Apr 2011 11

In response to the Department for Communities and Local Government consultation on the “Code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency,” our key recommendation was HR transparency. Hammersmith and Fulham Council have taken strides in this area and have a list of job titles available on their website. Encouragingly, it appears to have have caught on, as neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea have done the same; detailed structure charts clearly showing all members of staff in a particular division and where they fit in the council hierarchy. This is a great first step. Finally residents have a better idea where their money is going and have the opportunity to assess their council’s priorities.

Nowhere to hide...

Where we would urge councils to go further is by explaining briefly what each of the employees in the structure actually does. Often job titles are confusing and meaningless. If these job titles came with the job descriptions, it would eliminate any misunderstanding over the position and give residents the opportunity to decide if they think the position is worthwhile.

The Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday that councils are still recruiting members of staff with dubious titles commanding high salaries. Publishing spending £500 is fantastic but this misses out on probably the biggest area of spending – staff. Councils should implement HR transparency in full so that taxpayers have a better understanding of how councils spend their money.

Mar 2011 30

Our annual Town Hall Rich List always manages to provoke a reaction, and this year’s was no exception. Data for the latest 2011 list was taken from councils’ 2009-10 statement of accounts, thanks to a very welcome change in the regulations. Previously, we compiled the information by sending freedom of information requests to all local authorities in the UK. We still had to send requests to councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland this time round as the new regulations do not apply to them.

The new regulations state that while councils should provide information for the respective employees in the year to which the annual accounts relate, “equivalent disclosure is required for the comparative year.” This means that councils should not only provide the most recent year’s figures, but also the one prior to that for the sake of comparison. It is worth noting that while the levels of disclosure varied (for example, some providing searchable pdfs, others providing scanned documents or poorly formatted ones) most councils met these standards with ease. But some didn’t.

Where councils did not provide comparable information for the 2008-09 financial year, we searched our Town Hall Rich List 2010 to fill in the gaps for that year. We did this because it is the most reliable information on senior salaries that has been published, as it was assembled through Freedom of Information requests. This caused confusion with Lincolnshire County council’s numbers. In response to our request last year they initially provided positions and salary bands of £10,000. We had to submit an official appeal through the council to get more information, as our request asked for total remuneration and names. They then provided names and bands of £5,000, still a little short of what we actually requested.

Lincolnshire County Hall

Lincolnshire Council disputed the figures for remuneration increase in this year’s report. This figure will be high in some columns if a person received an extraordinary redundancy payment, was in post for part year or if incomplete information was provided by the council. In Lincolnshire’s case it was the latter. However, we controlled for this. When working out the average remuneration increase across the board we only included those in post for the full two years; therefore excluding part year employees, those who retired or were made redundant. What’s more, the source for the 2008-09 figure was clearly stated in the notes column of the report. For Lincolnshire’s entry, this explained that the 2008-09 figure was taken from our last Rich List and was taken from a provided band.

This example highlights three important points. First it draws attention to the inconsistent and selective disclosure in the councils’ 2009-10 statements of accounts. The second is with councils’ inaccuracy or reluctance to respond fully to Freedom of Information requests. Third is that we had to appeal to Lincolnshire to get these figures, which they now say are wrong; this reluctance to be open and transparent last year has clearly not helped. True, they now publish pay online, and with good detail, but this is not retrospective. Lincolnshire provided us with both figures, through FoI and through their own accounts, and this was the most detailed publicly available information.

Our Campaign Manager Charlotte went on the radio to talk about the THRL with a councillor from Lincolnshire County council. Rather than discussing the issues at hand, the councillor just focussed on the “wrong” figures. Of course, Charlotte was quick to point out to him that they were the council’s very own figures. If they’re wrong, then Lincolnshire have provided the wrong figures. It is so disappointing that taxpayers in Lincolnshire were denied genuine debate about savings at the council. Staff and councillors at Lincolnshire should check our sources, then their own accounts and FoI responses.

Mar 2011 25

It is so often claimed by opponents of transparency that it does not have a purpose, that it is meaningless to the average man on the street or that it puts an additional burden on already stretched departments or councils. This is all nonsense. An overused cliché issued by proponents of transparency is that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, but it is an overused cliché for a reason: it’s true. Councils across the UK have been dragged kicking and screaming into complying with publishing all spending over £500 online. And one – Nottingham City council – still arrogantly refuses to budge.

There are others that have released documents in an unreadable format but transparency has to be useful, too. This week, data analysis companies Rosslyn Analytics and QlikTech have offered assistance to HM Treasury in “obtaining an accurate view of UK Government Department Spending Data.” And this is precisely why public data should be useful. It’s true that Government data releases can often overwhelm in their volume and complexity, however with companies like this stepping into the fold – and there’s many more out

The best disinfectant?

there too, see here, here and here for example – the figures can be crunched down into simple statistics and interesting graphics. In partnership, these companies propose to “aggregate public sector expenditure data from all major departments in April for free within a record-breaking two week period.” So at no cost to the taxpayer either.

This will not just be of benefit to taxpayers but also departments as they look for savings. Take this parliamentary question for example:

Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover & Deal, “how much government departments budgeted for expenditure on IT in 2010-11, and what changes to forecast expenditure there have been as a result of his policy on IT procurement since May 2010,” Francis Maude responded by stating: “We don’t collect total spend on IT.”

No doubt a third party could have knocked this together into handy graphs at no cost to the taxpayer if usable data was out there, in the open. Data transparency is not just for the benefit of taxpayers but also the entire public sector, right from central to local government.

Mar 2011 24

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) recently held a consultation on its proposed ‘Code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency.’ The proposed code requires councils to publish information according to three key principles: demand-led, timely and open. To meet these principles, it sets out a commendable list of standards and expectations for councils to disclose data in an automatic, useful manner. For instance, it requires publication of both ‘csv’ and ‘pdf’ file types as a minimum. Pdf is more useful for viewing immediately, whereas a csv file (short for ‘comma separated values’) is a list of pure text formatted only by commas; not very user-friendly for immediate viewing but highly useful if you plan to rearrange or do any other work with it.  We very much welcomed the proposed code, but thought it could be strengthened further by removing loopholes some councils might otherwise exploit to drag their feet. You can see our full response below for our full range of recommendations.

But we also suggested something else that wasn’t in the proposed code at all – HR transparency. We said that public bodies subject to the code should publish a complete list of job titles and job descriptions of every single member of staff. We don’t think it’s necessary to publish remuneration details of staff on junior salaries. But it is important that taxpayers know what staff are employed to do and how many there are doing certain things. Publication of this information would surely lead to more informed debate about priorities in council spending which, in turn, would lead to more care in recruitment and staff allocation.

Taking care?

Hammersmith & Fulham council have made a great step forward in this area of their own accord, publishing detailed structure charts with every single job title. A win for transparency which other councils should emulate, but even they could go further, as our proposal for including job descriptions shows. DCLG and Hammersmith & Fulham should both be congratulated for their moves toward greater openness and transparency. But we should insist on HR transparency across the board and we hope that DCLG include our proposal in their final document.

Mar 2011 22

Back in January we responded to the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into the audit & inspection of local authorities. In light of the Coalition Government’s announcement to abolish the Audit Commission, the Committee began an inquiry to ascertain the impact and potential effects of this decision. In our submission we made our case, largely agreeing with the decision to abolish the quango. Besides its auditing functions, the other roles of the Audit Commission – compliance and assessment – had thankfully already been scrapped altogether. Star ratings and red or green flags did not amount to a better service provided to residents; it was a box-ticking exercise, amounting to little more an expensive version of a scruffy child straightening their tie when Ofsted paid a visit. Read our response in full here:

After we submitted our response, we were asked to give oral evidence to the Select Committee. Our Director Matthew Sinclair appeared yesterday and provided more arguments on why abolishing the Audit Commission is a good thing. You can view Matthew’s performance below.

Mar 2011 22

ConservativeHome carried an article yesterday morning highlighting the salaries of senior staff at the Local Government Group (LGG), an umbrella organisation that comprises the Local Government Association, the Local Government Improvement and Development, Local Government Employers, Local Government Regulation, Local Government Leadership and Local Partnerships. The article links to the salaries of 60 LGG employees, ranging from £40,000 right up to £209,999. There are 15 employees who take home salaries over £100,000, 32 between £80,000 and £99,999 and 13 between £45,000 and £74,999.

Worth it?

Top of the tree is Rob Whiteman, Managing Director of the Improvement and Development wing of the LGG, who receives a salary of between £205,000 and £209,499. The highest earner in the Local Government Association (LGA) in the Deputy Chief Executive, Jo Miller on £175,000-£179,999. Just behind her is the Group Finance Director, Stephen Jones, on £155,000-£159,999. The Chief Executive of the LGA John Ransford can be found slightly further down the list in receipt of the fifth salary bracket of £90,000-£94,999. This is of course following his honourable decision last year to take a severely reduced pay packet in his remaining few months in the job.

Each individual division of the LGG employs a similar number to a large council, but there are huge differences between the LGG and a council. For starters, councils are the main provider of local services. They manage street cleaning, rubbish collections, maintenance of public spaces, social services provision, housing needs, and schools. Many councils themselves have too big a corporate structure and pay their executives too much taxpayers’ money, and it’s even worse that the LGG and LGA mimic such profligacy. Would residents really notice if these trade associations ceased to exist?

LGA subscriptions are easy savings for councils. Taxpayers will be angry to see they are not only paying huge salaries to the executives in their own authorities, but are also contributing to hefty salaries handed out to employees of the Local Government Group too.

Mar 2011 10

Ever found yourself dealing with employees from your council and having no idea what they actually do? Well, they could be carrying out one of 1,294 statutory duties that parliament imposes on local authorities. This week the Department for Communities and Local Government (DGLG) has announced it will perform a review of these duties, which in many cases are the result of centuries old Acts of Parliament and are no longer really necessary. Of course, conforming to them tends to cost taxpayers money.

Amazingly, DCLG acknowledge it is in no way comprehensive. Inevitably within such a huge list of duties some are necessary to perform essential functions, but surely there are many that are now surplus to requirements? DCLG are asking for your help to establish a comprehensive list of any statutory duties that are no longer necessary, which you can do here. As we outlined in our Unnecessary Jobs report last year, these statutory duties spawn whole new departments in council workforces too, such as diversity officers and climate change officers. Another problem is that councils respond differently to the same edicts – Birmingham had 28 Diversity Officers on the list while Leeds made do with just 11. Some had none whatsoever and shared the duties among existing staff.

This is an encouraging measure from the DCLG; let’s hope it removes many of the tiresome, onerous and ultimately expensive requirements Whitehall place on local authorities. Of course, this must be completed with clarity and transparency, as Glyn Gaskarth of the Local Government information Unit points out.  He states “Every councillor must be able to find out, easily, exactly what the council is legally required to do. The public must be able to access such information in a clear and accessible format. We should constantly be asking ourselves if each regulation is necessary and if the law’s requirements can be met by less bureaucratic means.”

Mar 2011 09

Today is national No Smoking Day, and to celebrate Andrew Lansley has announced plans to hide cigarettes away under shopkeepers’ counters. A consultation will also be launched on plain packaging. The Prime Minister said only a few days ago that he wanted to ‘declare war on the enemies of enterprise’, but his Government has declared war on shopkeepers. Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, co-signed a letter to the Telegraph along with other think-tank leaders this morning to voice their disapproval with the plans:

Enemies of enterprise seek controls on tobacco

SIR – Today, smokers are asked to observe No Smoking Day. They may also finally get to hear Government proposals that could ban the display of tobacco products in retail outlets, and only allow tobacco to be sold in plain, state-prescribed packaging.

If the Coalition is committed to defeating the enemies of enterprise, as David Cameron, the Prime Minister, claims, a good start would be to call a halt to the relentless campaign to “denormalise” smoking through an endless barrage of new controls, directives and diktats.

Mr Cameron claimed last weekend that he would wage war on bureaucrats who concoct ridiculous rules and regulations. Banning the branding of tobacco products or making cigarettes an under-the-counter product would be yet another victory for these very bureaucrats. Life would become more difficult for newsagents and tobacconists and easier for the providers of illicit tobacco to pass off their wares as legitimate.

We cannot yet be sure about whether the Prime Minister’s commitment to combating regulation and red tape is truly serious. If his Government now unveils proposals to further restrict the sale and purchase of tobacco, it will be a clear sign that his new commitment to enterprise is little more than political rhetoric.

Patrick Basham
Director, Democracy Institute
Dr Eamonn Butler
Director, Adam Smith Institute
Donna Edmunds
Director of Research, Progressive Vision
Dr Helen Evans
Director, Nurses for Reform
Dr Tim Evans
Chairman, Economic Policy Centre
Daniel Hamilton
Director, Big Brother Watch
Angela Harbutt
Executive Director, Liberal Vision
Tim Knox
Acting Director, Centre for Policy Studies
Mark Littlewood
Director General, Institute of Economic Affairs
Matthew Sinclair
Director, The TaxPayers’ Alliance
Simon Richards
Director, The Freedom Association

Mar 2011 09

At long last the trend of council tax increases has come to an end. Taxpayers will be relieved to learn that they are not facing an increase in council tax for the coming year as councils across England have taken up the Government’s offer to freeze council tax in 2011-12 in return for a financial incentive to offset the costs. This move was announced last October in the Comprehensive Spending Review and it is not surprising to hear few councils have declined this offer. Steve Freer, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, claimed “The Government and councils have a shared interest in avoiding a public relations disaster of local people paying more for reduced services.” But this far more important than a PR exercise, as the Government estimates that the average family in a band D property will be about £72 better off, a much needed boost to already squeezed household budgets. Of course, it must be acknowledged that taxpayers’ money is being used to incentivise councils to freeze tax rises so one could argue that we’ve already paid for it, but it’s a far better use of public money than the numerous stories of waste that we report on this blog every week. Also, legislation has already been passed that means, from next year, all councils who want to increase council tax over a certain threshold will have to hold a local referendum beforehand.  A welcome stipulation as turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas.

But why stop there? If you are fortunate enough to live in Windsor and Maidenhead, Thurrock or Brighton you will be receiving a cut in council tax in the coming financial year. They have achieved this by running services effectively and cutting out waste when times were good. Now times are a little tougher financially they are far better prepared to protect taxpayers’ interests. Other councils are struggling with the adjustment, and complaining about it too, following mass over-spends and living way beyond their means. Huge pay increases for senior staff and the approval of wasteful projects shows a total disregard for taxpayers’ money and finally councils are having to face the consequences of their poor decisions over the last decade, but unfortunately it is not always those at the top of the executive tree who feel these effects. We welcome councils’ move to freeze rates and we hope they show responsibility and humility when making necessary financial savings.

Feb 2011 25

It was almost 12 months ago that Windsor and Maidenhead council gave notice to leave the Local Government Association. After meeting the LGA’s peculiar rule to provide a year’s notice, many councils regularly give notice of leaving just to keep their options open, but they are going to follow through and actually leave. Over the past year officials in the council have been weighing up exactly what they get in return for their massive £40,000 annual subscription. The Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Panel wanted to be sure that any cancellation of the subscription wouldn’t impact on residents. But when assessing potential successes they concluded that:

“It is difficult to ascertain whether the impact of lobbying by the LGA has enabled these activities and changes to take place or whether they were the result of action already underway, from representations made by councils themselves or from action agreed by the newly elected government. Certainly it is known that points 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 [in the report] are areas where direct intervention by the Borough or new Ministers has made the headway required.”

Additionally many of the benefits of being associated with the LGA can be obtained elsewhere at greatly reduced costs on an ad hoc basis. Windsor and Maidenhead paid over £40,000 last year and they have confirmed continuing that membership doesn’t represent good value.

Councillor Liam Maxwell, a cabinet member, has singled out a particular piece of evidence in the report: “Email alerts are issued by the LGA with advance notice of potentially negative stories, highlighting potential ‘knocking’ stories and preparing robust responses.” He responds – “Yes, our membership fee pays for advice on how to defend ourselves from criticism. Surely councillors and officers who are on top of their briefs can do this for themselves and don’t need to be spoon-fed by a publicly funded lobbying organisation?” Absolutely right.

The LGA is the embodiment of taxpayers’ money chasing more taxpayers money. It is a well fed organisation that claims to represent the interests of local councils yet over the years has too often thoughtlessly defended councils at every juncture whatever the situation or incident, as Cllr Maxwell points out.  Good councils are sold short. This is not an organisation that acts in the interests of taxpayers, whose local authorities blindly continue to throw tens of thousands of pounds its way every year.  It is fundamentally unfair and undemocratic for taxpayers’ money to be spent supporting lobbying for the interests of staff and politicians who have the power to hand it out.

At a time when councils should be looking carefully at their budgets to save money, councils can and should follow the example set by Windsor and Maidenhead and leave the LGA. Membership should be one of the first things to trim back on. If your council has not considered this as a possible saving then you should write to your councillors to see why not. You can do that through this website.

Feb 2011 24

“It’s very sad that the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) seem to have completely missed our point about supply teachers. As we said, we fully understand that they are a necessity to cope with disruptions such as staff on sick or maternity leave and there is absolutely no suggestion in the report that they are not committed and talented teachers. A knee-jerk defence of the industry was not necessary, and doesn’t alter the fact that they cost English schools more than £290 million last year.

What our research showed was that there was a significant increase in the use of supply teachers in more deprived areas. This is a worrying trend as it suggests that these pupils tend to have more discontinuity in their teaching. We’re sure that the REC would agree with us that, however experienced the teacher is, it is better for pupils to have the same teacher every day, rather than temporary teachers.

This report does not seek to provide answers to why this trend exists but rather to challenge education experts and policy makers to investigate the reasons for these statistical findings, so that young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have the best possible start in life.”

Feb 2011 22

Government run services will be expected to open up to private sector competition with payment-by-results contracts giving providers incentives to improve service quality, the Prime Minister has said in the Daily Telegraph. Downing Street has said the plans will go further than previous similar reforms in specific areas of the public sector because they will be generic, introducing a general presumption for being open with specific exemptions for areas such as defence and the judiciary. The state, David Cameron said,

“Should be open to real diversity, open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public sector ethos. This is a transformation: it ends the state’s monopoly over public services.

“Instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in individual public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.”

Competition improves their swimming

If Mr Cameron’s strong rhetoric is matched by suitable legislation, this proposal should be hugely beneficial to users of public services and taxpayers alike. Allowing private operators to reformulate service provision, motivated either by charitable zeal or profit-seeking efficiency to strip out waste and tempt the public to use their offering has obvious advantages. The pressure to cut elements of spending that people simply do not value will certainly be greater on charitable organisations or private sector companies than on state officials, whether the money saved will be redeployed into spending on something new managers think is more worthwhile (in the case of the charity) or possibly for private profit (in the case of a private sector provider.)

An important detail the Government must get right is the question of for whose custom the operators will be competing. Introducing external competition so government agencies can ‘outsource’ their operations is certainly a step in the right direction but will not always be the appropriate design. It would still leave an official standing between the public service user and the service provider. To reap the full reward of competitive forces, drive up quality and give the public what they want from public services the Government must pay attention to when it should allow new operators to compete directly for end users rather than for contracts with commissioning officials.

Taxpayers will not be happy about private companies making excess profits from cushy contracts or charities using taxpayers’ money to advance their own agenda. But as long as there is open competition taxpayers should benefit. Private companies must remain nervous that they will lose their contracts and customers to more efficient competitors and go out of business unless they keep the service quality they deliver high and their charges low. As long as the government keeps operators on their toes, it may just be able to inject some much-needed private and voluntary sector efficiency and vigour into our public services.

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