Saturday 29 November 2008

Future shape - Role of the Council in future

For those of you following the future shape debate, here is another installment of my analysis of the report to be debated. As ever It is pasted from the Council's briefing document with my comments in BOLD ITALIC

9.3 The role of the Council in the future
9.3.1 In order maximise the value to citizens of Barnet’s public services, the Council should focus its energy on the activities where it alone can add value. It should therefore enable other organisations to do those things that they can do as well or better than the Council. Fundamentally, the Council should conduct those activities that only the Council can. This implies a number of principles on which to base the future shape of the organisation:

Only a consultant with no experience of real life could write such a load of rubbish about the functions of a Council. Let us think about the following statement "the Council should focus its energy on the activities where it alone can add value". In effect this statement says that the Council should abolish itself. There is no aspect of any Council activity which couldn't conceivably be provided by another organisation, be it Central Government, the GLA or - If we abolished elections and got recruitment consultants to pick the cabinet, who is to say they wouldn't come up with better candidates? Of course in a democracy, we don't do that, but surely that is the logical conclusion of this statement. Ridiculous as that may sound, with the future shape, in effect this is what we'll have as the people responsible for running the day to day council function will be working for private companies (SPV's as Barnet likes to call them). I have no idea what Councillors will actually do in the new order.

1. The democratic legitimacy of councillors places on the Council the responsibility for establishing a new contract with citizens that jointly defines our ambitions and shares responsibility for achieving them.

So if there is going to be a new contract, do we the citizens get to sign it? That is required in law for a legal contract. Will Future shape be opened up to a referendum. If it isn't, then "establishing a new contract with citizens " is a meaningless platitude, designed to disguise the truth of this proposal. Will we, the citizens, get proper, sound legal advice before we sign up to this new contract. If a contract is not fair and reasonable in law it is null and void. I hope Barnet have a few pounds in the budget for this legal challenge.

2. The future Council should be strategic rather than operational, focused on convening and working with its partners to prioritise and commission the public services that should be provided in the borough, rather than delivering services itself.

Yet again, this statement has the hallmark of a wet behind the ears, freshly scrubbed Consultant, sitting in his bath, planning to take over the world. We elect ward councillors and we expect them to sort out issues when the council fails to deliver. They our our local representatives. Let's imagine that a tree owned by the Council falls on my house and I can't get out of the door. What will happen in the future shape world. I will ring the Barnet Council Call Centre in Bangalore, after waiting for 30 minutes in a queue, having selected problems with trees. I will be kept waiting for an age as it has been windy and there are lots of trees down, eventually they will take my name and address. They will inform me that the problem will be logged and someone will call me back within 24 hours, which is the service Level agreement for dealing with priority 1 tree issues. I will then ring my local Councillor John Hart and tell him that I am stuck in my house and I want him to get the Council to sort it out. He will inform me that at the next Council meeting he'll discuss the priority of my problem and the cabinet will devise a strategy for getting me out. The actual situation happened to my family in 1975 and the Council sent around a team of tree surgeons. We were out of the house within 1 1/2 hours.

3. The Council must remain democratically accountable for outcomes and for all of the services it funds to achieve those outcomes.

I can't argue with this aspiration. I'm not sure how they can achieve it if a company has a contract to provide the service. If there will be a watertight clause that the council can instantly terminate any contract where the democratically elected Council decides for any reason (eg change of party in charge, Palace Coup to elect a new leader who is more sensible) to stop the contract, I really can't see a firm signing up.

4. The Council should be responsible for making policy, setting priorities, annual budget and Council Tax, and working with its partners to commission for outcomes for citizens.

So amazingly, several thousand years after the Greeks first invented the idea, a Consultant working for Barnet agree's that democratic control is a good idea for the council. I am interested that they use the term "should be". Has the democratically elected council accepted responsibility for losinjg £27.4 Million in Iceland? I am disturbed that the "partners" have equal say in the "commision for outcomes". That sounds to me like "off you go and write your own contract".

5. Senior officers in the Council should be the ‘senior officers of the whole borough’ working across current organisational boundaries, leading
programmes of work relating to key problems and challenges rather than service departments.

This seems to be saying that there will not actually be senior officers responsible for making sure departments work properly. I guess this means that if, for example, the Finance Department screw up and lose £27.4 Million pounds gambling on dodgy investments, then there will be no one responsible within that department. Mind you we'll have a senior officer allocated to deal with the key problem.

6. The Council must ensure that local public services provide value for money.

You may think that on the face of it, this statement sounds hard to argue with. Mind you, how would you assess whether a department has delivered "value for money". Lets take the case of baby P in Haringey. Did Social Services there deliver "value for money". Would we expect social services to say "Well we could intervene, but would it deliver value for money?" These type of statements are all very well, but how can you possibly assess what represents "value for money" in such a case. Had baby P been taken into care, then that would have placed an ongoing cost on the social services department. Leaving him with the Parents was far cheaper. Departments such as Social Services and Education have tough decisions to take every single day. How can these be assessed as being value for money, many services will never be "value for money", they are done because they have to be done. You give them the appropriate level of funding necessary to do the job.

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