Wednesday 2 December 2015

Losing the plot

One of the things that struck me shortly after being first elected to the Vale of Glamorgan council in 1979 was the different approach to items of expenditure.  The larger items, sometimes in the millions, were generally nodded through, whereas the smaller items were the subject of much more debate.  I remember a lengthy debate at one personnel committee about whether an officer should or should not be sent on a course costing a few hundred pounds.  My suggestion that minor decisions of that nature should really be operational ones made by officers wasn’t exactly well-received.
There’s a general point here.  Most of us find it easier to discuss and deal with sums of money which are within our experience.  Hundreds and thousands of pounds are ‘real’ amounts of money; millions are just numbers.  I suspect this is the underlying reason why so much of what passes for politics is concentrating on the smaller sums rather than the larger ones – just think about a number of recent press releases from the Taxpayers’ Alliance or the opposition parties in the Assembly talking about expenses and salaries.  It’s not that salaries and expenses aren’t important; it’s just that they are close to being insignificant in the context of overall public expenditure.
In the same way, a lot of the debate around the proposed reductions in the numbers of local authorities in Wales has been around the number of Chief Executives or Directors of Education, and the cost of employing 22 rather than, say, 8.  But that isn’t where any real savings will come from.
(And, as an aside, it’s by no means certain that these particular savings will actually be realised anyway.  If, for instance, 8 Directors of Education each appoint an assistant to look after each of the former council areas, the result could well be that there is a reduction in the number of Directors from 22 to 8, but the number of people doing their work increases from 22 to 30.  And no doubt the 8 will expect higher salaries than the 22 in respect of their increased responsibilities.  There are an awful lot of devils hiding in the detail here.)
If there are significant savings to be achieved, they won’t come from simple reductions in the numbers of chief officers.  They will come from combining teams and reducing jobs at much lower levels in the organisation; they will come from harmonising systems and procedures; and they will come at a cost of a significant initial investment.
Last week, the Welsh Government produced a headline figure of £650million savings.  Reluctant as I am to agree with the Tories, I can’t help but feel that this is, as they say, a figure plucked out of the air.  I don’t know whether it’s an accurate figure or not, but what we can say with a high degree of certainty is that any savings that are achieved will largely come at the expense of jobs.  Jobs will be cut directly by dictat of the Labour government – and they seem quite proud of it.
But, hold on a minute – is saving money really the driver for local government reorganisation?  The savings seem to have become central to the debate, but wasn’t the original argument more about taking a strategic view and addressing the perceived failures in the services being delivered?  When did that argument turn into a financial one?  I was never convinced that reorganisation was the best way to improve performance in any event; but reorganisation aimed at saving money is almost certainly not.

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