Starbucks decided that Christmas started this week, Boots were playing Christmas songs when I went in at the weekend, and I sit here in Leeds today on a lovely sunny day noting that the Christmas lights are to be switched on this evening.
So, if it’s Christmas, it must be time for another bonkers guide for local authorities on how to save all of this money that we are wasting. Last year it was the DCLG’s 50 Ways to Save. This year we are treated to four times as many top tips, this time from the Taxpayers’ Alliance (endorsed, sadly, but only too predictably, by our Secretary of State), with no fewer than 201 ‘Ways to Save Money’.
A Council run by the Taxpayers’ Alliance would indeed be a miserable place to work. Some consolation, perhaps to the press officers, ‘co-ordinators’, climate change officers, disabled access officers, plus half of the country’s Chief Executives and Finance Directors, who would be sacked and thus not get the chance to find out. As well as taking a hit on many of the usual suspects that we have seen before – no in-house canteen, no more attendance at conferences, no staff training, no recognition for staff at in-house awards events – you will also get your pay docked if your department goes over budget. Who on earth would want to work in an authority which treats its workforce like that? If you don’t invest in your people, and you combine that with the other handy hint to stop using outside expertise, because your managers should already have it, how can you possibly be a high performing business? Why do the basic principles of good business management somehow not apply just because it is a public sector body not a private company?
Many of the recommendations are ones we have seen before ad nauseam (when you see that the first suggestion is ‘share services’ it doesn’t really set the pulse racing for what might be to come in the next 200 ideas). Many are patronising, just not recognising what local authorities have been doing for the last 5 years, or in some cases even longer (‘rationalise the number of council departments’ ‘shop around for insurance premiums’). Some make you wonder where they came from (is there still anyone who doesn’t pay suppliers by BACS, or who hasn’t managed to introduce double sided printing?). Some are irresponsible (don’t keep any reserves). Some could be dangerous (reducing the number of traffic lights), whilst some are just downright bizarre, such as putting sheep to graze on Council land to save money on grass cutting.
The really sad thing, though, is that the naivety and crassness of much of what is in the paper hides some useful stuff that is also in there, if only as a checklist that you have actually considered it. For example, if you can read as far as tip 159 before your blood starts to boil you will see a suggestion that the Council Tax should not bear any cost of the authority providing services to schools – if schools won’t fully fund them, don’t provide them. We are working with a number of authorities on this very topic, and whilst the Council’s statutory obligations in respect of education make it not quite as simple as this, having a ‘nil cost’ target is really not a bad place to start to focus the mind. There are also some useful suggestions, in and amongst the old hat, around procurement, such as weaning ourselves off of what the author terms ‘gold plating’, such as asking suppliers for copies of their equalities policies, for example, when asking them to confirm that they comply with the relevant legislation could be sufficient.
Recommendation 61 is that Councils should look to reduce their printing bills which are typically ‘millions of pounds’. Not printing ‘201 Ways to Save Money’ would be a good start!