Thursday 25 February 2010
Spoke today at APSE’s packed out Street Cleansing Seminar at Villa Park in Birmingham. The subject of my talk was with budget cuts looming on the horizon, can we really afford to cut streetscene services?
APSE’s view is that whilst local government will require to provide services in an ever more efficient manner due to the state of public finances, this is one area where cuts should be considered carefully. Firstly, the record levels of investment in public services in the decade prior to the recession didn’t always filter down to these particular service areas, secondly these are the very services which the public value the most, thirdly they have the highest local visibility and recognition factor, fourthly they tend to employ high levels of local people whose spend combined with that of local suppliers helps prop up struggling local economies in a time when they desperately need it.
In the evening I catch up with colleagues Jim O’Brien and Muir Wilson at dinner along with members of APSE’s Policy, Performance and Scrutiny Committee.
Tuesday 23 February 2010
In Cornwall today to meet up with the Programme Director for Green Cornwall at Cornwall Council, Steve Cirell. Steve and me go back 15 years and shared many platforms and projects over the years in his time as Head of the Public Sector Unit at Eversheds. Steve has always been passionate about his work and I remember him as a leading voice in local government during the battles over CCT, his expertise on Trading and Charging, PFI and more lately on Best Value.
To say he is embracing this new venture with enthusiasm would be an understatement. He has developed plans for an energy saving company to generate solar, wind, biomass, heat, electric cars, hydro and wave / tidal power. The plan is for the Council to own all of this and my head was spinning with the possibilities this creates for not only Cornwall but for Councils across the country.
This is definitely the future and it takes pioneers like Steve to change thinking and get things moving on an agenda that's time has come.
The trip also gave me a chance to catch up with Arthur Hooper, Cornwall’s Head of Highways who told me about a quarry they have just bought in order to ensure they have a sustainable supply of materials.
Thursday 18 February 2010
Attended the awards dinner for the Northern Ireland Local Government Awards at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Down. This is the second year in a row that APSE has been involved in the awards and it’s really taken off as an event with the dinner packed out.
The awards dinner is built on to the Northern Ireland Local Government Association conference and that was dominated by the themes of change, transformation and whether the impending reorganisation process will go ahead in the planned timescale. The Local Government Minister Edwin Poots MLA had spoken earlier in the day and had stoked up some controversy that led to some light hearted banter when he returned to help broadcaster Lynda Bryans present the awards in the evening.
The awards have been developed in collaboration with all of the local government family in Northern Ireland and along with APSE, the Local Government Staff Commission, Training Group, NILGA, SOLACE, William Johnston Memorial Trust, National Association of Councillors and the Women’s Development Steering Group.
APSE sponsored the Best Local Authority Service Team category and Edwin Poots and I presented it to Belfast City Council's Community Safety Team.
Wednesday 17 February 2010
Chaired a debate today at APSE's Scottish Housing conference at Peebles Hydro. We had a first class panel of speakers with Alex Neil MSP the Housing and Communities Minister facing the opposition spokespersons for Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Michael McMahon MSP, Derek Brownlee MSP and Jeremy Purvis MSP. Dave Watson the UNISON Scotland organiser also spoke in the debate.
We kicked off with an opening contribution from each and then moved on to a question time format. We had views expressed on everything from the recession to the Scottish financial settlement from Westminster and whether PPP / PFI delivered better than the proposed Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) will. On housing however I think there was a universal acceptance that a real need exists to build more social housing units. The only debate was around the balance between housing association grant and council housing grant.
The audience seemed to appreciate the honesty of the debate and the only worrying issue was for Dave Watson, who Alex Neil kept referring too as Dave Prentis when responding to some of the points he had made. With Dave Prentis on the campaign trail for re-election as UNISON General Secretary I bet Dave Watson was hoping he hadn't dropped any clangers!
Wednesday 10 February 2010
Led a debate today at APSE's Scottish Regional Council on the next stage of Best Value in Scotland this follows on from the Best Value audit process that has recently been completed.
Having examined the recommendations made there will be a requirement for more self evaluation and improvement support will be needed. There will be a greater focus on services, outcomes and partnerships. There will be a move towards more joined up inspection with other audit bodies. The process will overview £17b of spend, 258,000 staff employed and assets of £26b.
Best Value 2 will place a greater emphasis on use of resources, its aims are to aid public accountability and scrutinise quality of service. It will assess how safe people feel, focus on the support for vulnerable elderly and homeless people and take an overall view of the quality of the local environment. Council's will need to demonstrate a clear vision and overall strategic direction. This will show clear evidence of partnership working, community leadership along with community engagement and good governance with accountability. Performance
management arrangements will be a key facet of the Best Value 2 audit scrutiny. There will be an overall emphasis on the quality and efficiency of services, how quickly they are improving and there responsiveness to local need.
Support for improvement will involve officers and members from other councils. Authorities will have to demonstrate the range and quality of information held on how the council is improving and performing. As well as their ability to achieve change and their capacity for improvement. They should also be able to identify examples of best practice and the ability to self evaluate.
APSE as an organisation welcomes much of the new framework to audit Best Value in Scotland. The move towards self evaluation through good local performance management makes performance networks an invaluable tool for authorities in order not only to demonstrate existing performance but to track improvement and report on an on-going basis against the performance of peer authorities.
APSE also agrees that the framework around self evaluation shouldn’t be prescribed, however that a broad range of indicators on inputs, process, outputs and outcome measures should be gathered on a consistent and quality based approach. This should enable the examination of trends and comparisons with other authorities and therefore facilitate learning from others, identify best performers and the dissemination of good practice. Overall this approach is a natural progression of the ongoing development of a continuous improvement environment.
Friday 05 February 2010
At the time of writing the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland has almost ground to a standstill as it has been swallowed up in the stalemate created by the wider political dealings taking place amongst the main parties in the Assembly.
I have been chairing the Local Government Reform Joint Forum in Northern Ireland in recent months, which is the body tasked with negotiating employment matters between the employers and staff side associated with the on-going reorganisation process.
D-day for reorganisation is supposed to be May 2011. Unfortunately for all concerned, the finalisation of the legislation through the Northern Ireland Assembly has become wrapped up in the current high profile debate about the devolution of policing powers. The resulting impasse has brought the complex timetable on issues such as statutory consultation on boundaries to the very brink of impossibility. The latest rumours are of a delay until 2015.
The reorganisation has been mooted since 2002. Subsequent Review of Public Administration recommendations that have been negotiated back and forth concluded that the current 26 District Councils will be replaced by 11 new authorities, which will incorporate some additional functions transferred from other agencies.
With this in mind, local government has set off with some fervour to put plans in place to ensure not only a seamless transition come vesting day, but also that modern systems and processes are in place from the outset of the new authority’s existence. Transition committees have been formed and change managers are in post to help build the necessary infrastructure.
The Local Government Reform Joint Forum I have been involved in has discussed vacancy control procedures, local negotiation forum arrangements, staff transfer schemes, systems for filling of posts and severance schemes. It has made exceptional progress due to the understanding and respect shown to each others’ positions at both sides of the table.
Unfortunately, at a time when the new councils should be starting the appointment process for chief executives who can then develop governance and organisational structures, systems and processes, a desired corporate culture, organisational identity and council branding, the full process is wading in treacle due to circumstances beyond local government’s control.
Who knows what effect this will have on staff morale. But a further delay to a process that has been ongoing for almost a decade is surely unthinkable. However, with every passing day the timescale to effect that seamless transition becomes ever shorter and the one thing that anyone who has been involved in reorganisations in England, Scotland and Wales knows is that time is of the essence.
The grains of sand are slipping through this particular hourglass at an alarming rate.