Did you see the ‘Dispatches’ programme on Channel 4 last night? It was a quite astonishingly lazy, largely regurgitated, one-sided romp through the results of yet more Freedom of Information requests on Council spending. The title ‘How Councils waste your (or was it ‘our’) money’ should give you a clue that this wasn’t some critical examination of social care budgets, but a miscellany of the kind of things our local newspapers have enjoyed printing on slow news days for the past few years.
In some respects, if the best that FOI requests to over 400 Councils can produce as fodder for prime time viewing includes York City Council spending, if I remember correctly, £160 on some pedicures for young people as part of a programme to raise their self-esteem, then most of the millions and billions must be being spent well. There was a very brief (about ten seconds) recognition that Councils do indeed spend millions and billions on some very important front line services, but then it was back to pedicures, twinning, trips abroad, expensive dinners and members who don’t attend meetings but still take their allowance and chauffeur driven cars.
Not surprisingly no Council chief officers were interviewed – heaven forbid that some reason and common sense should be allowed to intrude – but, all rather too predictably, there was one person who was more than happy to offer up his views. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that it was the Secretary of State. He didn’t, though, restrict himself to his usual rhetoric on things like the pedicures. Comment had been made by the presenter about the abolition of the Audit Commission, which Eric justified simply by saying that he had abolished them because they were ‘useless’. When it was later suggested that they had actually done some good work in identifying areas of poor value spend he said he hadn’t meant that they were completely useless, just mostly useless or words to that effect. Unfortunately no-one was invited to offer an opinion on the effectiveness of the Secretary of State himself.
I know we’ve mentioned this in many previous blogs, is that we expect our local authorities to deliver world class services, which means employing great people and giving them the space and opportunity to do their jobs effectively. A key part of that job for Chief Officers and members is to attract additional investment from business and from other partners, and to get out and learn lessons and best practice from what others have done, both in local government and elsewhere. You can try and do that sitting in an office with a cup of tea (that you’ve paid for yourself) and Google, but you won’t get very far.
I’ll finish by going back to the pedicures. If that programme of raising young peoples’ self-esteem succeeded in getting one unemployed young person into a job, then that pedicure saved the taxpayer a lot more than £160. But then nobody bothered to ask that question.