, but in any case, this is a man who saw fit to abolish the Audit Commission, our regulatory body, so that nobody now knows how their local council services are performing and how they compare to other parts of the country. Presumably he thought that accountability and transparency were ‘non-jobs’. Pfft.
We don’t care about the communities we serve
I think the comment that upset me most was something about officers sitting in their ivory tower, chatting and eating biscuits all day, clocking off at 5pm and not caring about anything but getting paid at the end of the month. I’m not saying that there aren’t people like that; you get them in all walks of life, in every type of workplace, of course. But it particularly upset me because I, like the vast majority of the people I have worked with over the years, am passionately committed to public service.
People who work in Local Government are a particularly strange bunch; a lot of research into the public sector workforce suggests that we are highly skilled and qualified, engaged and motivated, and yet we don’t go into business or banking or industries where our skills would earn us an awful lot more money. We don’t even go into Whitehall. Instead, we prefer to use our skills and knowledge to serve our local communities, because it makes us happy to know we’re making a contribution to improving the lives of those around us.