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".

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

When Dave intervened and told Keith to use "Big Society" volunteers, neither had thought it through. The Steve Hilton back of a fag packet flagship policy, which no-one has ever been able to explain and didn't get the Tories a mandate from the electorate doesn't actually work as a cost saving exercise for libraries. Surrey CC have admitted this and I believe it to be the case in Oxfordshire. Neither does it work as a way of creating a sustainable library service. The poor staff at OCC went on a mad scramble to try and throw some data together to try and decide on a method of which libraries would have the honour of joining the "Big Society". Sadly for the Tories, 16 out of the 21 that were being cut (joining the "Big Society")  were in Tory divisions. Even now after trying for six months the council has failed to recruit the volunteer coordinator that they say is crucial to the scheme. Because of Dave's intervention, all the other alternatives were ignored. They went to Hillingdon to see what they were doing but didn't speak a word. They haven't even looked into shared library services with another authority so I have stuck in a few FOI requests to see what would work.

Holton where the library service is based is for OCC is 17.5 miles away from the Bucks County Council in Aylesbury. This is where the library service is based for Bucks.

Looking at the management and professional data and the service support for Bucks (they included all staff so I excluded library manager roles) They spend about 4.1 million in the back office supporting their library service.

Amazingly in Oxfordshire County Council, their service support costs have gone from 3.1 million in 10/11 to 4.4 in 11/12, this combined with the management and professional costs of about 1.4 million gives OCC a back office total of around 4.5 million. When I spoke at the scrutiny committee last year the officer and the tory members questioned my definition of back office. In simple terms its everyone that isn't customer facing. which I think is a fair description of the service support and management and professional sections of a library service spend. For fairness here is what OCC's definition of the service support costs are:

Property recharges, directorate recharges, human resources, finance, ICT, Legal and other.

For the full breakdown of what these service support costs are incurred by you can see their response to one of my early posts:

Needless to say, none of these people doing these tasks that cost 4.4 million work in a customer facing role, neither do the management and professional or service support so I think the back office label is fair.  Its also work pointing out that according to their own CIPFA returns their staff reorganisation has only led to the back office in the library service going down by 2.9 fte. They are savaging 21 of their 43 libraries but only 2.9fte will be going/gone in the back office.

Hardly savage cuts to protect the front line
I don't want to see anyone lose their job but when you are spending 4.5 million to support a library service and 17 miles down the road another council is spending 4.1 to do the same thing you have to question why are they not sharing these costs? Looking at this on a map makes it even more stark that they have to look here for savings with other councils:

Rural commuters would love a daily drive to work this short
The 313k savings (not the true figure, they are ignoring the costs) could easily be found by looking at sharing some of the more expensive roles. In fact OCC already have a shared service agreement with Hampshire CC over 90 miles away so it can be done. To force volunteers to run the libraries yet to sustain two management structures and back office costs is madness, only in the public sector would this happen. The Tories have to ignore Davids "big society" intervention and think again, otherwise the message given to voters is vote Lib Dem and Labour and your libraries in Oxfordshire will be safe.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.