Monday, 19 October 2015

Barnet Libraries - Commentary on Reuben Thompstone dialog with the Barnet Eye

Councillor Reuben ThompstoneRegular blog readers will know that on Friday, I emailed Councillor Reuben Thompstone with some suggestions as to how he could make his suggestions that the role of volunteers could be used to enhance the offering of the Barnet Library Service ( ). I will not pretend that myself and Councillor Thompstone have radically different views on what the Library service should look like and how volunteers should be used.

Let me give you some insight into how I think you deliver real savings and real change for the better in organisations. I am not talking out of my hat, I have run a successful business for 36 years. One of the principles I use is that "difficult individuals are an assett". This may sound like a ridiculous statement to many, but I want my staff to challenge my decisions. I want people who care passionately about the business and are prepared to stand their ground and argue their case. Between 1994 and 2000, we totally transformed Mill Hill Music Complex studios from an operation with two underutilised rooms to one with ten studios, a shop and a hire business. I went from employing one persone in 1994, to employing seven people in 2000. Why? I employed the most difficult individual imaginable as my studio manager. Ernie Ferebee, who served this role was 6'6 and a former bouncer, security guard, overland coach driver, London Ambulance service driver, bus driver and band tour manager.  Every decision I made, Ernie would challenge. He'd always take a different view. We would argue for hours. At the end, we'd come up with a solution which we both agreed. Often it was radically different to what either of us had initially suggested. We had a rule. Every penny we spent on the business, we'd apply a simple test. We'd apply three questions.

1) Of all the things we can spend this money on currently, is this the one which will bring the best return on investment.
2) Have we really looked at every alternative for ways of doing the same thing better.
3) Will the change deliver the biggest improvement for our customers.

Applying these simple tests and arguing vigorously about them delivered huge benefits and savings. One example. In one studio I suggested buying energy saving bulbs, because our bills were high. Ernie said "It would be more cost effective to buy door closers, then the heat would stay in". Guess what we did in the end? We agreed that heating was the biggest cost after some discussion. We then identified that most heat was lost because the studio had a corrugated iron roof with no insulation. Although fixing this was a far more expensive option than door closers, it would bring far bigger savings. In the end we got insulation, door closers and low energy bulbs. Our customers were warmer, bills went down and the business improved. One of the things we'd do as a business, is discuss changes with customers before we did them. If we felt they may have some useful knowledge or feedback, we'd  get even more benefit. As a result got the work done by a local builder who wanted some studio time. He did the work in exchange for some free studio time at a time of day when we didn't lose other business. By working with our customers, we delivered even more savings.
If I was a dictator who employed yes men, I'd simply have saved the money from the energy saving bulbs and thought I was marvellous.

What has all of this got to do with the responses from Councillor Reuben Thompstone yesterday? As I mentioned, Councillor Thompstone and myself have different views as to how the library service should be run and how savings can be derived. But there are areas where we both agree. We both believe that volunteers have a role to play. We disagree on what that role is. Now as an intelligent person, I would be quite prepared to sit down with Councillor Thompstone and discuss this. If I was doing Councillor Thompstones job, I'd set up forums at the local libraries, invite users, local business and other interested individuals along. I'd say "We have issues with the budget, how can we fix these?". Barnet is full of entrepreneurs, who know what they could come up with to make the library service better, cheaper, more relevant. Councillor Thompstones solution is to sack the staff and get people to open the doors as volunteers. He admits they are not librarians. Is this really the best way to use  valuable community resource. He also wants to cut the size of libraries down, which means less books. Is this better for the users? You can read Councillor Thompstones dialog with me here 

He accuses me of making Ad Hominem statements. For those of you who haven't studied Latin (as a victim of the Catholic Education system, I did for three years, at times like this it comes in useful) it means attacking the person not the issue they are proposing. If you read the original email, this claim is totally unsustainable. Maybe Cllr Thompstone lacks the sort of excellent education which Barnet provides and didn't really understand the phrase. Maybe he thought it meant "marvellous ideas", who can possibly know as he gives no justification at all for his statement (though he repeats it on numerous occasions). What I do no is that he completely failed to respond to the email

Firstly, I had made an offer to assist him to find volunteers. He responded by saying that if I organised events to promote volunteering at Libraries, he'd turn up on condition I was nowhere to be seen. In my opinion this is rather rude. He stated that based on the fact that he didn't like what I had to say at the Council meeting to discuss the future of the libraries, I had nothing worthwhile to say on the matter. I read this as saying that he is not prepared to have a sensible adult discussion with someone who has a long track record of involvement in trying to maintain a decent library service. It is a matter of public record that following the campaign I ran in 2010, the Barnet Conservatives did a complete U-turn on their strategy and actually ended up agreeing with me. Even Friern Barnet Library, which they shut and wanted to sell, has been reopened. They could have saved us all a lot of pain, if they'd had the conversation over a nice cup of tea in 2010 and we'd worked out a strategy without the huge campaign.

Sadly Mr Thompstone looks set to make the same mistakes. Mr Thompstone clearly objects to my suggestion that he give up his £15,000 special allowance for chairing a committee that meets a dozen or so times a year for a couple of hours. I suggested that doing so would be a fine way to show his commitment to volunteering. I believe leadership is primarily about setting an example. This huge allowance was brought in by Barnet Council as recognition of the responsibility of being part of the Councils decision making cabinet. Whilst I disagreed with this concept, at least there was a justification as a cabinet member takes responsibility. The Tories abolished the cabinet system last year, but kept the bung for the committee chairmen. I don't think that giving a £15,000 bung in these difficult times to someone for a couple of hours work a month is justified. Other committee members get nothing. I would assume that if they do their jobs properly, they do just as much work. That is how committees are meant to operate. I also note that Mr Thompstone doesn't list any volunteering or association with such organisations where he may volunteer in his declaration of interests - Register of interestspdf icon PDF 386 KB - which would seem to me to indicate that he talks a good game on volunteering, but foesn't walk the walk.

Mr Thompstone also refused to discuss whether you can actually call a room full of books a public library, if there is no qualified librarian. This is central to the issue. I want Barnet libraries to be a successful service and one of the reasons why people want to live in Barnet. I believe volunteers have an important role in realising that goal. I believe that if Councillor Thompstone was prepared to engage with the whole community and seek ideas for ways to improve the finances of the libaries, such as commercial sponsorship, active friends committees, technolgy such as Solar panels etc, he could avoid the need to sack people. I am not a Luddite. It may be that some Librarians need to be a bit more agile in their working practises. If that is the case and that by working with volunteers, the same service could be delivered, then that proposal would merit serious discussion. But Mr Thompstone isn't prepared to have that discussion. He thinks he knows best.

I do wonder about how the UK runs its public services. Just for a second consider this. Consider a library such as Mill Hill. It was built in a different day and age. It has large windows. It has a large roof space. Double glazing and solar panels would deliver huge savings in energy costs. Both would pay for themselves over five years. If Councillor Thompstone was committed to keeping the service, then there is an excellent case to spend the money on them. Clearly there would be no issue getting a loan facility, as the council is a good payer and a stable organisation. So if the money was borrowed over ten years, then the council would see an annual cost reduction. If this was repeated across all of the Boroughs libaries, presumably that would save enough to fund a couple of librarians. Just suppose they say to the installer "We'll let you run a sales stall in the Libaray foyer for six months if you give us a discount on the job". Presumably this would also save money. Local people would clearly be inclined to use such a trusted installer. We could say the same to the solar panel installers. The council could promote such ethical companies on their website etc as part of the deal.

Mr Thompstone clearly gets upset by what he describes as "Ad Hominem" attacks. He feels that what has been said is personal in nature. As I explained this was not the intention and the claim cannot be substanciated with regards to the initial correspondence. I have to say that having seen his repliesand witnessed his behaviour, I do not think it is unfair to call Mr Thompstones behaviours and ethics into question. He receives a £15,000 allowance from the taxpayer to do a job.  Does he believe he is above criticism? I don't care what Mr Thompstone does in his spare time. Any comments are directly related to how he does his job. If he chairs his committee (at my expense) in a pompous and arrogant manner and is rude to me in correspondence, does he really believe I am not entitled to hold him to account. Most Conservative committee chairmen have a degree of urbane wit. Most understand that sometimes decisions arouse strong feelings and have the compassion to react accordingly. Most have the intellectual capability to engage positively with people they disagree with, for the betterment of Barnet. Most have the good manners to reply cordially, or not at all if they can't. Mr Thompstone chairs one of the most important committees. One where wise leadership can make a huge difference. Wise leadership involves bringing people into the tent, building a team and taking the various stakeholders with you.

I end by asking any fair minded reader one question. Councillor Thompsone is the chairman of the Children, Education, Libraries & Safeguarding Committee Does he have the good manners,  wit, compassion, morality, intellectual capabilities and leadership skills to hold such an important portfolio in Barnet Council? I'll let you form your own opinion. I've made my mind up though.

If you feel he's done a marvellous job and I've got it all wrong, plese email him with your support. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to hear from you. You can email him at 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm all for the involvement of local people and local businesses in our libraries. However, here's a radical suggestion, why not ask the qualified and hugely experienced library staff their opinion on how the service should be run, and how to save money?
Don't be under the illusion that the Council have been designing the service for years. Each year, the budget is cut, and experienced and valued staff are lost, and guess what happens? The remaining staff, redesign the service yet again, internally retrain the remaining staff, and deliver bigger and better services, much to the annoyance of the Council.
Yes there are things that we'd like to do to save more money, to modernise especially the technology and to deliver more breadth, but we are hampered by the rules, systems and budgets provided to us.
Believe me, we know what we're doing, and given the autonomy, the community would see the service they've always wanted. Although, it's worth stating, you can't please all of the people, all of the time, unless you have some magical unlimited funding stream.
As for volunteers, yes they have a place. But our experience is they stick around for a few weeks, quite understandably, getting the experience they need, then they move on to paid employment.
They are also very limited in what they can do for us, but we still value them. Their duties are restricted to shelving and basic help with event activities. It's difficult to expand their portfolio beyond that due to the fact that they are not professionally trained to the standards of actual library staff, and cannot be, unless they want to stick around for a year full time and maybe reach the skills level of a Library Customer Services Officer, or commit to several years full time experience followed by a masters degree and the chartership process, so they can match the skills of our librarians.
We have standards and legal obligations to abide by when it comes to data protection and safeguarding, which is why they should never be burdened with the responsibility of running an integrated library service.