Today I am cross. Sufficiently cross as to be considered borderline angry. This crossness is driven by crass behaviour and decision making of local authorities and, as it turns out, Central Government too!
It is ‘Pig and Paper Day’ here in West Berkshire, the day on which, historically, the local farmers would bring their stock to market and buy their copy of the local paper. In today’s edition of the Newbury Weekly News1 (neither the subject nor the object of this blog), the headline tells the reader:
‘£17.5m cuts shutdown starts today’
‘Town’s public toilets and visitor centre closing’
Both of which would appear, on reading the article to be accurate and are as a result, according to the article of ‘the cut in government funding’.
Now, I can hear you fretting, so what, why are you angry?
I am angry NOT so much at the particular closures, the merits (or otherwise) of which can be debated by others, but at the complete failure of thought and imagination by those responsible.
Let me explain.
For some years now and under governments of all persuasions (Labour, Coalition and Conservative) there has been a tendency towards privatising the funding cost if not the delivery of certain services. Think ‘PFI’ for healthcare and education in particular or the funding models of Executive Agencies that were paid for out of general taxation and now charge fees to recover their operating costs. Since the financial crisis of 2008 (to the sound of popping delusions in very much the style of the South Sea Bubble some 288 years earlier) this tendency has been complemented by a reduction in the rate of increase of public spending (that is what ‘the cuts’ really mean at a national level) and, more recently by the devolution agenda. This has first seen some additional freedom for public spending devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and is now being accelerated through devolution of certain powers to the ‘City Regions’ (though not all of them look like either Cities or Regions).
The consequence of this devolution is often a reduction in government grant to those bodies (otherwise they would be getting an increase in overall budget). That means that the authorities closest to the citizen levy a greater proportion of the total tax bill and have greater responsibility for charging citizens for public services. Thereby local authorities are more accountable, more locally, for their taxation and spending decisions.
Again, we can debate whether or not local accountability for local services and local taxes is a good thing – though I must admit I do like the notion that somebody, anybody, spending money on my behalf should be, in effect, both identifiable and accountable to me (at the ballot box!) for that decision.
Whether the intent of central government is to encourage accountability through local decision making, decentralise the national debt (by making borrowing a ‘local’ issue) or to drive down the overall amount of public spending I am not actually quite clear – it may be all of these things and some others I have not yet thought of. However, the consequence is clear – local authorities are experiencing (and here I requote) ‘the cut in government funding’.
In other words, if a local authority wants to, or is obliged to (we must not forget that local authorities have many statutory obligations) provide a service then a greater part of the cost of that service will be borne, directly, by local council tax payers.
Three things can then happen, they:
Do the same with the same:
If the total amount of money being spent is to remain broadly the same and the central government funding reduced then local taxation must increase to keep services the same;
Do less with less:
If the total amount of money being spent is to reduce because the central government funding is reduced and the local taxation is not increased to close the gap sufficiently then some services must cease;
Do the same (or more) with less:
If the total amount of money being spent is to reduce by the amount by which central government funding is reduced, local taxation is to stay the same and services maintained then that will require a true increase in efficiency.
My observation, and the reason for my ire, is that the middle option is the easy one and that is the one we can see being followed. It is, of course, much easier for political leaders, whether local or national and of whatever political persuasion, to abolish, abandon or close down a service and blame ‘austerity’, ‘the cuts’ or ‘those [insert name of political party and preferred derogatory epithet here]’ than it is to pursue the third option.
How much better it would be if our local (and national) politicians were to look at the challenges and say:
How can we still achieve the desired outcome but at lower cost?
How could we improve the efficiency of our processes in order to continue providing this service on our lower income?
Where in the, necessarily slightly bureaucratic, organisation we run might we reduce waste, eliminate delays and eradicate non value-adding activity?
Where might we currently be unconsciously profligate?
That is, they should be understanding the reasons they exist, the needs and obligations they exist to fulfil and working out how to deliver them within the budget they have available.
It may be that some local authorities are making politically motivated ‘cuts’ to services – and picking on public toilets, libraries and visitor centres always goes well in the press. They should perhaps remind themselves that they exist to ensure the provision of services to their local population and focus on doing that.
It may be that they simply do not have the capability (capacity, skills, knowledge or insight) to challenge the way things are done and improve them. Setting aside the question that would arise as regards their suitability for office if they cannot do these things, they could always either find out how – or ask someone?
It may be, and I have come across this, that the officials know perfectly well what to do and how to do it to deliver the changes, but the political leadership will not allow it.
To do more with less requires clarity of vision about the future of the organisation. It requires a re-imagining of how the desired outcome is to be achieved rather than a ‘salami slicing’ of the current processes to produce illusory gains. For those unfamiliar with how to do this I recommend, in particular, Chapter 13 of The Intelligent Organisation2…..I am generally told it is very useful……..
Doing less with less is not, and cannot be represented as, an improvement in efficiency. Doing the same, or more, with less requires our political leaders and the officers that support them to have the knowledge, skills or talent to perform the tasks to which they have been elected or appointed and the courage to go with them. And, be in no doubt, it will take courage to reimagine public services, to design them and to deliver them.
It is time to go – so stop closing the toilets and, oddly, keep taking the ‘p**s’.
1: Newbury Weekly News, 31st March 2016
2: The Intelligent Organisation, John Beckford, Routledge, London, 2016