Archive for July, 2010

Big Society or Big Joke

Odd rumours are flying around Liverpool.  Nobody knew much about the Big Society announcement until a matter of hours before.  No policy officers seem to know that Liverpool was to be a ‘vanguard community’.  And the behaviour of council leaders suggests they knew precious little about it either.

There is a suggestion that some young thing heard Phil Redmond talking about volunteering and from this small glimmer a city’s willing (even eager) participation developed in the mind of policy wonks!!  In reality, there is no substance to build upon, no enthusiastic groundswell.  So watch this space as the Big Society in Liverpool co-opts and re-brands existing activities top present the image of something new.  Or will the Labour leadership locally let it wither?  Or will this threat be an opportunity to get government support for some of the capital investment so recently cut.  The refurbishment of the central library seems to have been approved.  Might some magic be worked for schools and transport infrastructure?

Perhaps I am just being mischievous?

Advertisements

Structural Reform Plans

As part of the Big Society announcements, the first of the Structural Reform Plans emerged at the end of last week (http://www.number10.gov.uk/other/2010/07/structural-reform-plans-53023).  Attached to so grand a political philosophy as handing power to the public are the most unambitious, top-down tinkerings the civil service could conjure up.  But then, when is power ever given away in this manner?  It has to be taken.  It will be interesting to watch what happens when the language generates expectations that cannot be matched.

Power to the People

The Guardian carried a piece over the weekend (http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/jul/16/whitehall-civil-servants-community-groups) that suggested senior civil servants should be put at the disposal of the community to help them challenge local authority traditionalists!  Sir Humphrey is to challenge traditionalists?  Am I dreaming?

No – I am once again reliving episodes, in this case, of Yes Prime Minister.  In ‘Power to the People’, Sir Humphrey finds common cause with those very same traditionalists – change locally, becomes change regionally and, eventually, change nationally.  The thin end of the wedge.  A ‘courageous decision’ indeed.

This morning, we find out that Liverpool is to feature as a ‘vanguard community’.  Aside from the slightly weird use of the Leninist language, this is amusing.  I recall the enthusiasm for pathfinders under New Labour.  They were all for giving power to communities – New Deal for Communities, Neighbourhood Management etc etc.  And what happened to these?  Did they fail for the lack of Sir Humphrey’s guiding hand?  We will doubtless return to this topic over the coming months and years as it develops here.

Cuts

This is all anybody is talking about in the public sector at the moment, to the extent that it has driven out any discussion of innovation and change that I can detect.  However, faced with 40% cuts, something more than cutting down on photocopying is required.

You can imagine the scenes in Whitehall.  Each department will be preparing their special pleadings.  Research discussed on the news this morning suggested that the public though the international development should not be protected.  Health, education and defence have made their cases.  What of the millions spent supporting business – is there a case to be made for this?  Pretty soon, we are left with cuts from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and from Work and Pensions.  The budget for the last of these, though, will only increase as unemployment will continue to rise, lagging as it tends to behind the economic recovery and aggravated by the very same public sector cuts.

Those told they must still meet their 40% target will then prepare the unpalatable options – reduced frontline provision.  They will do this to demonstrate the political consequences of the cuts in the hope of bartering for more resources.  These are the old tricks, but they are coming out now.

How quickly do public managers, as we have come to think of them over the past twenty years, revert to type, behaving as the archetypal self-interested bureaucrats of Yes Minister and as described in the analysis of the public choice school of thinking.  But under pressure to deliver savings in short timescales, what else is one to do?  Without room for innovation, without the possibility of investment in change as a process, and a costly one at that, game playing will tend to dominate.  Or, at least, that is my hunch.

Hard times

I have refrained from blogging in the last few days in part because it is still not clear to me how to read aspects of the budget.   The tone in the speech itself – cuts are forced on the coalition, they are not ideologically driven etc – appears disingenuous.  The talk of fairness – we will all suffer – seemed at odds with some of the more kneejerk benefit cuts.  And we have ‘Mad Frankie’ Field back, thinking the unthinkable all over again, wielding his dental pliers at the shiftless and the workshy.  At a macro level, I am not qualified to say what the long-term impacts will be, but it is alarming to see that some forecasts are of significant joblosses on the back of cuts in public services with only the hope that this will be balanced by job creation in the private sector.

But locally, and on a more micro level, we continue to see short-termism dominating decisions.  Cuts are being made at the margins, recruitment freezes imposed.  But where is the long-term thinking.  Part of the problem is the relatively short timescales within which cuts need to be delivered – the budget deficits will begin to mount this year.  But that is to suggest that nobody could foresee the need for cutbacks, an unsustainable defence.  We have all seen it coming, if perhaps not as deep.  And it smacks a little of past complacency.

Having said that, the current situation is not conducive to considered and planned change.  The coalition and central government seem to be spinning round faster by the day – announcements and revisions/reinterpretations follow each other in rapid succession.  The demand for 25% savings over 4 years has about as much clarity of thinking as other announcements.  But it is someone else’s problem – local government, agencies etc.  So it will probably stick, more or less.