Before Christmas I wrote to Jeremy Pembroke, Leader of Suffolk County Council, asking for more detail on the New Strategic Direction – specifically his estimate of how much of the Council’s services would be divested to 3rd sector and community organisations. As you can see from the earlier post, Jeremy did not actually reply to this, but sent a standard “thanks for your interest” letter. After a pause for Christmas, I decided to not to accept such a non-response and therefore wrote again. This time I received a proper response (for which Councillor Pembroke is to be congratulated). However, this reposnse confirmed the original suspicion, which is that the Council has not done any of the work required to determine how, or even if, the New Strategic Direction will deliver what the Council says it will. It seems, therefore, that the New Strategic Direction actually involves not having a strategy or plan and clinging instead to blind faith and ideology. How comforting.
This latest correspondence is set out below.
I was inclined to accept your off-the-shelf response to my question (I cannot really call it an answer) with a shrug of resignation and assume the required role of humble citizen who realises that they have, in fact, no real right to expect to get the attention of elevated elected personages.
But with the spirit of New Year’s resolutions still lingering I feel newly emboldened to reject the idea that I am simply a peasant who must be amused with a pointless (and, as we now speak, non-existent) process of engagement while the future of the county in which I live is re-cast in conditions of both secrecy and dubious competence.
The question which I asked (copied for your ease of referral below) is, I believe, not only a reasonable one but one which demands an answer if we are to respect both the principles of democracy and basic business management.
I have noticed that the Conservative Party is very fond of referencing the behaviours and practices of businesses and businesspeople in its approach to government and also in its frequent admonishment of civil servants – that oppressed class of people now only ever referred to as bureaucrats – not to say your own assumed belief that the business of government should become a business opportunity. Perhaps then it is appropriate to point out that had you been the CEO of a listed corporation and had approached your board with a proposal as radical as that which you have pushed through Council, without having first prepared a detailed plan that defined how you were to do it, what the implications would be, together with an assessment of the costs, benefits and estimated return on investment, you would almost certainly have been fired.
I therefore re-state my request: please tell me what is your estimate of the percentage of the functions to be divested under the New Strategic Direction that will go to third sector and community organisations, what those functions are likely to be and how much we can assume will go instead to large private sector contractors of the likes of Serco.
Dear Mr Stacy,
Many thanks for your follow-up e-mail of 11th January 2011.
I have said on a number of occasions that, as far as the New Strategic Direction is concerned, there is no blueprint.
As a publicly-funded, democratic organisation, I’m sure you would agree that it would be wrong for us to carry out the detailed work developing the NSD behind closed doors. What we have done is, in the first instance, recognised that we were going to have to operate in an environment where we would have much less money, but increased costs and demand for our services.
We then talked openly and frankly about the options. We could, for instance, simply have done nothing, or decided simply to cut budgets across the board for the next few years. However, it is clear that, by doing that, we would be cutting very quickly into the very heart of the services we and the people of Suffolk value most.
So, we have to do things differently. We established the outline principles of the New Strategic Direction precisely for this reason – to find new, better, and less costly ways of operating that will allow us to squeeze the most out of every penny we have. As a basic principle, we would see that part of this lay in freeing up services from the bureaucracy and processes of the County Council. This, in turn, would allow the Council to reduce its costs and funnel money more directly into service provision.
At the same time, we would look to strengthen the capacity of local communities to support themselves – encouraging neighbourhoods to move away from dependence on the Council and become more self-sufficient – what the Government calls the Big Society.
With these principles in place, we are now looking to develop the details, and draw up specific plans to divest services wherever we can. This will not happen overnight. It may take a long time for some of these services to take shape. But I remain totally convinced that by following this path, we will be able to preserve the most important services, on which people depend, and get the best value for local tax payers.
The short answer to your question is, as I said at the start, that there is no blueprint, that the details are currently being developed. But I hope that, by putting the above background in place, it will help assure you of the clear-sighted and structured way we are developing this plan. As a public body, it is right that we discuss each step of the process publicly and openly.
We have always pledged to provide the best possible value for money, keeping council tax as low as possible, while protecting the most vulnerable and the services on which they depend. The New Strategic Direction is our way of ensuring we can continue to do this – to improve outcomes for people while having much less money with which to do it, and to shield the people of Suffolk from the worst of the financial climate.
Leader of Suffolk County Council
To which I replied:
Thank you for your response. You will not be surprised to know that I take issue with some of the points your make!
Firstly, you are right to say that “as a publicly-funded, democratic organisation … it would be wrong for us to carry out the detailed work developing the NSD behind closed doors.” To which I would add that as such an organisation, it is wrong for you to have secured political approval to pursue this radical approach without first having done such detailed work.
While you don’t have even a basic blueprint you cannot have consent because we do not know to what we are consenting. For example, both yourself and Andrea Hill have made the assertion that the intention is to divest services to social enterprises and community organisations. However, a basic examination of the reality of the situation would suggest that the majority of services will end-up being outsourced to large private-sector contracting organisations. It is unlikely that the people of Suffolk would give consent to the idea of divesting Suffolk County Council to Serco. This leads to a suspicion that the reason political approval was sought before even basic plans were made was to avoid the airing of certain inconvenient truths. Either that, or the NSD is actually going to be used as a cover to divest not just services but also political responsibility, as in “if the community cannot work out a way to deliver this service, it clearly doesn’t value it and therefore it can be cut”. There is already evidence of such an approach within the current consultation process on libraries.
Secondly, I take issue with the assertion that because the Council needs to save money, you have no option but to completely re-structure the Council. This may well be the case, but it is not necessarily the case. In the absence of any basic investigation and evidence as to how outsourcing services will actually save money it is impossible to conflate the two issues. If we look at the more generic evidence that is available, this does not support the idea that outsourcing on the sort of scale envisaged can generate the scale of costs savings that are required. It also shows that, in the short-term, restructuring frequently costs money.
Making the costs savings our current economic circumstances require, within the time frame the current Government has determined, is a huge task in its own right. Breaking up and re-building the Council is another huge task and one which has not been proven to create significant cost savings. Common sense dictates that crunching these two tasks together is foolish in the extreme. To return to the business analogy in my last email – if I were the CEO of a company facing the need to significantly reduce costs and my finance director came back to me, not with a plan to reduce costs, but with a plan to create another company, I would start looking for a new finance director.
Ideology and political ambition appear to be driving this process, not common sense or respect for democracy. It must be very clear to you, by now, that you are not operating with the consent of the people you represent. As a resident of Suffolk I urge you to suspend the decision made in December and only come back for a political commitment once you have assembled sufficient information to secure informed consent.