Monday, 16 March 2009

Council Confidential

Confessions of one of the myriad skiving bastards who take your taxes and laugh

This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch

I work in local government. I realise that for many HC readers this makes me not so much a human being as a notifiable disease. But stay with me; I’ve got, y’know, words; some of which may even be in the right order.

For obvious reasons I can’t reveal which council I work for. Call it Council X. It is in the North East of England and has, let us say, an angelic reputation. I am near the bottom of the local authority food chain: I only recently broke the 20k barrier after over twenty years’ service. Most local government workers are not especially well paid, though we do get generous leave and flexible working arrangements. (Don’t get me started on the pension scheme, though. It’s got more holes than a pair of ripped fishnets and I suspect it will collapse soon. And lower-paid workers like me are unlikely to enjoy many years’ retirement anyway.)

Council workers are of course pretty much like other people – some good, some bad, some hard-working, some a tad feckless. You wouldn’t think this from the Daily Mail, of course. In the pages of that splendid organ the term public sector is bound to be capitalised soon. On that day the Public Sector will join No Man’s Land, Mordor and the Romulan Neutral Zone as a term for a dark and terrible place from whence any evil might spring upon decent folk.

The paradox I’d like to address here is that local government is almost universally loathed at a time when – in theory, at least – it has never been so well-run. By well-run I mean managed along private sector lines. What else defines good leadership and general efficiency than the private sector, after all? Okay, not the banks. Or Woolworths. Or the American car industry. But the bit of the private sector that does still more or less work is bloody good, isn’t it?

In Council X we can’t get enough of the private sector approach. I was recently on a training course that acquainted me with the methods of the Toyota car company. It’s called Kaizen and it’s excellent if you want to make and sell cars. Of course Council X doesn’t make or sell cars, though it does buy a lot of white vans. But, hey, surely the principle is sound? Private sector values vs public sector arsing around. No contest.

Well, maybe, but there are some facts that should give anyone pause for thought. If private sector values were right in every circumstance, things would be rather different down at the MoD. They wouldn’t just be buying a few tanks from Vickers et al. They’d be hiring the entire armed forces in the way governments used to, back in the free enterprise 16th century. There’d be none of this ‘our brave boys’ folderol, just juicy contracts for SquaddieCorp, Bombs R Us, and House of Frigate.

But that’s not how we do things when we go to war. One of the obvious characteristics of war or indeed any major national emergency is that private enterprise is put on hold for a while, or at least toned down considerably. Still, we’re not at war – not properly, anyway. And there isn’t any other national emergency – apart from imminent economic meltdown and the widespread social unrest this usually brings. But I digress; let’s keep things simple and look at the problem as it’s experienced by poor old Valdemar and his cohorts.

First, a few home truths. The public sector is indeed wasteful because it is staggeringly bureaucratic. It has become more so in recent decades and it shows every sign of getting worse. It started with the creation of quangos in the Seventies, continued under Thatcherism, and really took off under Blair. Thatcherism was about a lot of things, but two things certainly increased during her term in office – centralisation of state power, and welfare dependency. The abolition of the GLC and the regional metropolitan councils – all staunch Labour – can be seen as a party political move. Naughty newt-loving Ken annoyed the Iron Lady. But breaking up big regional power blocks in England was also part of a general trend towards centralisation that got going and continues simply because the state expands as and when it can, almost regardless of circumstances or who’s in power.

Technology is the main driving force of state expansion, and ideology – if any is needed – simply accommodates itself to the shape of the state machine. Orwell remarks somewhere that we are only as moral (or, by inference, immoral) as our technology allows us to be. By the same token the state is only as powerful in the life of its subjects as its technical resources allow it to be.

It’s often been claimed that there were once people in power at Westminster who’d never have wanted to impose ID cards, who’d never have dreamed of setting up a national DNA database, who would have snorted with derision at the idea of CCTV cameras on every street corner. But the idea that our freedoms – historically, rather recent innovations, by and large – were protected by noble civil servants and selfless MPs has always seemed dodgy to me. No doubt a few such men did rise to the top when conditions were suitable. But I suspect they were the product of those conditions, not the creators of them – accidental libertarians, if you like. From what I have seen, the kind of people who rise in power structures really want power over others more than anything else. It is their high.

What has prevented these power junkies from imposing greater and greater centralised controls upon us until now is simply that the means were not available. Consider the pace of change. From telegraph to telephone took about three generations, which seemed like breakneck speed to the Victorians. From the fax machine to email took less than twenty years. The technology of government, of corporate control, is making the surveillance state and all the rest of it easier by the minute. Admittedly there are countervailing forces, and not just in the sheer human frailty that leaves a memory stick in a taxi. But overall the trend is inexorable.

One result of these trends towards central control is that local democracy has been rendered almost pointless. Firstly, councils are now hedged in with so many national policy directives that the ‘elected members’ are rather like a bank’s board of non-executive directors. In theory, they are in charge. In practice, the managers look at what Whitehall wants and do it their way. The elected members are often spoken of by management in rather dismissive terms; which isn’t surprising, because a lot of them are dim. Becoming a councillor, once the obvious first stage for any significant political career, has become a job for people who are no-hopers at anything above the district level. A few years ago I pointed out to a councillor in X that there was a spelling mistake on his web site. He testily asked me to point it out. It was the word ‘constitiency’, in nice big letters at the top of the page.

Secondly, councils aren’t allowed to do things by themselves these days. Core services, such as libraries or refuse collection, might be run entirely by the authority. But almost every initiative Whitehall hands down involves a ‘multi-agency’ approach. This means the council links up with partner bodies – charities, stakeholder groups, NHS Trusts, transport bodies, you name it. So even if a local councillor has sterling qualities, the fact is that ninety per cent of what matters is going to be decided by unelected officials at meetings the councillor won’t attend.

On the proliferation of unelected bodies that handle public services, I take a mixed view. A major charity like the RNIB, with which I’ve had some involvement, offers real expertise on an important subject. Other organisations – as HC contributors have noted – seem to be cooked up for specific political purposes. The earmarking of central government funding for some groups in society to the exclusion of others is guaranteed to make this happen. If you can get enough black, teenage single parents to sign up to a project, you hit the jackpot. If you are charged with helping partially-sighted white pensioners you struggle to get noticed at all, let alone funded.

How do the values of the private sector help in such a situation. The short answer is, they can’t. The long answer is they probably make things worse. The private sector is about making money. It’s about efficiency only in so far as efficiency helps you make money. Efficiency is not some mystical end in itself, and without the clear commercial incentives of ‘real world’ economics, business management theories that wowed them in California (albeit about ten years ago) become so much Powerpoint bollocks in the training rooms of X.

But one undeniable fact has been taken on board – managers of big private sector firms are paid a lot of money. No surprises, then, that top public sector management has got its snout firmly in the trough. And the natural way to justify a whopping great salary – comparable with, say, a LloydsTSB director before the current little difficulty – is to have a bigger and bigger staff of bureaucrats beneath you. The number of management layers at X, coupled with frequent reorganisations to create well-paid jobs, speaks volumes about what really matters to those in charge.

And that’s why, gentle reader, your local council may be a bit crap at doing a lot of the things you want it to do. It is too busy doing things Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith, the Millipedes etc have told it to do, and by the time it’s done all those and paid its various executives, it’s got no money to fix that lamppost outside your front door. Mind how you go.

I have no solution to offer – I doubt that there is one. In theory English local government could be remodelled on Continental lines, with power – and funding – devolved as it is in Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. It won’t happen because localising power is something our national politicians favour when they’re in Opposition and then forget about when they’re in charge. But who knows? Maybe the Tories will prove me wrong. Not long ago I heard Ken Clarke saying he’d ‘always been a localist’. Admittedly I spat Pringles all over my keyboard when he said it. But these are strange times, so strange that one can imagine even democracy might come to flourish in our land.


The Heresiarch said...

Interesting thoughts. On just one point:

What has prevented these power junkies from imposing greater and greater centralised controls upon us until now is simply that the means were not available.

Not entirely sure about that. To some extent freedom exists in the spaces created by official incompetence, but the Stasi managed quite well without all the IT available these days - and the situation, in terms of privacy and official monitoring is much worse in Britain than it is in most other European countries. To some extent I think politicians in the past were held back by the thought that "you can't do something like that in Britain", an instinct for traditional ways of doing things that compensated for the lack of a written constitution that would have been a more legally enforceable restraint.

With New Labour, particularly, you've got people in power whose natural instinct is to mistrust tradition and also to think in terms of laws - so that if there isn't a law preventing them from doing X, it must be because there's nothing wrong with X.

I think also it can't be a coincidence that central government started being more active in micro-managing local government at around the same time it gave up trying to control the economy. It needed something to justify its existence. Now controlling the economy seems to be back in fashion - with, I have no doubt, disastrous consequences - it's just possible that the government will be forced to hand more power back to a local level, simply because it can't do everything.

asquith said...

You contrast public-sector values with the values of capitalism. But what about the mutuals? The likes of John Lewis, the Co-Operative, Britannia & what have you operate very well in the marketplace & may do even better in the years to come.

There are organisations such as Citizens' Advice which receive state funding but operate independently, & are very efficient. I have nothing against them on principle. In practice they often turn into "fake charities", & I am accordingly wary of them but it isn't inevitable because there are examples of the opposite happening.

There are organisations which work to better the lot of others & do not take the state's shilling. There are competitive, market-based organisations which do not rely on turning a profit for shareholders.

As for "efficiency" enthusiasts, I despise them, for several reasons which I actually find it quite hard to articulate, but I think your assault on them works quite well.

Things like PFI & the contracting out of IT & such like, & the government's links to various copmpanies (such as the lie detector firms which are taking a good kicking at Ministry of Truth) do not supply a case for denigrating the non-state sector.

valdemar squelch said...

H, it's a topic that needs a 20,000 word post to hammer it all out. Or possibly a long book. But I take your point about democratic traditions. Is it a coincidence that the narrative of history - of progress, if you like - once taught in schools has been dumped in favour of confused, bitty 'Hitler and the Henrys' stuff?

Asquith, I agree, especially about private sector contracts. It makes it even easier for politicians to cover their arses. In addition to national security, they've now got that wonderful term 'commercially sensitive information' to hide their dodgy antics behind.

Brian Brown said...

An excellent article.

WeepingCross said...

Well done with this. It takes me back to my days working for the Council, thankfully in a remote outpost which (nearly) everybody agreed should exist but nobody really understood why (the museum). The public loved us, partly because we were so very very lovable, partly because they had no prior expectations of us; the Council itself was still caught between that old 'vaguely worthwhile jobs for people who can't do anything else' ethos and the occasional burst of initiative-itis whose hoops we jumped through until it all went away and died a death until the next initiative came along. It was all summed up by the great efficiency report which was produced by PWC on the orders of the swivel-eyed Thatcherites who inhabited the new Cabinet structure. All the Council staff were due to be called down in two gigantic meetings to hear the results - and that very morning the meetings were called off. The rest of the Tory group had got wind that the report advocated closing the whole thing down and handing all the Council's responsibilities over to Asda or something, and rose in revolt. PWC still got their £90K fee, though.

valdemar squelch said...

Thanks for everyone who have found the item vaguely useful. Father Weep, the irony today is that we have the worst of both worlds - the 'swivel-eyed Thatcherite' approach keeps the consultants and private firms happy, the Old Labour ethos keeps over 10,000 bureaucrats in work for a town of under 200,000 citizens.

And I didn't even mention the 'awareness' training. This is ostensibly about combating prejudice against minorities. But some minorities have more rights than others. A deaf colleague went on the course, and no BSL interpreter was provided. A blind colleague was ordered to do it, and no Braille information was forthcoming. And so on, and so forth.

Edwin Moore said...

Yes fascinating piece Valdemar - and as you say, much is up for debate that wasn't before. A friend tried to work out how much public sector heid yins were costing the people of Glasgow alone and came up with a figure so scary she felt it must be unreal - it is certainly unsustainable.

Just about all of us have no problem with public-sector money going towards those who need it, and the same proportion of us hate waste and huge salaries going to men and women who just aren't worth it, and have never been worth it.

With such agreement, it shoukd be easy to sort out!

Anonymous said...

Hi Valdemar,

thank you for the increibly informative article. I just wanted to ask you an additional question. I have some friends in local council and through them I heard about a "charity" called Common Purpose which sucks incredible amounts of money out of local government and keeps its activities mostly secret. From what I have read (who knows how reliable) articles about it that say it has a post democratic ethos and is bent on destroying all grass roots politics.

Have you heard of this?

The Heresiarch said...

I wouldn't take the conspiracy theories seriously, if I were you Anon. Common Purpose is pretty much what it claims to be, an organisation providing courses on "leadership" to selected potential leaders. There are real questions, though, over whether such an undoubtedly cliqueish body (it has been variously described as a New Labour Freemasons and a middle management Bilderburg Group) should enjoy charitable status. As for its overpriced courses - like many such organisations, it depends on there being a ready supply of companies and public sector bodies willing to stump up the cash. Whether such courses are good value for money is highly questionable. I suspect they prefer to keep things secretive because they know how much public anger there would be if the costs involved were more widely known. I'm willing to bet that management training courses of all types will be among the first victims of the recession. I hope so, anyway.

WeepingCross said...

"over 10,000 bureaucrats in work for a town of under 200,000 citizens."

That does sound excessive. But are they really all pushers of paper and stackers of staples? Are there no open-space maintenance staff, accommodation wardens, tree officers or, dare I ask, museum curators? When I was at W----- we had about 750 staff and they nearly all did something, as I say, vaguely beneficent which people generally thought needed to be done. There was a certain amount of bullshitting, and perhaps that has increased over the 6 years I've been away. But generally I'm quite indulgent towards the provision of satisfying work for the otherwise incapable. I've taken a number of funerals of special-needs gents from a sheltered house in the parish. They all worked for either the Council or the local hospital as drivers, cleaners, labourers, or porters, and were among those institutions' most loyal and loved staff.

But then at W----- we did have Mad Ron the parks man who went amok with a rifle on the common and had to be carted off, so it wasn't all positive.

valdemar squelch said...

Father W, just to emphasise that it's higher ranking bureaucrats I find most obnoxious. I know a lot of very hard-working, useful people at Council X. The bins get emptied, the park opposite my home is lovely, and much of value is achieved. It ain't a run-down, crappy borough by any means. But it is constantly undergoing bizarre management restructings, even though the bins remain bins and parks remain parks.

I'm only vaguely aware of Common Purpose, because it moves in more rarefied levels than my lowly sphere. I think I have perhaps gone a bit loopy lately for various reasons - not all job related - and my stuff about crazy power addicts owes a lot to O'Brien's discourses in 1984.

The Heresiarch said...

Valdemar: even though the bins remain bins and parks remain parks.

What, aren't the bins now "waste recycling and dispersal receptacles" and the parks "outside public access recreational facilities"?

WeepingCross said...

"But it is constantly undergoing bizarre management restructings"

Ah yes, I recall the day when one of my colleagues returned from a visit to the main Council offices reporting 'It's all desk wars down there', as the latest restructuring compelled long-serving officials to go round measuring each others' desks to make sure nobody below them in the hierarchy had ended up with more space.

RavingMad said...

Local government, instead of becoming the bastion of local pride and endeavour, have become mini-Stassi like creatures, continually fighting central government for funding, with eve-increasingly manic approaches to what they think they do, and an authoritarian Nazi-like approach to their populations, who are seen as criminals and spongers and sometimes both!.

There, summed up in a sentence what I think these bastard organisations are about under NewStassi. I have far too many examples of mismanagement, arrogance, poor workmanship, appalling communication, bigotry, delusions of grandeur and financial irresponsibility bordering on corruption - it would take a a user of services, as an ex-employee, as a manger of services blah blah blah. Local government need burning down, disinfecting and restarting in a more equalitarian and common sense manner. It is shit!