Tuesday 21 January 2014

Another missed opportunity

A cynical description of a management consultant of the sort so popular with businesses and government organisations is “a person who borrows your watch to tell you the time”.  It encapsulates the view that the ‘independent’ ‘experts’ have been hired, first and foremost, to confirm what those hiring them already ‘know’ – but with the extra credibility that comes from being external.
Crucial to this approach is hiring the ‘right’ consultants – they need to be sufficiently compliant – and giving them the ‘right’ brief.  It’s a definition which somehow sprang to mind when I read this sentence in the foreword to the report of the Williams Commission yesterday:
“In establishing us, the First Minister made clear that the status quo was not an option.  We have found extensive and compelling evidence that that is indeed the case.”
The consultants that I’m used to don’t often make their role quite as crystal clear as that; it’s usually a bit more nuanced!  But there can be little doubt that the Commission has told the Welsh Government what it wanted to hear.  Quelle surprise.
Sadly, their brief was written entirely around “governance and delivery”, thereby absolving them of any duty to consider what local government should actually do, and concentrate instead on how they do it.  I wouldn’t argue that there aren’t problems with the how at present, but to adapt a piece of management speak, “doing the wrong things well is probably worse than doing the right things badly”.  It seems, however, that doing things well is deemed more important by the Welsh Government than doing the right things. 
Local Government in Wales is a complete mish-mash of three types of activities, with vague and imprecise boundaries between them:
·         Services where the councils really are free to decide on policy and delivery as they wish.  They can choose to spend more and deliver a better service, or to spend less and cut the council tax.  Different parties and candidates really can promise different approaches which they can then implement when elected.  This category includes things like parks, leisure centres, and libraries.  It’s worth noting that this one area where they have complete freedom is the one area where they currently seem, perversely, to be trying to divest themselves of all responsibility.
·         Secondly, we have some services where the councils have absolutely no scope to set any policy and are totally constrained by the law as to what they can do.  The limit of their scope for being different is perhaps using different and incompatible IT systems to achieve the same ends – things like electoral registration, for instance; or births, deaths and marriages.  I find it hard to see what, if any, value is added in these areas by having locally elected councillors responsible for them.  They are administrative tasks which could just as easily – and probably more efficiently – be managed nationally.
·         Then we have the services in the middle where the local councils like to believe that they have some freedom to set policy and do things differently, but in reality are hide-bound by central directives and standards.  These are things like Social Services and Education – and it’s worth noting that these are precisely the service areas in which local authorities are perceived to be failing.  The two facts might not be unconnected…
I’m not sure whether the services referred to in the third category should actually be delivered by Local Councils at all; I’m open to be convinced either way.  My starting point is that if local councillors with their own democratic mandate are to run services, they should have the freedom to set policy – and the freedom to deliver a poor service as well if they so choose, and if the local electorate choose a bunch of incompetents to run the council.  It’s called democracy.  But if a service is deemed to be too important to be left to local decision-making, then we should stop pretending that local authorities add any value and run the service nationally. 
It all depends on your viewpoint on the extent of any local democratic mandate; I tend to the view that we should maximise local control, and I accept that one inevitable result of that is that service levels and quality will vary; but if the majority believe that consistent service levels are more important, then they should advocate proper central control, as the only way of meeting that objective.
The latest report doesn’t address that sort of question at all – and the Commission is recommending a series of local government mergers on the basis of an assumption that we should simply continue as we are.  The merger process will be costly in the short term, even if we believe that there will be savings in the longer term.  Eyes will inevitably be taken off balls in the process; such problems as we currently have will continue until the process is complete.  It’s a serious missed opportunity.


Old_Miwl said...

Most people (including many Councillors) don't realise that libraries are actually a statutory service like education. Councils have some freedom on how they delivery the service, but they are requried by law to provide a comprehensive an efficient library service under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. As far as I know this has never been tested in court but it would be interesting to see what would happen if campaigners against library closures decided to go down that route

MH said...

With all the hype in the media about how massive a change this would be, what you've written makes a lot more sense than most of what I've heard and read, John.

What Old Miwl has said is interesting. I wasn't aware of that, and had swallowed the line that libraries were not a statutory service. I've just googled, and found this, which says that legal action has been taken against Gloucestershire, and that an injunction against closures has been granted pending judicial reviews of their library services and those in Brent and the Isle of Wight. However the page appears to be two yeas old, so the reviews have probably happened by now.

Also the position might be different in Wales as the page says responsibility in England is being (and since 2012 has been) transferred to Arts Council England. But there's a contact email if any campaigners reading this what to exchange notes.

John Dixon said...

Thanks to Old-Miwl for that - like MH, I hadn't actually checked that.

Old_Miwl said...

You're in good company - pretty much every media report describes libraries as a discretionary service! To answer MH - if anything, libraries are in a stronger position in Wales as there is a published set of standards which to all intents and purposes define "comprehensive" and "efficient".
As you say, if there is little scope for how any service can be delivered due to statute or good practice, is there any point in having it run by the LA? If these core services were run directly by the Welsh Government then perhaps the current authorities would be large enough to manage the remainder and we could save the cost of the reorganisation. If all we're doing is electing managers, then it's largely a democratic sham.

John Dixon said...

"...then perhaps the current authorities would be large enough to manage the remainder..."

I'd be tempted to go even further; it's not inconceivable that they might then be 'too large' and that the services could be provided even more locally. It underlines the point that the size and number of local authorities isn't (or shouldn't be!) decided by picking numbers out of the air, but by reference to what they're actually for.

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

@John: so maybe the real problem lies with Ted Heath's 1972 reforms?

Prior to that Wales had 17 counties and county boroughs, a plethora of boroughs, urban districts and rural districts, as well as a myriad of civil parishes. The tasks undertaken by the councils differed according to their capacity, with the four county boroughs (Cardiff, Merthyr, Newport and Swansea) more like today's unitary authorities than the hash we had from 1974 to 1996.

Prior to Heath's grand plan, local government had evolved little by little with a good degree of cooperation between smaller authorities (and mergers along the way!). It's too late to undo the past 40 years, even though some us no doubt long for the days of the old Newcastle Emlyn Rural District.

John Dixon said...

I wouldn't want to go back to the days of having a plethora of authorities. Truth is, I don't really have a view (about how many local authorities we should have or how big they are) which is independent of the question of what we want them to do. It's amazing to me, though, how many people seem to be starting from an arbitrary number.