Sunday 24 March 2013

Risks in council's reduced role and restructuring

Long term out-sourcing reduces democratic accountability
 It was rather disconcerting during yesterday's Barnet Spring march to find a rather touching faith in the ability of the Labour Party to deliver something quite different to the Tory's Easy Council option. A speech from a libraries campaigning from Newcastle and chats with those of us from Brent, introduced a touch of realism into their expectations.

Of course Labour Brent and Tory Barnet are not identical but they do share some of the basic assumptions and I am under no illusions that the Greens in Brighton have fundamentally different views as to the future. They are all in different ways 'managing' the decline in financial and political power of local councils.

One way of doing this is to reduce the 'need' for local services through lowering expectations and reducing costs via out-sourcing to the lowest bidder. Out-sourcing is privatisation and  removes democratic accountability and further reduces the role of the council. What is required instead of accommodation to the Coalition agenda is out-right concerted defence of local government and local democracy.

This is how the Brent Council restructuring document puts it:
The changing role of the Council
The scale of the challenge to public services through the reductions outlined above is considerable. It cannot be managed by the traditional local government responses of streamlining staffing and restricting access or eligibility to services which may be of poorer quality than they are now. This can only lead to conflict and declining trust among local people. We must:
find more innovative ways of preventing demand for public services arising in the first place
do more to ensure that if a need arises, ways are found to meet it without relying on public services
help people themselves self-manage a long term need, rather than relying on a service
minimise duplication by integrating all services-not just those provided by the
council-around individuals, thereby facilitating a more personalised and coherent approach
explore ways of enabling service users to improve services by commissioning services directly.
Barnet wants to do away with the local authority's day to day management role altogether with massive long-term contracts to then likes of Capita. However Brent isn't really that far behind if you consider the huge contract currently being procured for the Public Realm (street cleaning, waste collection, recycling, Parks and BHP grounds maintenance) as well as adult social care and parts of the education service.

Brent Council's restructuring of senior management is a response to the declining role of the local authority in service management but also reflects the growing role of major projects and regeneration as the Council seeks to sell the family silver (public assets) to remain afloat.

Under the proposals:
  • The Corporate Management Team will be reduced from 9 posts to 5
  • CMT Directors will be reduced from 8 posts to 4
  • Assistant Directors will be reduced from 19 to 14
  • A new post of Assistant Chief Executive will be created
A common theme is the creation of 'Strategic' and 'Operational Directors' in the new departments. As an example we can look at the newly created Education, Health and Social Care Department. As the name suggests this includes education, children and adult social care and the newly acquired public health functions. It is a huge remit and contains some of the riskiest areas of the Council's operations. BACES is transferred from education to the Major Projects and Regeneration Department.

There will be a Strategic Director of Education, Health and Social Care and s/he will manage the Operational Directors for 1) Education 2) Children's Social Care 3) Adult Social Care and a Director of Public Health (a statutory position) who will report to the Chief Executive.

This set-up may provoke some anxiety in terms of the complexity and associated risk factors in these departments, particularly regarding safeguarding of vulnerable children and adults. Both child and adult social care have huge budget pressures and as a new service it is unclear what the eventual financial position will be regarding public health.  Christine Gilbert's report claims that the reorganisation takes account of the Munro Review's recommendation that the role of Director of Children's Services should not have additional functions in order that the focus on vulnerable children should not be diluted. This proposal should be given careful scrutiny by councillors mindful of Brent's unfortunate history in this area, and the difficulty of recruitment to such posts.

The Department of Environment and Neighbourhoods will have a Straetgic Director and two Operational Directors for 1) Neighbourhoods and 2) Environment and Protection. It will now be responsible for Community Safety.

The already huge Regeneration and Major Projects department now takes on Brent Customer Services,  a new Employment and Enterprise function, and associated with the latter BACES is transferred from Children and Families. There will be a Strategic Director and four Operational Directors 1) Property and Projects 2) Planning and Regeneration 3) Housing and Employment and 4) Customer Services.

I have previously expressed concern that this department, currently head by Andy Donald, has a great deal of power and possible conflicts of interest, and my concern is not lessened by the reorganisation. As with Education, Health and Social Care, here are a great many eggs in one basket.


Anonymous said...

I have already had genuine concerns about the conflicts of interest between the Regeneration and Planning sides of the present Regeneration and Major Projects Department dismissed by senior Brent Council Officers, on the grounds that there are "Chinese Walls" in place. In reality, I believe the only thing "Chinese" about them could be that they are made of rice paper!
Now Brent is proposing to combine Planning and Regeneration under one Operational Director. If there is another joint Council / developer scheme like Willesden Green Cultural Centre in future, there will be even less chance of the views of local residents being considered fairly.
Brent may need to restructure its departments in order to save money, but what it really needs is a change of attitude among both Council (particularly Executive)members and Council Officers towards working with local people to find solutions to problems.
Philip Grant.

Anonymous said...

In Barnet, it is impossible to separate planning and regeneration, since that the council sees itself as purely a facilitator for developers.

None of this affects the council leadership of Barnet, which comes mainly from the leafy north-east of the borough.