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Big Society Suffolk is back

As suspected, Suffolk County Council’s New (No) Strategic Direction has not gone away.  Today’s front page of the East Anglian Daily Times carries the story of the privatisation of all of the Council’s care homes.  This would seem to indicate that the idea of turning all of the Council’s core services into profit making opportunities is proceeding apace, but simply without the fanfare, and thus controversy, that accompanied its initial foray into this area.  It will be interesting to see who wins the contract to run the homes.  Almost certainly it will not be any form of social or community enterprise, of the likes that we were told would be filling the gap as the Council divests itself of its responsibilities.

This move is highlighted on the same day that David Cameron tries to revive interest in The Big Society via the creation of Big Society Capital – an organisation designed to fund the creation of new state funded contractors operating in the guise of “social enterprises”.  It also follows hard on the heels of BBC Panorama revelations revealing how private suppiers are ripping-off the taxpayer via sub-standard apprentice schemes and the controversy over A4e and the £8.6 million taxpayer funded dividend the boss of that particular company awarded themselves.  Not so much a Big Society as a Big Business Society it seems.

Big Society Suffolk: has Society won?

The Big Question is – have we, the people of Suffolk, won?  Jeremy Pemberton has gone.  The new leader of the Council, Mark Bee, was elected on a promise of ‘reviewing’ the New Strategic Direction and engaging in a more extensive process of consultation.  Andrea Hill looks like she is on the way out.

In many ways – all good news.  However, one suspects that the lessons learnt are that the way you need to go about this has to change, not necessarily what it is you want to do.  After all, you do have to think that the way the Council went about this was sensationally stupid.  Why was there not even a basic plan, supported by proper research and analysis?  Why on earth select libraries and lollypop ladies as your first targets for divestment?  Why not consider the day-to-day impact on your ability to operate of essentially declaring the imminent redundancy of all of your staff?  Crazy stuff.

Anyway – I am sure that the Council is still going to press ahead with the transference of huge areas of taxpayer funded responsibilities to the private sector.  They are just going to do it with less ideological fanfare but probably still minimal consultation.  We are still waiting for Serco.  The real story behind the Big Society remains, only its presentation is likely to change.

Big Society Suffolk: the first casualties

The New (No) Strategic Direction has claimed its first casualites (that is if you don’t count community libraries and parks).  Today it was announced that Council Leader Jeremy Pembroke is to retire.  This follows a day after announcement of the immediate departure of Resources Director Graham Dixon and monitoring officer Eric Whitfield.  Both Dixon and Whitfield were closely associated with the implementation of the NSD – which raises the question of whether they were ousted as a result of failure to move this forward or because of objections to the self-evident madness of the policy.

Much is being made of Pembroke’s decency.  Presumeably therefore he has done the decent thing.

How many more people will end up going before the policy itself becomes a casualty.  Silly question really because, of course, the intention of the policy is to get rid of everyone and pay Serco to run the place.  Serco already takes care of our rubbish, why not then take care of the elderly or education?

Update:  Just noticed – there was an earlier casualty as James Hargraves’ blog points out.

Sort-of Suffolk wikileaks: what the people of Suffolk really think about the Big Society

Back in December I put in a Freedom of Information request (so not really wikileaks territory) to see all the responses to the public engagement process launched (in a hurry and under pressure from the Green and Independents on the Council) before Suffolk County Council voted to approve its ‘New Strategic Direction’.  For those who need reminding, the New Strategic Direction is the idea (I hesitate to call it a plan) by which all of the services provided by Suffolk County Council will be divested to private sector contractors, or social enterprises.   The delay does not appear to have been the Council’s fault, simply an issue with a mis-placed email.

You can download the documents I received here:

results as of 22nd November FOI

Concerns and Opportunities FOI 22nd Nov

Additional feedback collated through meetings and events and including correspondence received

A quick read, especially of the document called ‘Concerns and Opportunities’ is really quite revealing.

Firstly, there do not appear to be any opportunities identified.  I have asked the Council if they have neglected to send me the responses that identified opportunities, or if it was that case that no opportunities were identified.  I have yet to hear back.

(Update 15/2/11: I have just been sent a revised document which does contain the opportunities, although many are phrased thus – “The only opportunities are for the public sector to rid itself of the responsibilities of providing services that they are legally obliged to do, handing them over to people who will not run them well but for a profit – cutting services and staff and destroying the social support framework – or people who will run services badly leading to the loss of the services. But it is a good opportunity for certain individuals to enhance their political reputations.” Here is the revised documement Concerns and Opportunities FOI 22nd Nov-2)

Second, it is clear that the people of Suffolk are a very sensible bunch.  So sensible you might even, for example, want them to run local government services across the county (now there’s a thought).  What emerges, in the most part, is a series of very considered points that make the case that the ‘New Strategic Direction’ (read Big Society) is a very silly thing to do, being done in a very silly way.  The latter, i.e. the total lack of any coherent plan or management process, probably being the most coherent and strongest of all the concerns raised.  My soundbite on this one is “ideology on the one hand and incompetence on the other”.  Something that appears to becoming the calling card of this Conservative-led government in much the same way as manipulation and deceit became the calling card of New Labour.

Council Leader, Jeremy Pembroke and CEO, Andrea Hill have, I hope, read these documents.  There is much in it that they could learn.

I have not gone through the information in detail – I am making this information available as soon as I have received it so that anyone can examine it.  I will, however, sit down and digest it more thoroughly and will post any further observations.

P.S I notice that David Cameron is spending today trying to explain the Big Society.   Here is one of Cameron’s ‘chaps’ doing this late last year.  You can see why Dave thought he needed to have a go himself.

Government in left hand to outsource right hand shock

A lead item on the news today was comments made in a BBC interview by Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, the outgoing head of the UK’s largest volunteering organisation – CSV (Community Service Volunteers).  Dame Elizabeth is supportive of the Big Society concept, but she makes the point that cutting funding to the charity sector at the same time as expecting that sector to assume much greater responsibility is a complete contradiction.  Defending the cuts to the charity sector, Government ministers assert that the problem of the charity sector is that it has become ” too dependent on the State” and therefore the solution is to make the State more dependent of the charity sector.  It must be something that happens when you get an Eton and Oxbridge education – it becomes possible to identify some form of self-evident logic that makes that assertion make sense.  Since I only went to Leicester University, I can’t get beyond seeing it as completely bonkers.

One can’t expect the situation to improve.  The left and right hand of Government may not be coordinated, but wait until the left hand decides to outsource  the right hand as a series of fingers and thumbs.

What this whole issue throws into very sharp relief (yet again) is that there are two forms of Big Society:  the sort of Big Society favoured by Dame Elizabeth and many others in the 3rd sector, which is about collaboration, coordination, consensus and building upwards from identified community needs; and then the form favoured by David Cameron, Francis Maud, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove et al. which is about pure ideology. In their world the State is bad and must be eradicated, private enterprise and the free market is good and must be allowed to rule.  There is no room for common sense, the very practical issues raised by Dame Elizabeth are annoying details that must not be allowed to derail The Project.  The whole system must be dismantled so that the Market and Competition and Private Enterprise can swoop in a re-build the new Utopia.  This may mean sweeping away the old charities, tainted as they are by the “culture of dependency”, so that sparkly new, enterprise charities can push their blue shoots up from the ashes.

This whole Big Society  project – both here in Suffolk and across the country as a whole –  is being driven by ideological zeal combined with willful incompetence and contempt for anyone with any real knowledge of community and voluntary organisation.  Dame Elizabeth, however, puts it more politely.   “It is not easy to  collaborate with the visionaries behind the Big Society”, she says, at the end of her interview.  Quite.

More correspondence with Jeremy Pembroke

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.

Dear Jeremy,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Stacy

Jeremy replied:

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.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Pembroke

Leader of Suffolk County Council

To which I replied:

Dear Jeremy,

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.

Your sincerely,

Richard Stacy

A reply from Jeremy Pembroke

Here is Jeremy Pembroke’s response to my email.  I will make no comment upon it, you can reach your own conclusions as to whether it forms anything which deserves that label of an answer to my question (see earlier post)

Dear Mr Stacy

Thank you very much for your recent e-mail regarding Suffolk County Council’s New Strategic Direction.

As you may be aware we have an on-going engagement process and I would encourage you to get involved in that process.

There will be a number of opportunities to do so as we move forward. Those opportunities will be advertised in the local press, on our website and in community venues as appropriate.

Thank you again for the interest you have shown.

Yours sincerely

Jeremy Pembroke

Leader of Suffolk County Council


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