The blows just keep on coming, it seems. A recent report claiming council managers are unproductive is the latest in the drip, drip, drip attack on public servants already facing slashed budgets, frozen pay and pension cuts.
I was pleased to be able to set the record straight on Radio 4 (listen on the attached clip) after the report by management consultants Knox D’Arcy had been sensationalised in the press. While they had surveyed just 176 local government managers and claimed they were 12% less productive than private sector counterparts, I was able to draw upon APSE’s comprehensive performance networks database, which contains eleven years worth of information from more than 200 local authorities across the UK showing productivity gains.
It would be all too easy to critique the methodology used by Knox D’Arcy, but the most worrying thing here is the way in which negative stereotypes were all too readily seized upon to malign local government. One newspaper actually illustrated their story with an image from a photo-library of someone sitting with their feet up on the desk, when the true picture of high performance among millions of staff working to serve the public on a daily basis is repeatedly overlooked.
APSE’s detailed evidence shows, for example, the amount of refuse collected has doubled in the past three years, as has the number of school meals served. Sickness absence has dropped dramatically in services such as cleaning. Our latest series of briefings on efficiencies is also packed with cases of councils delivering millions of pounds of savings.
It was suggested that 500,000 staff could be cut on the basis of the Knox D’Arcy report. But undermining public services upon which millions of citizens, not to mention our national economy, rely is not the solution.
So what is? I have argued previously that councils need to keep cool heads and robustly examine how they can continue to improve from within – rather than make rash decisions they will regret. I also believe more can be done to increase the bang councils get for their procurement buck and ensure their spending benefits local economies. We at APSE are helping councils across the country implement ‘lean systems thinking’ processes to minimise waste and maximise productivity.
No-one is at all complacent. Council have risen to the previous challenges of CCT, Best Value and Gershon Review but now face greater pressure than ever with budget cuts of at least 25%.
As a first step, we need to use the reams of evidence available to fight back against unhelpful stereotypes and speak up for local government. We need ministers to be seen to be working with the sector, not against it.
I am not suggesting there are simple answers and there is certainly further pain to come. What is certain is that rolling over and playing dead is not an option.