Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy

I recently visited the SCL (The Society of Chief Librarians) with a few other library campaigners at their first stakeholder forum. Despite my many criticisms of the SCL I see this as a good sign. I won't go into the whole two hours, Public Library News covered it in great detail here. I do however want to go through my main gripe with the SCL which is their policy on volunteers, and more specifically volunteers replacing paid staff. The SCL according to their site exist to:

"The Society of Chief Librarians leads the debate on the future of public libraries and advocates for continuous improvement of the public library service on behalf of local people"

They are great supporters of volunteers in libraries, but controversially they support volunteers replacing paid staff in libraries. They don't have any evidence to support this, the position is based on their experience as librarians and they cite a specific hypothetical example of where a volunteer replacing a paid staff member would save a library that would otherwise close:

Volunteers could remove the need to double staff some service points which would reduce costs and this meant libraries were kept open. If there was absolutely no job substitution then libraries will close.

Unfortunately in my opinion, their stance, however well intended has opened the flood gates and councils up and down the land are going straight to the volunteers option without looking to save costs elsewhere in the library service first. We now know that 201 libraries closed last year so they didn't appear to benefit from the stance given by the SCL. I doubt many libraries were actually saved by their position, I think quite a few senior librarians were though as someone senior has to be there to push through the volunteers policy.

The SCL are taxpayer funded, unaccountable to local people (who they say they act on behalf of) and we as taxpayers have no say in their policy. Its one thing for a single chief librarian giving their best professional advice, its entirely another thing a for a taxpayer funded organisation without any sort of evidence or mandate endorsing a policy that affects the library provision of all. 

They have said they will publish guidance on what tasks are suitable, and which are not for volunteers. It is a start but not enough. We are meeting again in the spring I believe and this is something I want to explore with them further, especially the democratic deficit of their organisation. By their own words they are supposed to be debating on the future of libraries and advocating for its continuous improvement. 

I will put a little survey widget on the blog, please vote and ask any library users (explain who the SCL are) you know to vote, also leave comments if there are things you want me to raise with them the next time we meet. 

Previous posts on the SCL and their position on volunteers replacing staff:

Vaizey done good

I hate to say it but Vaizey has actually done a very good thing in getting CIPFA to do these comparisons. It confirms what I have been saying all along about the Oxfordshire library service, its expensive and bloated and the back office spend is far too high, this has to be tackled instead of forcing volunteers to replace low paid library assistants in a scheme that doesn't really save any money.

Oxfordshire has:

  • Average number of libraries and users
  • Just below average population in the comparison group
  • Just above average number of active borrowers (although there isn't much in it)
  • High level of book issues (this is the best thing they are doing)
  • High level of total revenue expenditure. (bad, bad, bad)
  • Low level of volunteers.

There are lots of other comparisons in there and Oxon does quite well in quite a few of them, I think the central library does skew our stats a bit because we have Oxford University, one of the biggest in the world and the central library is always full of students which you wouldn't get in cities with small universities, perhaps the colleges should be encouraged to chip in a few staff? The authorities with the busiest central libraries are ones with big universities. I would love to see some stats on centrals usage by people who live outside the county, I know the 1964 act says we have to provide to all but I'm sure its a massive, hidden subsidy to the colleges by the taxpayer of Oxon, I don't object at all but I would love to see how much it is. The high book issues is very good but this shouldn't be linked to the back office costs, the 4.4 million service support is outside of the main library service budget and I don't think it can be linked to the book issues. It says more about the people of Oxfordshire being avid readers than anything.

On the total revenue expenditure:

As I have been banging on about for months, the cost of the library service, especially the back office is too high. You cannot designate the rural libraries as non-statutory, not mention it in the consultation at all and then expect the volunteers to replace the low paid, front line library assistants when such a increasingly expensive, bloated back office is allowed to exist. My view is that it has always been to high but its just getting worse, a roughly 7.4 million library service is now costing 4.4 million in other expenditure (includes service support) according to the CIPFA returns and its far too high. These costs HAVE to be reduced or shared with other authorities, 17 miles away Bucks duplicate these back office activities and costs.

On volunteers, Oxfordshire scored below the average, there are lots of volunteers in our library and in the other rural ones I have visited. We can get our volunteer numbers up from 1.7% of worked hours, to the average of 4.5% only if the entire library service embraces volunteers, The rural libraries already depend heavily on volunteers to add extra services, its the big city libraries that I think are not getting enough volunteers in, they said after the "consultation" that they cannot have volunteers in their "statutory" libraries, this has to change.

Volunteers can and should make the library service better as it does in the small threatened rural libraries, but we cannot and shouldn't be used to replace low paid library assistants while such back office bloat is allowed to increase. Replace the statutory status and the hours, it will cost almost nothing, share the bloat with Bucks and lets encourage as many volunteers as we can in all libraries to make our library service a thing to be proud of.

Despite being supine and ignoring his responsibilities under the 1964 act, on the specific point of getting CIPFA to do this, I will say this again, well done Ed Vaizey. <cough, choke, cough>

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The 3 mile Economy Drive

Newcastle City Council say they have to find 90 million pounds worth of savings because of increased costs and cuts of 39.3 million to their grant. They are proposing to close 10 of their 18 libraries to help achieve these savings. Staffing costs tend to one of the biggest areas of spending in libraries and looking at their CIPFA returns since 2008 staffing has already dropped by about 20%

Which to me shows that the staffing in the library service has already had more that its fair share of the cuts. Having further cuts to staff numbers is clearly why they have to close libraries. In the CIPFA returns there are always two areas of expenditure that I always find really murky. There are called Service Support Costs and Other Expenditure.

According to the forms service support costs are defined as:

"Include an apportionment for administrative buildings, central departments, central support services, central expenses and departmental administration even if the authority does not make such an allocation to the public library account. Also include any executive costs of the department (of which libraries form a part) which are fairly attributable to libraries. Exclude any costs included in Cell 95. No attempt should be made to separately identify the staff element of central administrative charges, nor should such costs be included in Cell 77 / 114. Include recharges that arise as a result of either Internal Service Level Agreements (SLAs) or the authority externally contracting out central professional services."

And Other Expenditure, which is defined as:

"Other Expenditure (Estimates only - this should include Computing Costs, Other Supplies and Services, Transport, Third Party Payments and Support Services Costs)"

The other expenditure includes the service support costs and various other costs involved in running the library service. The service support costs specifically are the cost to the council, outside of the actual library budget that it costs to run. So HR, Payroll, accounts, share of the building costs for the non-library buildings etc.

Frustratingly different councils fill in what appear to be slightly different versions of the CIPFA forms (councils hate direct comparison) but on the 2012 return Newcastle City Council has a figure of £4.1 million for their other expenditure costs:

And a very short hop over the tyne, Gateshead Borough Council has service support costs of £1.2 million

 Both of these councils are cutting or closing libraries, both maintain a separate and expensive (in proportion to their library budgets) back office support cost. The Newcastle total budget for example is around 9 million pounds yet the council need to spend 4.1 million on service support and other expenditure. In Gateshead the library budget is about 4.1 million and their service support costs  (not the total other expenditure) are 1.2 million.

Obviously we cannot make a direct comparison as they haven't used the same figure but there is clearly lots of scope there for not only efficiencies but with two councils very close together they should not be duplicating this work, their main council offices are three miles apart. To be cutting libraries and not pooling these costs is wrong and Gateshead and Newcastle Council should not cut a single library until this duplication and inefficiency is driven out of their budgets. They should follow a similar scheme to the tri-borough proposals in London, they joined up the running and costs of three library authorities and saved lots of money and not closed any libraries. This level of waste would never be tolerated in the private sector. Its time for the councillors in Newcastle and Gateshead to start showing some leadership and stop blaming the other side, if Labour were in Government we would be in exactly in the same position as we are in now.

The Cipfa returns:

Info on the tri-borough back office sharing scheme in London:

Saturday, 8 December 2012

PFI-Perfidious Financial Idiocy

Newcastle libraries have a budget of around 9.1 million for the year 2011-2012 according to their CIPFA returns. In 2009, via a private fiance initiative they built two new libraries, a replacement for their central library and a new library in High Heaton (completed in 08). PFI was something that was dream't up in the dying days of the last Tory government in the 90's. It was taken up and enthusiastically pushed as a way of building new public sector infrastructure by New Labour. The premise is supposed to be simple, private funding is sought to build the building and a contractor runs the property providing upkeep and maintenance. The public body pays a monthly fee, similar to a mortgage over normally a 25 year period and at the end the building belongs to them. It is supposed to deliver value for money and because the private sector can do things cheaper than public, a better deal for the taxpayer. Anyone who has read private eye of the past few years will realise the is often not the case. I know nothing of the detail of the Newcastle libraries deal but we have all heard of cases where the PFI contractor charges £300 to change a light bulb or fit a new electrical socket for a similar amount. Public sector bodies were only supposed to go for the PFI option if it demonstrated value for money over using their own capital budget to build the thing themselves. Because of the small print it can mean the companies end up charging for lots of extras and the fact that the repayments are linked to inflation means that depending on how the economy is doing it may not be cheaper. If the economy continues the way it is for the next few years or longer with low to zero growth and inflation always higher then councils and public bodies who have gone for the "Wonga option" are going to struggle to service the payments and keep services going during the cuts to their budgets. But back to the Toon. They had a library budget of 9.1 million, their monthly payments for 09-10 were £271,761.33 per MONTH! That is 3.2 million a year for two libraries out of eighteen. And of course while the economy continues to die on its arse, thanks to the cost of petrol, gas and electric from our rigged energy market and all other goods going up in cost each year inflation will continue to rise and the monthly cost will continue to grow. In 2012-13 the monthly cost has risen to £281,506.50 which will mean a annual cost of £3,378,07.00 million. 

I accept that thanks to years of neglect that infrastructure was in need of investment during the Labour years. By 2009 though it was clear to everyone apart from those in charge that PFI wasn't the way forward, especially since it was pretty clear by then that the economy wasn't going to be bouncing back any time soon, coupled with the fact that procurement in the public sector tends to be very poor. The private sector always come out winners in contract negotiations.

If Newcastle City Council want to blame anyone for having to cut libraries I think they have to look at themselves mainly, going for the neo-liberal wonga option will haunt them for many years to come. 

Link to the PFI data:

Channel 4 fact check on PFI:

Article in the Indy on PFI buggering up the NHS:

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Who's in charge of the deck chairs?

I stuck a question in on the Arts Council’s live chat with Alan Davey that took place at lunchtime today. I wanted to understand from him what ACE understands to mean when E-Vaizey said they are:  “responsible for superintending and promoting the library service”. Below is my initial question and Alan’s response:
Rubymalvolio: Ed Vaizey has said in the house of commons that ACE is: "responsible for superintending and promoting the library service" How is this even possible with only five library relationship managers?

Alan Davey: To Rubymalvolio: I think this must have been a slip of the tongue. We are very clear that we do not have a superintending role and nor did the MLA before us. We are, however, about promoting the importance of libraries and their development. We will maintain a presence in all parts of the country despire our current cuts. That's important.

I wanted to post a follow up and the moderator very kindly told me that it wouldn’t get in by the end so I should put my follow up in an email. I did and here is what I sent, it includes correspondence between the MLA and the tireless campaigner Shirley Burnham and an email exchange between me and the DCMS:

Hi Alan,
There is a lot of confusion on the role of the Arts Council and libraries. I know the minister has the statutory responsibility under the libraries act but it appears that the head of the MLA did believe that they had some responsibility to superintend (or provide oversight) and clearly the minister Ed Vaizey believes this too.  One of my fellow campaigners had an email from Roy Clare CBE in 2010 that implied this:
Hello, Shirley, yes happy for you to circulate.
Wirral’s key features were a “perfect storm” of the following factors:
#. Stated intention for large numbers of closures
#. Driven by asset-review, not social outcomes
#. Ineffective consultation with public (and staff) *
#. Potential of library services not well recognised *
#.No workable strategy for service improvement *
#. ‘Good Practice’ elsewhere not being considered
It was the combination that led us to consider appealing to Secretary of State.
In our view one or two of these factors on their own would not be sufficient grounds to cry ‘foul’. Each is important, but those marked * are fundamental.
Hope that helps?
Roy Clare CBE
CEO, Museums, Libraries and Archives Council”
I also asked the DCMS what Vaizey meant when he said the line  "A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service"
“Dear Mr Craig,
Thank you for your email of 14 November to the Department about the supervision of library services. I have been asked to reply.The Minister’s comment about the Arts Council was reference to the responsibilities they assumed in October 2011 for the development of public libraries.As I mentioned in my letter of 13 November, The Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, has a duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to superintend the delivery of library services by local authorities and to ensure that public library authorities in England provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service in accordance with their statutory duties under the 1964 Act”

Which doesn't say it was a slip of the tongue it actually backs it up and the minister and the DCMS believe ACE is responsible for superintending and promoting the library service. As you are no doubt aware up and down the land there is massive anger at the cuts to libraries, even your own department has been cut hard and there is no way 5 library relationship managers could possibly supervise the 151 library authorities on top of the envisioning the future of the libraries program and the 6 million in arts grants. I hope you can give some clarity on this as it seems that libraries are being slashed and there is confusion about who is overseeing them.
With kind regards,

To which Alan very kindly replied very promptly a few hours later:
Dear Mr Craig,
Thank you for your email.
As I mentioned today in my live chat, it is not the Arts Council’s role to superintend libraries and report back to the DCMS on whether a library service meets the statutory requirements of the 1964 Act or not. As your letter from the DCMS made clear, the Arts Council assumed responsibility for the development of public libraries in October 2011, and the superintending of whether a public library service is deemed ‘comprehensive and efficient’ lies with the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Maria Miller.
I also mentioned in my live chat that the MLA did not have responsibility of superintending the 1964 Act. This is strictly true, although MLA library staff did analyse local, regional and national library data collated by CIPFA, and feedback this information to DCMS. We were very clear when we assumed responsibility for libraries that reviewing library performances would not be a role that we would be undertaking – and that the definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library service should be defined at a local level, and be superintended by the Secretary of State.
I hope this clears up any confusion you may have on this matter. If you would like any further information on the Arts Council’s role concerning libraries, please check the Arts Council website here.

Which is very clear, ACE have NO responsibility to superintend and promote the library service, they are not monitoring libraries adhere to their duties under the act it’s down to Maria Miller, Ed Vaizey and the 4.5 staff they have at the DCMS.

It isn’t possible for 4.5 people to monitor the 151 library authorities, no way. Ed trying to take credit for keeping the 1964 museum and libraries act is just smoke and mirrors, it’s meaningless if the act isn’t enforced. The iceberg approaches, there isn’t even enough people to move the deck chairs never mind dodge the iceberg and the captain has locked himself in his cabin with his Xbox.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The bridge is empty, the captain has abandoned ship

Despite my anger at the rather large back office and management costs in my local library authority. I was shocked when my "They work for you" Ed Vaizey alert came through today because he had answered a question in the house on staffing at the DCMS.

I find this really, really shocking but for the 151 library authorities the DCMS currently only has four full time staff members and one part-time (the new guy I guess). We know poor Dempster probably spends his day batting back campaigners emails but this means the minister has each person watching roughly 33.5 of the 151 library authorities. No wonder they have to rely on public library news, they don't have enough staff in the DCMS on libraries to realistically have a handle on what is going on. Even if you take E-Vaizey at his word and the Arts Council have some responsibility to superintend, they are being culled hard and are working on the pointless "Envisioning the future of the library service" and administering the six million of funding for arts projects in libraries, also pointless and misguided in the current decimation of libraries in my opinion. Even if their 5 library relationship managers they have left were not working on this stuff and were full time making sure along with the DCMS that the 1964 act was being enforced this would still leave each person with 15.8 library authorities to monitor.

I'm all for small, efficient back office spending in whitehall but this really shows, in my opinion that the ministers in the DCMS don't know and don't care what is happening in libraries. Considering the library spend across these authorities is somewhere in the region of one billion, you would imagine they would have a few more staff to ensure libraries are comprehensive and efficient. This is probably why most library authorities are neither, nobody is looking.

Friday, 23 November 2012

We don't measure our success by results but by activity

I have been chasing the DCMS to get some information on what E-Vaizey meant when he said in the house of commons:

 "A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service"

The very nice Mr M from the DCMS responded (I put in the bold text):

“Dear Mr Craig,
Thank you for your email of 14 November to the Department about the supervision of library 
services. I have been asked to reply.The Minister’s comment about the Arts Council was reference to the responsibilities they assumed in October 2011 for the development of public libraries.
As I mentioned in my letter of 13 November, The Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Maria Miller 
MP, has a duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to superintend the 
delivery of library services by local authorities and to ensure that public library authorities in 
England provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service in accordance with their statutory 
duties under the 1964 Act”

Which as far as I can tell means they are standing up what E-Vaizey said.  It might just be me being a bit thick but the act clearly states:

“From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales,”

So according to Ed both the secretary of state and the Arts Council are responsible for superintending and promoting the library service.

The MLA’s Roy Clare CBE clearly thought it had some responsibility as the comment Shirley added on one of my other posts says. ACE doesn’t though have the statutory duty or the resource to superintend and promote libraries. It’s responsibility of the minister and the DCMS. I have come to the conclusion that either E-Vaizey is a massive idiot with a single digit IQ or he is deliberately trying to obfuscate so when he and his department are finally brought to account over their/his inaction he can do what all politicians do, pretend to forget stuff and say the issue is confused.

I have been quite critical of the Arts Councils Envisioning the future of libraries project being just an exercise in creative inertia. They are being cut hard and are going to be even more ineffective will incapable of supervising or promoting an egg and spoon race never mind 150 library authorities. The whole useless churn of initiatives, reports, hand wringing and jargon laden nonsense that passes for informing the policy and decisions making process continues and while they are all busy in the Westminster bubble arguing about who runs what, in the real world the library service IS being decimated and those paid to protect it are failing.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A tale of two cities (and a borough)

Now Gateshead just across the river from Newcastle are getting rid of some of there libraries, 5 of their 17 they are either handing to volunteers or closing. For anyone unfamiliar with the area Gateshead and Newcastle are practically on top of each other, the council offices are only three miles apart:
Almost spitting distance
Meanwhile in Sunderland 12 miles down the road their City Council had a couple of years ago made big cuts to their book spend but are now putting it back up by 340k and as far as I'm aware are not currently planning on cutting any of their library network. Obviously Sunderland seem to be taking the more enlightened approach. What annoys me is the rush by Gateshead and Newcastle to either close the libraries or hand them to volunteers when they have three separate authorities all with three separate management and professional and service support structures. They can join forces to bid for capital of culture but not to save the library service. We know from Surrey and where I am in Oxfordshire that because of the costs, handing the libraries to the "Big SocietyTM"  doesn't really save any money, if any. So why are the three authorities not working together to pool the back office costs? I grew up in the area and had to listen to the Labour Councils take credit for everything they could and if anything unpopular has to be done blame the Tories. The same happens in the Shires but they started blaming the last Labour government for everything once their party go into government.

I have put in a splurge of FOI's to Gateshead and Newcastle to see how much the libraries are costing to support in such a tiny geographical area. You never know, the FOI's might come back and show that their entire back office and service support costs are already pooled and the closing of libraries and handing them to volunteers is the last resort, not the first.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Toon Barmy

If Newcastle City Council are allowed to get away with only having one statutory library then the 1964 public libraries and museum's act will cease to exist. I can only presume they have pre-announced this to the media to try and whip up a storm (they will get one) to put pressure on the coalition government and the DCMS ahead of the next round of cuts. If this is the case then shame on the council for using the libraries of the people and great City of Newcastle as a political football. The politicians will all blame each other but each have a responsibility to strain every sinew to protect vital services. If this does go through then it is the end of libraries as far as I'm concerned.

What I suspect is actually the case, as we have seen in other parts of the public sector is that badly negotiated PFI contracts are strangling the budgets of the services they are supposed to provide, both the Central Library and High Heaton were built and provided under a PFI deal that probably has two decades at least left to run. Lots of NHS Trusts up and down the land are struggling because they opted for the "Wonga" option and the spiralling costs of meeting the payments is eating up the budget.

If this is the case then the City Council have nobody to blame but themselves. I'm actually amazed they think one fully funded library meets their requirements under the act.

The SCL, Arts Council, CILIP and every other organisation that has anything at all to do with libraries needs to publicly come out in the strongest possible terms against this. The SCL especially, if it wants the influence and get the column inches it measures its own success by needs to get its proverbial head out of the backside of the minister, the invisible fence sitting they are currently doing achieves nothing. Newcastle is one of the greatest cities in the world, (I say this as someone who comes from Sunderland), but the North East has higher areas of deprivation than any other area in England, taking away all but one of the libraries from the people of Newcastle is morally repellent. They must not be allowed to follow this disgusting, abhorrent and repugnant course of action.

Vaizey must act or he must be removed, the city council must change course or they must be removed. We have been pushed back too far, enough is enough.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Creative inertia

Confused about his role

Mr Vaizey has made a factually inaccurate statement in parliament. He either doesn’t understand the nature of his responsibility and job or he is trying to pass the buck to someone else. This is what he said on the 12 Sep 2012:

“A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service”

And yesterday there was an article in the bookseller where Nicky Morgan who is in charge of libraries at the Art Council said this:

"When the Arts Council took on the role of developing public libraries from the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council), we were very clear that we would not be undertaking a supervisory role, assessing whether library services were 'comprehensive and efficient”

ACE have extra problems without Vaizey imagining they do his job for him, they are facing cuts themselves and will only have five of these library relationship managers to cover England. Considering how badly the envisioning the future of the libraries survey was done, they aren’t resourced to supervise councils to make sure they comply with the act. Of course no one really knows what the act means and the interpreter of the act won’t tell us, he doesn’t even think it’s his job to uphold it! The act is quite clear though:
 “From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act.
Ed said at the select committee that:

“I have taken a view that I should keep at arm’s length from the organisations involved in the various campaigns, but that I should take advice from officials about whether or not they believe, on the basis of their investigations, that there has been a prima facie breach of the comprehensive and efficient duty. That is the position I have taken”

And yet in this transparent and open government of ours the department won’t release the advice that he has been given because he has sat on his hands, my FOI was refused and severely delayed and the ICO is currently looking into it. No doubt the department will continue to resist releasing this advice as I’m sure they have been given a very specific remit to investigate in such a way that always returns the result the department wants, I.E to not intervene. If an authority closed every single library I doubt the DCMS would judge it to be a breach of the act. It is obviously Tory party policy to make savage cuts to libraries, the other parties can cut too and blame the Tories so it’s a win/win for them too.

In opposition in 2009 Ed said the Tories would be:

"Launching a voluntary Library Charter, to which local authorities would be invited to sign up. This would set out minimum standards for libraries, a community reading strategy, provide guidance on what constituted a “comprehensive and efficient” library service under the Public Libraries Act, and so provide objective guidance for the use of the Secretary of State’s powers to call in a local authority’s decision to close a library."

I'm still waiting to see what Ed thinks are minimum standards for a library service that can be measured against the act, in the meantime I have emailed the DCMS and my MP David Cameron asking what is going on and who is actually in charge of libraries, we all know who is responsible.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Democracy, how far we have traveled (backwards)

The meaning of the word democracy is demos which means people and kratos which means power. The Greeks who gave us the root of our modern democracies had no political parties and the legislation was passed by a simple majority of the citizens who turned up to debate and vote. It was simple direct democracy. The Romans over threw their monarchy and became a republic with a system based upon the Greek one. They developed a constitution. It was by no means perfect as they were a two class society with the wealthy patricians only having the money required to run for office which excluded plebeians, who were the poor farmers and gate closing police officers. It evolved over time and was a fully credible political system with check and balances and the separation of powers, it was nobbled eventually but all empires that grow too large eventually become corrupted and fall, it happened in Rome, it happened in Star Wars and its bound to happen again.

This all took place thousands of years ago. So what do we have today?

Cllr Brett kindly put up a piece he mentioned in a tweet about why political parties are good and its a interesting read:

I think his basic gist is that parties are loose coalitions of like minded people that hold similar views and it makes sense for them to coalesce behind a coloured rosette. He also thinks that if you had 48 completely independently minded people trying to reconcile 48 different views then decisions would never get taken and problems would never be fixed. And also that the parties are a sort of short hand for the voters to know roughly the views of the person standing because they stand for a particular party, it isn't possible for a councillor to know and be known by thousands of people.

You can read his post in full from the link but I think the above is a pretty fair assessment of his position. My problem with the party democracies are:

If voter turnout wasn't so low then the parties would have a true mandate to act on behalf of the electorate. The majority of which haven't taken a view because they either don't care, don't approve of the parties or simply believe the parties don't listen anyway. I don't know the voter turnout for Roman elections but I would imagine it was a higher percentage that modern local council ones.

The debate to decide on what the policies are from the parties are discussed, debated and voted on behind closed doors. If a single party has a majority in a council (most do) then the public debate between the parties is just for show, the ruling party have already agreed their position and will vote for it. There are hardly ever any rebellions. In Greece and Rome, all the debates and votes were made in public, because there were no parties there wasn't organised defined groups. Probably factions and blocks but not parties behind closed doors which can and has been subverted.

If the Greeks could have independent people debate the issue and vote on proposals and amendments I'm sure 48 people could too. I doubt even the most complex problems would have 48 solutions.

There are no checks and balances in local government, none. The local government act requires a scrutiny committee to provide a robust challenge to the cabinet. The leader of the cabinet appoints the committee members and they have all already agree on policy decisions behind close doors, they never defy cabinet and everything goes through on the nod. There is no checks and balances, the cabinet and the group hold complete power and in some cases because the leader also appoints the cabinet the power goes into the hands of one person and we end up with a dictatorship in all but name.

The Romans had similar principles to the current system in the USA with proper checks and balances and separation of powers and very short terms for candidates.

Ideology of the parties gets in the way, the polices put forward can be designed to either neutralise the other side or to play to their own supports. Its more the case in national politics (the current Tory lurches to the right) but it goes on at local level to.

Politics should be about understanding what the problems and issues are, coming up with a way to fix it and then doing it. Too often its about finding problems that don't exist for political reasons, coming up with a ideologically based solution that doesn't address the non-issue and then wasting all the time and effort trying to make it work. The big society being a good example of this.

Would we be better off with a more direct democracy with out parties? Yes I think so. What is needed perversely is more councillors, open debate and transparent voting. Of course it won't happen, the parties that represent the 35% won't want to give up there power.

ACE in a hole

Update 18/10/12

Got a reply "acknowledging my views" on their lack of proper promotion of this study. I am now trying to find out who the "library relationship manager" with responsibility for Oxfordshire is. I have found an interesting bit of information on the "envisioning the library of the future program" study. It was put out to tender and the contract was estimated to be between 65k to 85k

As you would expect its choc full of meaningless waffle. The can spend over sixty thousand on outsourcing but they cannot spend a couple of hours and a hundred quid making sure the library authorities get their users to participate. They have a democratic duty to try and get the views of as many people as possible, this is a complete and utter shambles. The library service is being decimated, the minister has his head up his backside and the Arts Council are wasting thousands of pounds on a survey and for some reason decide to not tell library users outside of twitter a thing about it. I googled "library relationship manager" and very little comes up, if anyone knows who these elusive people are can they let me know, I want to know why my local authority were not asked to tell there users about this national survey. I thought I would add a video update, I really liked Phil Bradley's post with video the other day so here you go:

I have heard back from ACE (Arts Council England) on if they had contacted my local library authority Oxfordshire County Council to ask it to ask library users to fill in the:"Envisioning the library of the future" survey. In my previous blog post:
on this I asked who they had contacted and got the rather odd response of:

"We have also contacted a range of organisations requesting they share the survey with the public via their networks and newsletters, including organisations representing parents, older people, disabled people, educators, young people in higher or further education, book and art groups, social, cultural, ethnic and faith groups and people and groups campaigning for local government services, for example post offices. In addition, we have contacted library member groups and library service contacts asking them to promote the survey to the public."

My local county council clearly hadn't heard a peep from them so I asked directly if they had contacted them and got:

"We have a limited budget to support our work with libraries and decided the online approach was the best way to supplement our workshops and open up this research to a wider audience. This online element will close on Sunday 21 October.

Although we did not directly contact each individual library authority in the country, we have disseminated information about the online consultation widely to library authorities via our regional network of Library Relationship managers and requested that the option to contribute to the online research is highlighted to the public."

I have never heard of the Library Relationship managers so have no idea what this actually means. I have questioned the limited budget to support there work line though so have responded with another email:

"Presuming the MLA passed on a list of all the 151 library authorities in a spreadsheet with contact names and/or emails to contact them all directly then doing either a email merge or a mail merge to post letters would be the work or a couple of hours for one person, the email merge being free and a mail merge the cost of:

151 first class stamps 90 pounds
151 envelopes (1p per envelopes)
151 sheets of paper (1p per sheet)

So the cost to contact every library authority by letter would be under £100  in stationary and postage costs. The cost to email them would be free. To write a simple notification letter and do the mail/email merge would not take one person more than half a day. I'm amazed that this didn't take place. 

Do you not hold a current electronic list with contact details for the 151 library authorities?

With best regards,"

I'm not very happy about this, it for me shows once again that consulting by government, regardless of the level is just a box ticking exercise and they make no real effort to understand the views of the electorate. If I get a further response I will put in a update.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Information privacy

What you read says a lot about you
I got to thinking about privacy again when sneering at the self service machine in our local library. The other week when looking for the books I had reserved I noticed a couple of copies of Shades of Gray the S&M fiction book that everyone keeps going on about or taking the piss out of. The names of the members of the public were on the bits of paper sticking out of the books for obvious reasons because you have to now get the book yourself and take it to the self service machine, in the brave new world of Big Society community libraries there won't always be a member of staff around and the reserved books aren't behind the counter in Oxfordshire libraries anymore like they used to be. I personally wouldn't be fussed if someone knew I was reading that sort of stuff but others might be. It also raises other questions though, what if I wanted to borrow a book on depression or issues with sexual health? What would happen if I were employed locally and my boss also uses the same library and saw I was getting out books about dealing with alcohol problems? This means that everyone who uses the library is privy to my reading habits and knows that I might have issues. For all the hand wringing, time and effort councils and public bodies put into making sure they don't discriminate against certain groups or break the data protection act I'm amazed that libraries are allowing our reading habits to be open for all to see.  These issues are likely to stop people seeking help and information from the library service because the privacy has gone. Not only will the members of the public looking for their own books see what everyone else is reading but the "volunteers" who will be sorting out the books will know and undoubtedly some will gossip. Currently I would trust a library manager or assistant to be discrete and if I reserved a book that was on a topic that was probably something that should be kept private then she/he would put the book out of sight and let me know quietly that it has arrived.

When you consider the data protection act prevents the release of personally identifiable information if it has the postcode as its theoretically possible to identify someone from this and tie it to what ever information is there(average 7 people per postcode I think) then how is it possible that everyone using a library is allowed to see what everyone else is reading? You could just take off the name from the books waiting to be collected of course but how would people know the book is definitely for them? There were two copies of shades of gray the other day, some people may order the same book at different times and collect a book thinking its for them when theirs won't be available for weeks, probably would be common when new books come out. Even putting on the membership number of the person is probably slightly dodgy in the data protection act as it is a unique identifier which I believe isn't allowed. There may be a fix for this but the current system of sticking little name tags onto the books which in future will be done by volunteers isn't satisfactory. Sadly public bodies choose to adhere to the letter of the law only when it suits them, other times they always have ways of wriggling out. When people need information and help for private issues they either have to accept people are going to know what they are reading about or sadly they will have to start looking elsewhere.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Not so ACE

Update: 10/Oct/2012

I replied to ACE with further questions:

1. What steps have been taken to let people know about the existence of the survey?

2. Did you let the library authorities know and ask them to inform their library users who will be unaware of its existence otherwise?

And got this response in return:

"We are directing people to the survey from our own website with a link from the scrolling banner on the front page. We have also promoted it via twitter using the hashtag #ACElibraries and by targeting specific groups to spread the word through @mentions.

We have also contacted a range of organisations requesting they share the survey with the public via their networks and newsletters, including organisations representing parents, older people, disabled people, educators, young people in higher or further education, book and art groups, social, cultural, ethnic and faith groups and people and groups campaigning for local government services, for example post offices. In addition, we have contacted library member groups and library service contacts asking them to promote the survey to the public.

If you have any further questions please do get in touch."

I have asked directly if they had sent this information to my County Council, Oxfordshire and I have also asked Oxfordshire County Councils library service if they know anything about it. I have double checked with my local library and a library in another part of the county and neither had any idea about this survey. I will update again when I get responses. I'm cross because someone isn't doing their job properly and the residents of Oxfordshire are being denied their right to join the political process.

--------Original post---------

I'm still not sure what parts of the public library service ACE (Arts Council England) are responsible for but the other week they put out a survey entitled "Envisioning the library of the future" I don't know much about the company that created the survey but the design was obviously created from a earlier survey "what do you want from survey websites in the early 90s" to see what I mean have a look here:

I only hope ACE got this at a very cheap price. I was amazed that ACE are only doing a online survey considering the demographic of library users, I myself only found out about it via twitter, there was nothing in our library (as far as I can see) about this and you can count the twitter users in our local library on one finger. So obviously I stuck in a email to ACE to have a moan and here is the response:

"Dear Trevor,

Thanks for getting in touch.

There is not an offline version of the survey but with public access computers in libraries, library staff will be able help people to get online and complete the survey.

We are trying to give as many people as possible an opportunity to take part in the research, so as well as the online survey, we have also run face-to-face workshops with members of the public in various parts of the country. This is so that we have a wide range of people contributing to our discussion and developing ideas. We recruited participants for these workshops so that they broadly represented the general population.

The online survey is designed to open up our consultation to a wider number of people than we could reach through the workshops alone – it is an efficient and cost-effective way of reaching a large number of people.

If you have any further queries please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards,"

I confess to knowing nothing about the workshops either, doing a google news search on the title of the survey only returns one hit:

So there is hardly a massive publicity drive to get people filling this thing in. Why are they not even trying to promote this survey to get a full range of views? Obvious answer is that its just another box ticking exercise to say they have consulted in the piss poor excuse for democracy we have in this country. Sigh

Monday, 8 October 2012

Power to the people

I have copied two chunks of text from wiki page of the Yes Prime Minister episode "Power to the People" One of the writers of Yes Minister did a column on the subject and suggested it should be tried in real life to end the power of the party machines in local government. The wiki page is here:,_Prime_Minister)

And if I ever find the article I will post it but it, its does exist I just am unable to find the bugger, below is the text from the relevant bit of plot from the episode:

Not for the first time, Jim Hacker is experiencing problems with local government. He bemoans the fact that councillors are elected by 25% of the population, who base their choice on the performance of the national government, and, once installed, spend four years on a "subsidised ego trip". During this time, the Prime Minister argues, everything they do is counterproductive and he gets the blame for it.

Hacker is in his upstairs flat in 10 Downing Street with his wife, Annie. He invites over Dorothy Wainwright, his political advisor, as he wishes to hear her views on local government. She counsels a scheme recently put forward by a Professor Marriott, which would give power back to the people by making town halls genuinely accountable. This involves making each councillor responsible for just 200 local residents, which would then lead to a large local council that would report to a smaller executive committee. Councillors would then be in close contact with those that voted for them — and would have to listen to their concerns. The PM is enthused and wishes to proceed with the plan, calling it "Hacker's Reform Bill".