Two days ago, Suffolk County Council posted its answers to the eight, very pertinent, questions posed by the East Anglian Daily Times. Here are the answers as run by the EADT yesterday on its website. What the EADT didn’t run is the answers to the four questions the Council posed to itself in the introduction to its response. These questions (statements really) were:
- Everything is being sold off to the private sector
- You are expecting people to volunteer services for nothing
- Whatever people think you will do it anyway
- It’s all been decided behind closed doors: we don’t know what is going on
One imagines that these reflect the type of responses coming back from its on-line survey – which in itself is instructive. Not surprisingly the answer the Council gives to all of these is No. If you want to see the full copy of their response click here. NSD response
Having read and digested the Council’s answers I am not reassured. Most of the answers are in fact evasions, but they do serve to throw into sharper relief the key issues we need to focus on.
The first of these is the issue of who will be actually be receiving our money to deliver the ‘divested’ services. The Council has been at pains to suggest that this will be, in large part, Suffolk businesses, community groups or 3rd sector organisations. In the answer to the EADT’s question on this point it states “What we are NOT doing is looking for a single, national, major consultancy type company to come in and deliver a clutch of services”. The key word here is ‘single’. This is the classic strategy of avoiding answering the question by instead answering another question. I don’t think anyone is imagining that one single company is going to come in and deliver a clutch of services – the worry is that a number of large, private sector, contracting organisations will end up with the big, profitable contacts and ‘the community’ will be left to pick up the bits that Big Business can’t be bothered with.
The Council has yet to give its assessment on who will get what and how much. One assumes this information exists. If it doesn’t exist one has to seriously question the management competence of the Council.
Which brings us to the second important point. If one assumes, as the Council would have us believe, that it will be local communities, small Suffolk businesses and 3rd sector organisations that will be delivering a large part of the services – what work has been done to estimate the capacity of this sector and start to engage with them, given the very short time-frame available? The EADT addressed this in question 8 when it asks “What pro-active and wide-ranging engagement has there been so far with” and goes on to list a range important groups, including voluntary organisations and local communities. The Council replies by saying “We are having ongoing discussions throughout Suffolk with individuals, organisations, communities and community representatives”. The issue here is that the EADT asks what the Council has done thus far (past tense) and the Council replies ” we are” (present tense). From which we can only deduce that Council has not had any significant engagement with these important people up until now and is only just starting to do so.
From this we can further deduce two things:
- The Council knows that the 3rd sector and community groups will actually play very little part in delivering services: or
- The Council is stunningly incompetent, since in business terms it is doing the equivalent of designing a product and running the ad campaign before it has even built the production line.
I think it is essential that the Council comes clean and reveals to us how much of our money it estimates will go to private businesses, which businesses these are likely to be, and how much will go to communities and the 3rd sector.
Lastly, there is the issue of democracy and accountability. The Council’s perspective on this is that, because this is being proposed and approved by democratically elected councillors they have therefore ticked the ‘democracy box’. I would disagree. The Council is dominated by Conservative councillors. The opposition is the Liberal Democrats, who are in coalition with the Conservatives at a national level. There remain a handful of Green and Independent councillors who are doing their best to hold the Council to account, pushing through amendments such as that which requires the Council to conduct an engagement process before it moves to its final vote in December. This doesn’t really consitute effective scrutiny. Add to this the key point that this idea was never in a manifesto and at no point have the people of Suffolk been consulted (as distinct from engaged). Given the radical nature of the changes proposed, this cannot really be called democracy.
The Council states “We are at the beginning of the road not the end”. Quite clearly so, given the lack of engagement and consultation thus far. However, it is a very short road that we are at the start of. Documents were first made available to the public in September, a section on the website has only just been set up, the decision will be voted on in four weeks time and services will start being ‘divested’ in April 2011.
In reality a change of this magnitude can only be introduced effectively over a period of five to 10 years, with much more preparation and planning than has been done to date. You can’t deliver such change within the context of a short-term cost cutting strategy. If your focus was really about cutting costs in the short-term, you would never go about in a way which also involves such a huge amount of additional change and business re-structuring. Consider also the fact that no business manager, in their right mind, would ever decide that the best way to run their business was to out-source it. Outsourcing the functions at the margins of a business is sensible. Outsource what is core to your business and you will soon be out of business. You don’t have to be Sir Alan Sugar to work that one out.
Or to put it another way – getting a private company to collect the dust-bins is fine. Getting a private company to assume responsibility for caring for the elderly is not fine (especially if it is the same company). There are some things we elect local government to do and take responsibility for. We do not elect them to simply write a cheque (with our money) and ask someone else to do it for them.