Merging councils is no magic bullet to fight austerity

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network Monday 5th March 2018

Council mergers may look efficient, but local government reform is like Brexit: a wasteful wild-goose chase.

On 26 February, the government gave the go-ahead for Dorset’s nine councils to create two new authorities. On paper, this looks like a no brainer. But it’s a decision officials, councillors and residents in the county may yet come to regret.

The new structure, aimed at saving £108m over six years, would come into effect in April 2019, assuming it gets parliamentary approval. Separate councils for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will be replaced with one new unitary council, while the second unitary council will comprise what is now Dorset county council and the district councils of East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset, and Weymouth and Portland.

Support for the decision is hardly surprising. There are 353 local authorities in England: 27 county councils, 201 district councils, and 125 unitary authorities, including 33 London boroughs and 36 metropolitan boroughs.

In 2016 a report by EY for the County Councils Network (CCN) concluded (pdf) that creating 27 unitary authorities in England could save up to £2.9bn. The single unitary option has the shortest payback period and the most effective platform for financial sustainability and reducing council tax for residents. Counties also have the lowest back office and management overheads – just 6% of their budgets, compared to 46% at the average district council.

However, there is no official government guidance on what constitutes an acceptable model for local government. A range of models are being proposed, many of which make little sense and may actually end up adding extra cost. Proposals in Oxfordshire and elsewhere suggest creating four or even five “district unitaries” and then a small combined authority to provide additional capacity to deliver strategic services.

Breaking up counties into smaller unitary authorities doesn’t make sense geographically, and could unnecessarily fragment services at a county level if they don’t have the same boundaries as other public services like fire, police and the NHS. It’s true that there may be value in rethinking who delivers services such as housing and planning, but strategically that would mean looking to larger, not smaller, units.

But the real point is that local government reform is not and has never been about efficiency; it’s about politics, with a large and small “p”. There can be elements of gerrymandering – when the Labour government sought to consolidate its power base in Devon in 2009 by creating a unitary authority in Exeter, it would have effectively cut the heart out of the county both financially and geographically, and impoverish the parts of the county more likely to support the opposition. The whole notion of localism is too often about what the government wants, rather than what makes most logical sense for residents and communities.

In Dorset’s case, the councils’ chief finance officers have stated that authorities within Dorset are solvent and have sufficient balances to remain this way for the foreseeable future . Four options were proposed for Christchurch council after consultation in 2016, one of which was no change, an option later rejected by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Many believe t the whole debate about reorganisation could simply distract councils from delivering savings and ambitious devolution deals. Paul Carter, leader of Kent county council and CCN , has claimed (paywall) it could result in three years of misery, as well as creating friction and tension between councils.

I can heartily agree, having myself lived through a tense legal battle over local government reform that wasted an estimated £200,000 of our council’s budget and reduced our capacity to deliver essential services because of the chaos it created.

Of the nine councils that will be scrapped in Dorset, three did not fully support the proposal and Christchurch council still plans to find a legal means to oppose being merged with neighbouring councils.

Local government reform is like Brexit: at best, a disingenuously simple answer to a complex question, at worst a smokescreen. Either way, it’s a wasteful and lengthy wild-goose chase where nobody can clearly define how to deliver a way forward that works for everyone.


Carillion’s collapse should make all councils rethink privatisation

First published in the Guardian Public Leaders network 29th Jan 2018, also published on De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research Unit blog 30th Jan 2018

Bad as it was for the public sector, the collapse of Carillion may not affect local government too badly. But if companies like Serco, Capita or Veolia were to fail, the impact on councils would be much more serious.

Carillion mainly ran large private finance initiative contracts – building hospitals, for instance. But firms like Capita, Serco and Veolia run a huge range of different council services, from IT and HR to waste collection, recycling, street cleaning and maintenance. If they were to fail, the risk to councils would be very high.

It has become increasingly clear that the business model around outsourcing – or managed services in local government speak – is fundamentally at fault.

Local councils have been under ever more pressure over the past decade to cut costs – and one seemingly straightforward way of doing this has been to outsource many services, particularly administrative services.

I first came across this in 2009, when I was working in the organisational development team at a large county council. We were looking across local government to find innovations in improvement and efficiency. Barnet council, dubbed “easyCouncil” for its strategy of providing a “no frills” service, had drastically reduced its headcount from 3,200 to just 322, mainly by outsourcing.

I could see this approach might solve some of the immediate issues councils faced, but I had a gut feeling that it just wasn’t the right thing to do.

To make running services cheaper than keeping them in-house, the only contractors able to put in competitive tenders were the giants, like Capita (in Barnet’s case) or Serco.

My own experience of working for a council with managed services showed that they compared poorly in terms of service and value to in-house services. The most frustrating aspect was that the terms and conditions were set by the service provider, with no flexibility if circumstances changed – until the contract came up for retendering. Councils often don’t have good enough contract management skills to avoid getting locked in to this kind of contract.

This placed unreasonable constraints on councils. One IT service provider, for instance, refused to enable staff to work remotely using their own equipment, even though this would be more efficient and staff were likely to have better quality laptops, such as MacBooks, at home.

It is easy to see why companies see government deals as a cash cow. Carillion, for example, continued to win contracts despite being in dire straits. Political pressure on the public purse means having to go with the cheapest offer.

I also feel uneasy about the fact that these decisions tend to be made without consulting either staff or residents. Handing over large service areas, without having an open dialogue about the potential risks and impacts with the community and local partners, seems wrong. Councils are not just bodies that commission and deliver services, they are a democratic, accountable level of government – and if the 2010 coalition government hadn’t dismantled the Audit Commission, which oversaw local government, we might have seen this coming earlier.

There is an opportunity for councils to learn from this and start reviewing existing contracts. But the truth is that there is no money to take services back in-house. And even if there were, it is an outdated model and would be a backward step, because too often in the past, in-house services have been inefficient too, and often also based on an inflexible approach. No one would benefit from going back to that.

There are other options, such as councils sharing services. Some councils have been working towards this for many years. West Devon borough council and South Hams district council, for instance, haveshared services since 2007. But this does require a great deal of effort and goodwill – and isn’t always easy to implement or even propose.

More could also be done across the public sector as a whole. By working more closely with key partners such as the NHS, councils can aim to pool assets and resources. Moves to do this are already under way in Greater Manchester and there are other examples. In 2016, for instance, NHS England, Public Health England, the Local Government Association, the Chief Fire Officers Association and Age UK published a joint statement setting out new ways to work together to improve public health.

At the very least, councils must learn from Carillion’s demise and develop stronger tendering processes and contract management skills. They must also prioritise working with contractors with a stronger public service ethos – and a greater commitment to service outcomes over shareholder value.

If all that happens, further damage to public services might be avoidable.

I live in a tower block, but I don’t want to be rehoused

The housing association that built my two-year-old block has acted quickly and responsibly to reassure residents that we are safe.

First published in The Guardian Housing Network 27th June 2017

In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, one of my neighbours expressed concern about the cladding on our building. Initially I was incredulous and dismissive; our building is only two years old and was built by a housing association, which would have had to conform to stringent safety standards and regulations. However, like many other residents in London tower blocks, it turns out that I live in a building clad in Reynobond PE panels – the same as those used in Grenfell Tower.

This fact came to light in emails from the housing association, which has been extremely transparent and responsive in communicating with residents. Nonetheless, there has been a degree of panic and outrage, and some residents have complained to our MP, who has demanded that we should all be rehoused immediately and the cladding removed.

But this is not social housing; the residents of my building are leaseholders. And as a local government officer myself, I believe it would be wrong to waste public funds rehousing us for no good reason.

I feel that the anger towards the housing association is misplaced. Who’s to blame here is not clear cut. It’s the same with the 600 other buildings across the UK.

At a national level, there are huge questions over the regulations, the supplier of the panels, the builders who chose to use them and whether or not councils and housing associations were aware of the issues with the cladding. Given that this particular housing association has invested almost £50m into 100 shared ownership apartments, of which they are still the primary owner, I do not believe that it would deliberately jeopardise that investment.

I’m not suggesting there is not a problem here. One of the issues is similar to the often naive or inadequate approach to contract management experienced by many councils. In the past I have complained about poor management of costs by this association and the resulting service charge increase, but on the whole it is a good housing association that cares about its residents and is committed to working with us on any issues we have.

Just after I moved in, for instance, the housing director came round to talk to residents about tackling antisocial behaviour on our estate. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the housing association has been quick to reassure residents that fire safety was carefully considered when the the building was designed and that the fire brigade rates it as low risk.

We have a sprinkler system, and communal areas free of possessions and rubbish. There is a fire fighting lift, compartmentalisation of dwellings and areas of the building, a wet riser, emergency lighting and power and automatic opening vents, which enable escape and access routes to be kept clear of smoke in the event of a fire.

All the equipment is inspected weekly and serviced in line with manufacturers’ recommendations. Fire risk assessments are carried out annually, and last week the housing association asked the Building Research Establishment and independent experts to carry out a review and make recommendations regarding potentially removing and replacing the cladding. Additional patrols and safety checks have begun in the meantime, as well as visits to every flat to check fire doors and test smoke alarms.

With all of this in mind, I personally feel that we are lucky and should retain a sense of perspective. The focus now needs to be on addressing the failings that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, supporting the victims and prosecuting those responsible.

Could US Local Government curb Trump’s worst excesses?

Dissent over the US president’s more extreme proposals, including mass deportation of immigrants, may come from state governments and cities.

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders 31st January 2017

What would I do if I worked in local government in the US? What do my colleagues and counterparts over there make of the situation in which they now find themselves?

In the UK, my responsibility working as an officer in local government in recent years has been to do what I could to help the councils I have worked for continue to deliver vital services in the face of overwhelming financial hardship and unrealistic expectations set by national government policy.

In a heavily centralised state like the UK, it is incredibly difficult to circumvent national policy. We have had to focus our diminishing resources on doing things differently to protect the most vulnerable people and communities.

But the US is a federal country, with a very different dynamic between national and local government. Not only do individual states have their own legislatures, but they also have the power to raise taxes. Not only does the federal government have little say over the day to day lives of US citizens, but state law also sometimes trumps (excuse the pun) federal law, if state law affords more rights to residents.

As a result, states handle the majority of issues most relevant to individuals within their jurisdiction. And although the constitution gives ultimate authority to federal laws, in practice, the federal government’s ability to enforce these kinds of laws is often limited, and it must rely heavily on local policies and law enforcement officials. Without state officials to enforce laws, federal law enforcement officials are in a difficult position.

There are about 89,000 US local government organisations with jurisdiction over the lives of US citizens. Any US president wishing to enact and implement a particular policy or enforce certain legislation requires full cooperation from some or most of them.

In 2013, for instance, the use of medicinal and recreational marijuana was legalised in Colorado and Washington. Yet the use, possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

What happens when this kind of conflict arises depends on whether the Department of Justice is up for taking on the uphill struggle of getting states to conform. In this instance, the federal government decided it was not worth the legal fight and has stepped back to see what happens in regard to marijuana laws.

There have been many other examples of this kind of clash, especially where civil rights are concerned. In early 2016, for instance, when the US justice and education departments issued new guidance giving transgender students protection under sex discrimination laws and access to facilities consistent with their gender identity, several states pushed back. The HB2 law in North Carolina prevents cities and counties in the state from passing their own anti-discrimination rules.

How might this kind of conflict affect the Trump administration? Take Trump’s campaign trail pledge to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. This sounds completely unfeasible from an administrative point of view and Trump would also need support for his policy from municipal administrations, which would need to proactively ask immigrants for paperwork if they believe they’re undocumented. The only lever the president has to pressure cities into cooperating would be cutting off or reducing federal funding, a step that would need support from Congress.

Some of the largest and most important cities in the US have already vowed to push back on this policy, no matter what the cost might be. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to do everything he can to fight widespread deportations of illegal immigrants, and mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has pledged not to cooperate with immigration agents. Similarly, mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared that Chicago “will always be a sanctuary city”.

These “sanctuary cities” may not have the power to give people rights, but they have a lot of power of resistance, and are promising to maintain their policies of limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents, as federal government could not compel states to carry out immigration enforcements.

Democratic cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have all also confirmed that they intend to defy the administration and act as a kind of bulwark against mass deportations.

So the famous US system of checks and balances may limit some of the more extreme proposals Trump has outlined thus far.

As a UK local government worker, I for one am encouraged to see that US local government is already leading the way in ensuring the rights and freedoms of their citizens. I wish them the best of luck over the next four years.

I’m outraged at Westminster meddling in council affairs

Councils won’t put up with being told not to boycott unethical companies. It wouldn’t be the first time we have faced down preposterous diktats

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 17th February 2016

Speaking as a local government officer, am I surprised that central government intends to introduce new procurement regulations to prevent councils from boycotting companies we consider to be unethical? No. Outraged, yes, but not surprised. In fact, I’m surprised we didn’t see this coming.

When it comes to localism policy and dealing with local government, Conservative governments have always displayed a kind of cognitive dissonance – constantly interfering in the way councils should or should not organise themselves. Yet they have been unwilling to formalise a written constitution or framework and even dismantled the Audit Commission in 2010, removing any standard way of benchmarking and measuring our performance on a national basis.

This, as well as the bonfire of the quangos, including the regional development agencies, and the drastic reduction in funding from central government over the past five years – all, we are told, in aid of localism and devolution. Former communities secretary Eric Pickles was always so keen to emphasise that councils were now “free” of “red tape”, and could go about their business in any way residents wanted them to. After all, decisions at a local level are taken by directly elected local councillors, who are far closer to their constituents than a minister in Whitehall, right?

Well, wrong, it seems. National politicians cannot resist interfering in local decision-making, and whatever they have given with one hand, they have taken with the other. Pickles always insisted on having his cake and eating it, and then having another one for good measure. Councils had to find millions of pounds’ worth of efficiency savings, and yet somehow he found enough money down the back of the sofa to bribe them into returning to weekly bin collections. This failed dismally, of course, because central government doesn’t quite seem to understand that its job is not to tell us what to do.

I predict that many councils will prefer to face legal challenge than toe this particular line. It wouldn’t be the first time and certainly won’t be the last that we have faced down preposterous diktats.

In any case, given that by 2020 local government will be financially self-sufficient, I don’t see how these regulations can be enforced. If local councils have a mandate – if procurement restrictions are set out in the manifesto of the party in power in any given council and it is wholly local taxpayers’ money being spent on the contracts – central government has no business intervening in those decisions.

When I was a teenager, my father told me I couldn’t spend my pocket money on kickboxing lessons. So I told him not to give me pocket money any more, went out, got a job and paid for my own kickboxing lessons. Money does not equal control, no matter what Westminster thinks.

Local government or The Matrix? Five job titles that might have you confused

It’s your local council not a role in a sci-fi film, so why are the job titles so impenetrable? Joanne Fry demystifies some of the more unfathomable roles

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 24th April 2015

What does a corporate policy officer do? When I first realised I didn’t have a clear answer to that question, I also realised how opaque and unfathomable many job titles are in the public sector. I struggle to encapsulate what I do in an accessible way, and I’m not alone – an assistant director I used to work with told me her mother thought she did “something in admin”.

There is a serious issue here. Given recent efforts to ensure local government is as transparent as possible, and good at communicating with communities, it’s important people understand what we do.

So here’s my attempt to demystify my current role, along with four other zingers I’ve come across over the years.

1. Senior policy officer, corporate policy

Currently, my full job title is senior corporate policy officer for localism and engagement. Yes, it’s hard to fathom, and no, it’s nothing to do with corporate law or the police (people have asked).

The corporate policy team, according to official guidance, responds effectively to national and local policy challenges and coordinates strategic policy thinking and planning, taking forward the localism agenda, strategic consultation and engagement and strategic partnership working. But perhaps that doesn’t make things much clearer.

Essentially, I help my council to strengthen local democracy. In recent years, councils, communities and individuals have taken on many of the decision-making powers that used to be in the hands of central government. I find ways to put these powers into practice.

It’s an important function – and one that relies on engagement with local residents – which is why it irks me to have such an impenetrable job title.

2. Improvement officer, organisational development

Previously I was in organisational development. Even when you understand the jargon it can mean different things. Indeed, the council I worked for at the time had two organisational development teams that did completely different jobs. My team designed policies and developed projects that made the council more efficient. The other team worked on staff development, improving knowledge, skills and learning. These functions overlapped, and sometimes we’d get confused about who was supposed to be responsible for what. At least the job title itself was pretty self-explanatory – improvement officer. Whatever I was working on, from performance to risk management, it was always about finding ways to improve services.

3. Assistant improvement programme manager

This was my first job title in local government. I used to car share with a traffic warden (sorry, civil enforcement officer) and on our very long commute I struggled to explain my role to him, mainly because I didn’t quite understand it myself.

The council had advertised for someone with an interest in public policy, and at the time I was doing a master’s degree in public policy and administration. Even during the interview it wasn’t clear what the role involved, but I figured that since I would only be assisting, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Eventually I learned that my role was to manage a programme of activities and projects that aimed to make the council more efficient. It seems obvious when I think about it now, but at the time it wasn’t.

4. Enterprise architect

A friend of mine had this job title and, unfortunately, he didn’t work on a Star Trek set – in fact, his role was much more straightforward than this technical title implies.

The job of an enterprise architect is to align IT development with business needs. They make sure the right digital infrastructure is in place to support an organisation’s growth strategy, cutting across silos to ensure a common approach. Enterprise architects are like city planners, providing the roadmaps and regulations that a city uses to manage growth and provide services to its citizens. It’s not too difficult a concept to grasp, and I’m not sure why they need such a confusing title.

5. Change agent

This immediately makes me think of shadowy figures in The Matrix or Men in Black, who may or may not be up to something sinister but who definitely own a flashy memory-eraser pen. I wanted to be one until I realised all it involved was the unenviable task of trying to smooth things over in the wake of staff cuts and reorganisations.

There are a plethora of euphemistic titles around this field of work, perhaps because “transformation manager” sounds a lot less scary than “person employed to sack as many people as possible and move on to the next department”. I’m being a little unfair: a change agent can be a valuable function. They are experts in enabling people to work effectively as they plan and implement change, and they often introduce and champion new initiatives that improve performance and morale.

I started working life as a secondary school teacher. While I’ve no regrets over changing careers, I do miss shorter dinner party conversations: “What do you do?” “I’m a teacher.” “Oh, poor you.” End of discussion.