Monday, 27 May 2013

Are you healthier and wealthier?...probably not.

It's that time of year again when the council tells us that we are healthier, wealthier and wiser through the endless pages of the Annual Report and Improvement Plan. In reality, you probably feel roughly the same as you did last year, as you will next year too. Much of it is aspirational nonsense. All councils have to publish these documents which measure performance against targets and who can come up with the most ridiculous jargon and the most grateful looking pensioners. It will now go through scrutiny committees where hopefully, it will be scrutinized.

This is a self-evaluation exercise so only a couple of independent reports are incorporated, one is the schools inspectorate, Estyn, which found that in Carmarthenshire, 'the proportion of schools requiring follow-up activity after an inspection is high in comparison with other authorities'. 
The Wales Audit Office evaluation of the Report and Plan depends on the authorities being 'genuine, honest, objective, unbiased, fair, balanced and proportionate', in summary it concluded that Carmarthenshire's reporting was 'generally fair and balanced. Although focused mainly on positive achievements...', In plain speaking, it's a load of old spin.

Carmarthenshire certainly makes the most of the opportunity, publishing a ten page summary for the public (later in the year), a lengthy 75 page report to council and a whopping 218 page supporting technical annex. We can look forward to the best bits forming a selection of council press releases over the next few weeks.

One Key Priority of course is delivering value for money and 'directing our resources to the top priority front line services on which many local people depend'. With those local people in mind, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee are still waiting for a report defining any possible savings in the Civic and Ceremonial and the Communications budgets. Corporate limos, civic lunches, the Carmarthenshire News, and for that matter, senior officer pay, never seem to appear in the 'efficiency savings' programme.

The spin and propaganda also extends into the pay packets of all 9500 staff every month, with the inclusion of a newsletter, complete with a message to the troops from the Chief Executive, (cost unknown).

They, the P & R Committee, are also still waiting for information as to how much is spent on consultants by each council department. An all-Wales report (not just Carmarthenshire) by the Wales Audit Office in February revealed that seriously inadequate management of consultancy procurement and monitoring procedures was not giving value for money for the taxpayer, or 'Better use of Resources' to use one of Carmarthenshire's catchphrases. It turns out that, for example, if a civil engineering company does consultancy as well as building work, current methods of financial reporting make it impossible to tell how much is spent on each service.

As for those local people; luncheon clubs, libraries, day centres, museums, village schools, youth clubs etc are all in the firing line. Charges have increased for parking, leisure centres, care services, council tax etc and anything else the council can legally prise cash out of you for. However the locals, if they're local to Carmarthen anyway, can now go ten-pin bowling, with prayers included, thanks to £1.4m given to Towy Community Church Ltd.

Another Key Priority comes under the heading 'Building a Better Council'; several sub-headings, embedded strategies and pie charts later, we get to 'Core Value B1; Openness, trust, honesty and integrity' where we find a mention of Freedom of Information Requests.

Carmarthenshire council has, the report says, 'one of the highest and increasing number of Freedom of Information requests in Wales', 886 last year, (and they're not all from me, in case you were wondering) This, they say, "may suggest that some of our public information sources could be improved further, or that we have a more engaged and interested community". With regards to the former, it brings back memories of my very closely supervised and unwelcome visit to view the dusty ledgers of the Register of Members' Interests. Something almost all other local authorities manage to publish quite easily online. And many others publish spending details. As for the latter, a heightened interest from the community, I hope they're right.

As an example of their 'openness' there's a link to the 'Senior Management Team Pay Statement' which is so out of date it Meryl Gravell is still queen.

With only two employees (compared to the 'team of twenty' in the PR department) its hardly surprising that the council failed to respond to 80 requests within the statutory 20 day limit, one of the reasons given for this,  which should come as no surprise, is the length of time taken to "obtain approval to release information".

Another questionable boast in the Report concerns the 'review' of the council's constitution, with a view to 'achieving efficiencies and streamlining decision making processes' by amending, amongst other things, the Standing Orders. I'm not sure what the efficiencies are but the streamlining must be referring to the reduction of minority voices, limiting debate, particularly if it's a controversial topic, and generally giving further control over agenda items, questions, motions and petitions to a senior officer.
'Streamlining' is not the word I'd have used but then again, I'm not a spin doctor. There have also been times when puzzled observers have wondered just which version of the Constitution is the current favourite.

So, given a few examples, the reality is somewhat different from the corporate image of the 'best council in Wales'. We all know that by now though. Please note however, I don't want to detract from the hardworking frontline staff and the majority of the workforce who keep the machine ticking over.

I suppose in times past, numerous meetings, seminars and buffets were by held by local government officials to determine how the performance of councils could be measured. The tortured evolution has resulted, in Carmarthenshire anyway, into an unwieldy and unreadable (and undoubtedly expensive and time consuming) load of old tosh and a glib, patronising summary for public consumption. There has to be a better way.

The whole thing can of course be seen on the council website, if you're so inclined.


Tessa said...

Thanks for your perceptive summary of the waffle. No ta though, I won't check it out myself - can't be arsed, nor can probably anyone other than bloggers, and those who actually wrote it.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you Tessa, yes, I read it so you don't have to ;)