Wednesday 26 January 2011

Pickles & perception busting

Thanks to the ever interesting Patrick Butler blog over on the Guardian, I have just been forced to accept an unpalatable truth. Councils are invisible. Or rather, not invisible entirely, but simply emerging from the grey swirling mists with orange lights flashing, Mercedes engine roaring, to collect rubbish from bins, before receding into some mysterious place, not to be seen again for another week or fortnight, depending on where you live.

Occasionally, for large swathes of Middle England, a conversation might be necessary to enquire where the nearest recycling centre is, or to buy tickets from a Council owned concert venue, or to enquire where a favourite author might be appearing because they've no idea where the library might be - but even then, a conscious connection between the service they are receiving and the faceless body which might be providing it for them is unlikely.

Councils, have got a serious PR problem. And there isn't anyone left in Communications to communicate what it is we actually do, and nor is there any budget to actually create a means to do so, and anyway, with so few people left, there simply wont be time to educate people about service provision. The simple fact is, many people pay their Council Tax and have no idea why they do so, except that the massive truck with its annoying beeping still turns up at some ungodly hour in the morning and it can't possibly cos that much, surely to put fuel in and where the hell does it all go, all this money? Surely they can do with less. Surely the cuts wont affect anything important, as long as the truck keeps on turning up?

Most people reading this blog know the other side of the story. We know of the indescribale agony of deciding what will be cut is happening right now, as I write you and you read. We know book budgets might be slashed, resulting in libraries simply being repositaries of out of date and irrelevant books. We know shutting Recycling Centres saves money, but that if we do not provide somewhere for people to recycle easily and painlessly, they simply will not bother and all that rubbish will turn back into general rubbish, and that that general rubbish will inevitably end up in a landfil site which, because it is in addition to what we expected to be produced, will push us over our allocated tonnage the government has allowed us, and as a result will cost us more money in penalties imposed by central government - for not meeting our targets. We know that refuse collection is a legal requirement, that we are legally bound to provide that service, and that as a result it must be ringfenced, but that the only thing ringfencing Childrens Services is a moral code. We know the decisions which must be made, we know the choices we will be given and we know this will affect every single service area except waste collection in some way.

Who speaks for the people who will be affected by the withdrawl of those services? Who knows of the impat and risk assessments currently being carried out. Who cares that while in the financial sector, such asset and service stripping would only be made at the end of a comprehensive review which included computer assisted modelling, projections and analysis but that in this sector, our sector, we have no time, no agility, no response, no wriggle room. Service withdrawal causes ripples. Yesterday, a NHS ICT Director pointed out that unless we all mapped where our cuts would fall, on which area within the Borough and on which voluntary group the funding axe would fall - we could end up all collaboratively but accidentally and without knowing withdrawing all support for some tiny but crucial volunteer group. If we could map and model, if we could collaborate across sectors, perhaps we could prevent that happening?

Lessons are being learned. Questions are being asked. In some areas, eyes are being opened. But there is a fundamental lesson which must be learned here, above all others. We are an invisible service to an entire socio-economic group, whether we like it or not. All collaboration to prevent disaster can happen, but will be invisible to most too. The key challenge for all of us in the future will be to ensure two things. One, that we are better at telling the important people what it is we do and how we do it (transparency, open data, open doors, engagement) and two, we need to look to the financial and other sectors in learning how they deal with change, and making it more cohesive, collaborative and risk managed.

Good thing the Localism Bill is heading for its second reading, isn't it?


  1. Lots of monkeys don't look up. It is up to the monkeys in the branches of the tree to look down. Digital can help, its fast, its easy. Just need to get the digital out there to everyone. Fibre to the Trees. FttT. ;) All the trees communicating. Each tree picking up nutrients from the roots.

  2. It's not that councils are invisible, but unaccountable. I was shocked a few years back when I read my Council Tax bill and worked out that if I'm not happy with a public service, I can complain, but I can't vote for someone who has power to change it.

  3. great post, loulou. The day when everyone in local gov thinks like you can't come soon enough! the world will be a much better place when they do :-)

  4. Gordon> Councillors are your representative, and your voice in asking those questions. They exist to make us accountable for our spending and our actions.

    Louis> There's a growing awareness I think, and a definite groundswell. The trick for all of us is to work out how, exactly, we catch that determination once the dust has settled and turn it into real change, and real data and statistics upon which we can start to make informed watertight decisions.

    Open source modelling software, anyone? :)