bin and gone

Bins and lights – that sums up the Local Community Minister’s attitude to the public sector. So long as the first are emptied and the second are on Eric Pickles is a happy man.

He doesn’t want local councils to be running huge self-promoting media campaigns, which is fair enough. However under his wish-list many more services would be stripped from councils’ list of responsibilities leaving a question mark over arts, sports and events that many local authorities currently promote.

The logic behind the argument is that councils are there to do the bare minimum and all non-essential activities are a waste of money – and crucially that money is made up of tax-payers’ hard earned pounds. So the argument goes that cutting services will save the country money – hurray, no more deficit (apart from the one we have always had – http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/06/spending-cuts-canada-deficit).

The problem is most councils are going to salami slice across the board rather than completely stop providing councillors’ pet projects or the type of non-services that middle class voters love like libraries, arts festivals and parks. In turn, that means essential services for the most vulnerable will inevitably see funding cuts.

Unfortunately in a time when more and more people are joining the squeezed middle the Government is increasingly going to have to deliver the Lion’s share of local authority funding.

It is not just individuals who will be squeezed – local services are also going to be squeezed. And that means politicians are going to try to cut budgets without anyone who votes noticing.

Salami slicing will see the most vulnerable suffer while the more affluent in society barely notice any change. Fears over library closures will prompt them to take the kids to a Save our Books campaign one Saturday morning, but the reality is they are all hooked up to Broadband at home and so don’t actually use the library. They won’t notice that although the library has remained open it is only stocked with second hand Jeffrey Archer novels.

The people who will notice salami slicing are the ones who rely on social care who see 20 per cent wiped off the budget for their services.

Still at least the lights are on until midnight and the bins are  emptied every fortnight or three weeks.

Restructures, savings and other euphemisms (Part I)

Where I come from we call a spade a spade – in the public sector it’s a human-powered earth moving implement. But after three years in an inner-city council and many more years covering local politics I have become fluent in the language. I may not be able to speak it yet, but I can certainly understand it.

So when senior managers stopped looking us in the eye towards the end of last year and dark murmurings of restructure began to float down the corridors of power, I was able to make a pretty decent fist of what was afoot. It was clear that the state of the economy, a new Conservative led Government and a New Labour ethos within this particular borough meant we were in for a round of restructures where, unfortunately the management team will have to make some difficult decisions in order to rationalise the workforce and secure back office savings job cuts.

The political weather vane had been spun by the wind of change when David Cameron and Nick Clegg walked hand-in-hand down Downing Street on 11 May 2010. It was clear that this latest “restructure” would carry more weight than the previous one I had been through.

Coming almost 18 months earlier that particular “rationalisation” seemed more intent on boosting managers’ responsibilities pay and getting rid of a persona non grata from the office. Although these weren’t the stated aims, they were clearly the desired outcomes. And it proved successful as a wave of managers were given a range of new responsibilities including making sure lights were switched off at night; milk and sugar for the tea club was regularly bought; and shouting across the office to make colleagues think they were doing something constructive.

The staff member that was no longer needed was promptly replaced by someone doing the same job on twice the money, so the whole thing had been a resounding success.

Despite the real world going through some pretty serious cost-cutting measures as the global economy went into meltdown, the public sector was still spending like there was no tomorrow. Staff numbers seemed to be ever on the increase, while productivity remained largely static. But to be fair, productivity has never been top of the agenda for councils, which is a shame when you think about the good that could be achieved by a large, well-mobilised, motivated workforce.

I blame the highly-paid strategic thinkers who have spent the majority of their working lives winning friends and influencing people to help perpetuate the  the myth that they are indispensable. Most would struggle to come up with an effective plan against a three-year-old in the classic game of strategic conquest (www.hasbro.com/shop/browse/?N=63+196).*

But back to the vague mutterings of impending rationalisation job losses and savings cutbacks. Rumours are all well and good, but I deal in facts. Unfortunately my Director’s unswerving desire to be everyone’s BFF (Bestest Friend Forever) meant he was unable to grasp the nettle and all meetings on the subject vaguely resembled a spotty 15-year-old virgin trying to chat up a bemused Pamela Anderson – all shoe gazing, sweaty palms and nervous giggles.

There was very little actual information and constant promises to tell us next time. Eventually the cold-hearted HR team had the decency to send us a letter and information pack and it all became official. Unlike the previous restructure, this one did not have a carnival atmosphere as senior managers nudged and winked their way to a deserved promotion. I think some of them genuinely feared they may be in danger of getting the axe – or should I say getting the sharpened tree-felling apparatus?

* This theory is impossible to prove as all senior public sector managers are RISK averse.