Saturday 9 November 2013

Brent’s approach to consultation – has anything changed?

Four years ago, in the infancy of this blog, I published an article entitled 'Is consultation a con?'  LINK which suggested a series of possible definitions so that the purpose and limits of consultation was transparent. Since then we have had many 'consultations' in Brent and the problem remains as this 'Case Study' Guest Blog by Philip Grant as well as the earlier posting by 'Malinowski'  shows.

1. Introduction: In 2011 we witnessed a disastrously mishandled consultation process over Brent’s Libraries Transformation Project, when Council Officers treated the views expressed by local residents with contempt, yet still managed to get the Executive to rubber-stamp their plans. The repercussions of that episode still continue today. Brent Council has moved on, and now has enshrined in Article 10 of its Constitution the following commitments:

1.  The Council is committed to involving the community through effective consultation and two-way communication.

2.  The Council recognises that meaningful participation can only take place:

• in an environment where people are better informed about local services;

• where community spirit is fostered so that people care enough to want to take part, and are encouraged to do so; and

• where council decisions can be seen to reflect the views and concerns of local residents.

That is very good, but has anyone told Council Officers about this? Let me share with you a genuine “Case Study”, which has happened during the past three weeks.

2. Case Study: I am one of those people who ‘care enough to want to take part’, and along with five other members from local history societies accepted the invitation to take part in a stakeholder consultation meeting at the Civic Centre to help develop a new Museum and Archives Strategy. It was chaired by Neil Davies (Strategy and Service Development) [“ND”], who told us that the draft strategy would be prepared in time to go out for consultation at “Brent Connects” in January 2014, with the Council deciding on the new strategy in the Spring. He had already received views from “internal stakeholders”, and our views would be among several inputs into the draft strategy by “external stakeholders”.

Although most of the meeting was positive, with plenty of participation and many sensible ideas put forward, it got off to a bad start. One of the first points raised by us was why a staff restructuring exercise was taking place now at the Museum and Archives, when surely the time to do this would be after the new Strategy had been consulted on and decided, which would still give plenty of time before the new facilities open at Willesden Green in Spring 2015. ND did not appear to know about the restructuring. Sue McKenzie (Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage) [“SMc”] was also at the meeting, but she refused to discuss her staff restructuring plans, as these were ‘an internal matter’.

I had already heard a little of what the staff restructuring plans were, and emailed that evening (16 October) to Sue Harper (Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services) [“SH”] to express my concern about the consultation process being undermined. It appeared that SMc was trying to push through a restructuring by December 2013, based on her own view of what a new Museum and Archives Strategy should be, while the consultation process was actually in progress which should decide that strategy. I also explained that if the experienced existing staff lost their jobs, which seemed a likely result of SMc’s proposals, it would seriously damage the delivery of Brent’s Heritage Services.

I received a “reply” from Jenny Isaac (Operational Director, Neighbourhoods) [“JI”] on 18 October, which did not answer either of the points I had raised. Instead it explained that SMc couldn’t discuss the restructuring plans in public, because ‘the impact on our teams is something for Sue to manage carefully, sensitively and supportively with those individuals who are affected.’ (My reply to this point was: ‘I suggest that you visit RK and MBB in the cramped basement storeroom at George Furness House where they currently have to work, and ask them, face-to-face, whether the proposed restructuring which they have been faced with since 18 September has been managed 'carefully, sensitively and supportively.' – to the best of my knowledge, no such visit has yet been made.)

The rest of JI’s long email to me was a justification of the restructuring exercise, including several quotations from reports by national bodies, most of which I have later discovered was “copied and pasted” from a document written by SMc, topped off with the claim that: ‘the proposals have been discussed with The National Archive who are supportive of the proposals’. In my reply (19 October) I pointed out that the quotations merely gave good reasons why a review of Museum and Archives Strategy should be taking place, that consultation on this was taking place, and that ND had told us at our stakeholder meeting that the “discussions” she was putting forward as support for SMc’s restructuring proposals were actually one of the inputs into his consultation on the new strategy.

My reply to JI also restated, without any room for doubt, what were the two issues which needed to be resolved, that the restructuring should not be taking place now because it went against Brent’s commitments on consultation, and that if the restructuring did take place now it would seriously damage the delivery of Brent’s Heritage services. As before, her “reply” (23 October) ignored both of these points, again defending the staff restructuring and saying it was: ‘an internal matter, and Sue Mckenzie is fully complying with proper HR processes and procedures. The views of the affected staff will be carefully considered when the final decision on the future structure of the museum and archive is made.’ (We will return to those ‘proper HR processes’ later.)

JI’s email also said that: ‘The staff restructure will ensure flexibility to deliver the new museum and archive strategy’ (which turned out to be another “copy and paste” from SMc). My response (also 23 October) was:

‘How can you be sure, when that strategy is still not even in draft form? SMc has submitted her ideas to ND, as an internal stakeholder, but if his consultation exercise on the Museum and Archives Strategy is to have any credibility, she should not be implementing a staff restructuring in Museum and Archives, presumably based on her own view of the future staff needs of Museum and Archives, until after the Strategy has been properly decided. That is the key point of principle here, and that is why the Museum and Archives staff restructuring must be halted.’

I don’t know about you, but I thought that was a pretty convincing argument. Whether JI was convinced I will never know, because she did not attempt to counter it, replying on 24 October (please note the date):

‘The position is unchanged.  I reiterate, the new team will be sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of the new strategy and ensure that the new museum and archive provides a service that is relevant to a wider group of our residents. You will be consulted on the museum and archive strategy as appropriate. The Council will not enter into further correspondence on the staff restructure.’

Now, I thought that on 16 October I had raised an important point
 with a Council Director which needed to be considered and resolved. In several exchanges of emails I had put that point, and the reasons supporting the view I was taking. In return, the Senior Council Officer I was dealing with side-stepped the key issue, did not try to resolve anything and then refused to discuss the matter further. What could I do? Well, I don’t give up if I feel I have an important and valid point, and ‘the Council is committed to involving the community through effective consultation and two-way communication’, so I went back to the top.

I wrote straight away, jointly to SH and Cllr. Roxanne Mashari [“RM”, who has been copied in on all of the correspondence, but has not contacted me at all], saying that the issue I had raised did need to be resolved, and drawing attention to JI’s references to a “new team”:

‘As SMc and JI are apparently already determined that there will be a "new team", what chance is there of any genuine consideration being given to the alternative proposals which I understand the existing Archives team (the Museum Curator having left last month) intend to put forward?

The implementation now of a staff restructuring by SMc raises similar concerns over how genuine the consultation exercise on the Museum and Archives Strategy will be. I am sure that ND will do a conscientious job in producing a new Strategy document, but behind his back SMc will already have put in place the "new team" that she has chosen. Until the new Strategy has been properly consulted on and decided, how can anyone really know whether the existing team, or at least some members of it, could deliver Brent's future Museum and Archives Strategy as well as, if not better than, any "new team"?’

Having asked some important questions, what answers did I get to them from SH on 28 October? None!

‘Thank you for your email of 24 October.  In recognition of the fact that you have a number of concerns outstanding, in line with our complaints procedure, I have asked the Council’s Complaints Manager, Phillip Mears, to undertake a first stage complaints investigation on my behalf.  Once Mr Mears has completed his investigation I will write to you with my decision.’

I responded that I had not actually made a complaint, and that although there might be some serious concerns which could be looked at to see whether they could have been handled better, the key point was to put any staff restructuring “on hold” until after the new Museum and Archives strategy had been properly consulted on and decided. I heard nothing further until SH replied on 4 November, saying:

‘As you know, I have asked Philip Mears to investigate your concerns as part of the Council’s complaint procedure and he will reply to you shortly. I am not prepared to get into further correspondence on the subject whilst this investigation is underway as in my experience it is likely to confuse the issue.’

So, yet again, no attempt by a Senior Council Officer to resolve an important point raised by a concerned participant in what was supposed to be a genuine Brent consultation exercise. By the time it was sent, SMc had issued her Final Decision Paper (“FDP”) on her staff restructuring proposals. It turned out that much of JI’s email to me of 18 October, and parts of some others, had been “copied and pasted” from the FDP, most of which had been written before SMc received the comments and alternative proposals from the staff she was supposedly consulting. And as for ‘the views of the affected staff will be carefully considered’, the thoughtful and sensible alternatives, which would ensure a good front-line service for the public and be delivered with a slightly larger cost saving, were rejected. The reason was because they did not meet the future service requirements (SMc’s own vision of what the new Strategy should be) set out in her consultation document. 

How a consultation which only allows you to give the answer that the person “consulting” with you wants can be treated as ‘fully complying with proper HR processes and procedures’, I fail to understand. It was a sham, and because of it, the existing team at Brent Archives will have their jobs “deleted”. They will be able to apply for “new posts” (several grades above the level they are currently employed at) which they are unlikely to get, especially with SMc also dismissing their request that she should not be on the panel interviewing them, because of her conflict of interests in the matter. 

What could I do about it? Well, I have made a detailed formal complaint to Brent’s Interim Chief Executive, Christine Gilbert, against the actions of three Senior Brent Council Officers. She has refused to put the staff restructuring “on hold”, so even if my complaint is eventually upheld, it will probably be too late to save the jobs of the staff who will be key to delivering the sort of front-line Archives service that “external stakeholders” would like to see as part of the new Museum and Archives Strategy.

3. Conclusion. You may think I am naive (you would probably be right) but I believe that much more positive results can be achieved for our community by local people, Council Officers and Councillors working together. That is what I try to do in practice, but it needs to be seen to work, and at the moment it is not working.

My experience here is that Senior Officers have not learned the proper lessons from the way that they and, on their advice, Brent’s Executive mishandled the Libraries Transformation Project consultation exercise in 2011. Instead, the lesson they seem to have taken from it is that as they “got away with it” then, they can do the same again. For things to improve, Senior Officers need to set an example, and embrace the Council’s commitments on consultation. They should not, as in this case study, undermine or ignore proper consultation procedures. They should treat with respect, and seek to work together with, Councillors, staff and Brent’s citizens, in an open, transparent and reasonable manner. If they cannot, or will not, they should seek employment elsewhere.

If you have any comments or experiences to share, either for or against the views I have set out, please “post” them below, but no abuse, please. If any of the Officers I have mentioned wish to have a right of reply, I hope that Martin will allow it to them. A big “Thank You” to Martin for giving me the chance to write this “guest blog”, and thanks to you for reading it.

Philip Grant.

Postscript from Hitchhikers Guide to the Planet on Planning Consultations

“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 


  1. Sounds familiar: 'If consultations made any difference, they wouldn't let you have them'.
    Your point about the ignoring of objections and the use of fait-accompli as a tactic is particularly relevant. An NHS management clone was complaining on BBC London news last night about the objections to hospital closures in Surrey 'making change in the NHS far too slow'. The BBC correspondent the parroted this phrase in his summing-up. The shared assumption was that 'change' was necessarily good (who cares about the nature of the change) and that questioning of it was simply obstruction.

  2. Replies
    1. Dear Martin,

      I agree that nothing seems to have changed in the attitude of senior Brent Council Officers, but the Council has improved the commitments on consultation in its Constitution, so we can hold both Council Officers and Councillors to account if they don't deliver on these policies which they have adopted.
      The Leader of the Council and the Lead Member for Environment and Neighbourhoods have both made public statements indicating that they want the Council to work more closely with local people. They need to make sure that their Senior Officers follow their lead, or explain to local people why they cannot get their officers, who are Council employees, to deliver on Council commitments.
      One improvement since the Libraries Transformation Project is that it is now the Strategy and Service Development Team that draft strategies, such as the new Museum and Archives Strategy, and conduct and report on the consultation exercises held through "Brent Connects" on these. So, in this case, although the Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage has given her "input" into the draft Strategy process, she will not be the one who actually draws up the draft strategy, or the report on the consultation on that strategy which will go to the Executive next Spring.
      One of the points which will be considered as part of the investigation of my complaint against actions taken by the Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage, is whether she is trying to implement her own ideas for a new Strategy "by the back door" through the staff restructuring she is currently hoping to implement by December 2013, and which I am still arguing strongly should be put "on hold" until after my complaint is decided.