Sunday, 29 August 2010

All quiet in the blogosphere

It must be because it's August. Even the blogosphere has a hush about it as people are en vacances. No such luck for me. I can't even afford a UK break, let alone join the hordes (virtually every single person I know)who are jetting off to Turkey the new destination of choice for its ability to provide guaranteed warm weather outside of the eurozone. This has found me, perhaps rather sadly, commenting on the Guardian a lot, particularly on my second fave subject the big society.

One interesting debate has been around the issue of recruiting volunteers and how this is far more problematic than first assumed. Volunteers are unsurprisingly more likely to be middle-class types leading to some big geographical inequalities.

This led me to chip in with the suggestion that due to the changes in voluntary organisations in the past decade, particularly the changes leading to vol. sector organisations playing a bigger role in providing services hitherto provided by the state, there is less room for volunteers, particularly unskilled volunteers so this leaves the young and other groups at a big disadvantage as even if they want to volunteer there are actually very few openings.

The voluntary sector is just not what it was, no longer is it a bunch of do-gooding-amateurs mucking-in, but is now more likely to consist of highly skilled and more often than not paid professionals. One voluntary group I worked with employed ex-nursing staff to run the core part of the operation whilst tea was made by Social Work students on placement.

Openings which do exist are generally confined to the fund-raising side, though the top level work is again now in the hands of remunerated professionals and the ground work is carried out by contractors such as the infamous Chuggers. Charity shops and opening bags are therefore the only real things on offer.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The problem with local government

Last weekend saw me have a very enjoyable meet up with some of my former colleagues. It was great to catch up with some people after almost a year. As I finished off my first pint I also managed to come up with a theory about just what is wrong with local government....

So many people are just unhappy in their jobs. This may not be a particularly unusual statement. Very few people I've met either in the public sector or private sector profess to love their jobs, but there is a much deeper sense of low morale and of feeling trapped in local government - I should know I spent a couple of years there myself.

The reason for this is simply the increment system. If you get appointed to a role at say 15k per year you will receive a £500 per year pay-rise automatically for the first few years, then for another few years you need to prove you have achieved set objectives before getting your raise. This continues until you reach the upper limit for that grade at which point you can continue no more, at 15k this would typically be about 19-20k.

The advantage of the system is that it rewards experience and loyalty. The disadvantage is that it can become for many a gilded cage as it makes a sideways move to another team, authority or even a move out of the organisation particularly expensive. I once worked with a very experienced care manager who confessed she would love to work in a mental health team but, after many years in her current post was at the top of her grade so such a sideways move would mean a fairly drastic pay-cut.

This all leads to a time-serving mentality with the attendant stagnation and resentment from unfulfilled dreams. People have a disincentive to move and develop so remain in post long after their enthusiasm for the job has faded. Their incumbency also prevents a new person with fresh enthusiasm taking up that post.

Experience of course is a good thing, especially in a field like social care where an experienced member of staff is invaluable, but it's a question of balance in a team. Too many time-servers and the team suffers.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A question of accountability

There is no doubt that there is just a pinch of politics behind the decision to publish details of what are being referred to as the spending 'excesses' of the Department for Communities and Local Government under the previous administration. There is also little doubt that groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance will be foaming at the mouth as they pick over the details whilst the media will be searching for what can be described as a 'duck island moment' - one item which sits above all overs for sheer folly.

For once I'm with all of them. In my time in local government I knew nothing, but grim austerity. Office downgrades, no awaydays for several years, no Christmas party, no nothing, well something, in 5 years the total sum we received was a £5 lunch paid for from money the a team member had received for taking a student on. I disagree with this approach too. Awaydays can be valuable for morale and for working out operational issues, even a Christmas party improves cohesion and morale. The problem is that when budgets are scrutinised you need to show added value and whilst it is easy and straightforward to say what something cost it is much harder to and infinitely more complex prove just what value it adds.

That said excess is excess. I remember hearing stories from my friends girlfriend who worked for UK Trade and Industry about all expenses paid trips, including a coach to Brighton for their Christmas do and inviting staff from SEEDA along for the ride. The team also underspent it's budget one year so a member of staff was duly dispatched to purchase a load of blackberry's so as to protect next years allocation. There couldn't have been anymore of a contrast with my own experience where we frequently struggled biros so poor quality they dried up after a few days if they were the black ink type or became unbelievably blobby if they were blue.

The reason for the difference was simple. In the local authority we were more accountable - to a local electorate who paid a locally set tax rate and so faced closer scrutiny not just from them, but from politicians eager to rein in costs wherever they could. For a central government department and even more so for the quangos which have proliferated the workings are more opaque and there is no clear link to the individual taxpayer.

I don't believe the issue is one of who the political masters are, after all quangos were a Tory invention, but one of governance. Whilst a commitment to publish expense details will improve transparency and therefore accountability it still does not address some major issues, particularly with quangos as to who runs them, what are they for, who sets their priorities, questions in general which need to be asked.

Ironically transparency overall has been declining. Commercial confidentiality can be invoked to cover a multitude of sins and many people do not know if the council officer they are dealing with is employed by the local authority or a commercial contractor. David Cameron's call for a greater Civil-Society also raises issues, charities after all are far less transparent than local government - although numerous efforts have been carried out to improve reporting and accountability, but with the charge that this was eroding what was distinctive about the sector.

As ever the answers are less than transparent.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Pinch

Last night I finished reading 'The Pinch: How the baby boomers stole their childrens future and how they can give it back' by the current Universities Minister David Willetts.

The main focus of the book is demographic; chiefly the demographic disruption caused by the baby-boomer generation. An ecxcellent review on the Guardian website captures the key points covered by the book. One of the most intriguing arguements the book puts forward is on the question of social mobility. For Willetts declining social mobility and rising inequality is explained by the discrepancy between individual behaviour and group behaviour. Whilst as individuals the baby-boomers do all that they can to assist their own children (via the bank of mum and dad), as a group they are responsible for monopolising resources and creating the conditions which leave subsequent generations with a rather poorer deal than the one they themselves took advantage of.

As one of the generation who has been hard done by ever since Maggie took my milk away followed by being the first year to have to pay university tuition fees and for whom home ownership is as realistic a dream as owning my own private island much of the book chimed. As a student of Social Policy I was also impressed. However, not all points were backed up with sufficient evidence; Willetts only alludes to the reasons why the baby-boomers have been able to get a good deal from the state via the ballot box not pausing to look at the kind of theories, such as median voter theory, which could explain this.

Overall it is a great text on the consequences of demographics upon the functioning of ther welfare state and poses many questions which will become ever more topical as the first baby-boomers begin drawing their pensions.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Health and Social Care; a happy marriage?

For the past few years the biggest buzz phrase among senior managers was 'joint working.' Unlike such derided management-speak phrases as 'blue sky thinking' Joint working meant something real, a long overdue acceptance that social care and health are inexorably tied together. The real initiatives which emerged from this were the rehab teams; jointly staffed by community nurses, Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, care managers and social workers. The teams also had access to rehab carers who were specially trained to provide assistance, but in a way which enabled the service user to maximise their independence; working toward a set of user defined goals which could range from running a marathon to making a cup of tea independently.

The teams were not without problems, one which stuck out was the cultural difference between health staff and social care staff with the former being used to far more status, professional autonomy, and possessing slightly different recording practices, but these were small and something which could be resolved over time. For me it always seemed these teams were the way forward, the sensible future for social care. Senior managers seemed to agree, the teams were innovative and with the emphasis on reducing dependence could potentially be far more cost effective.

This has led to me prophesy a marriage between health and social care. The organisational divide between the two, one PCT controlled, the other LA controlled has long seemed a bit arbitrary especially when joint-working has achieved real differences on the ground. The question was however, what organisation would give way. I long believed this to be LAs who I felt, certainly in my case, seemed to be disposing and delegating as many functions as possible in the name of cost-cutting.

But how wrong I was. It is PCTs who now see their days as numbered leaving LAs, as this Guardian article suggests, invested with the governance of health and social care.

Having not got my head round the proposed reforms to the NHS I'm unsure what this means for the future - (for my part the current system seemed to be working very, very well so I'm perplexed by the need to change it) but, the article expresses my chief concern at this stage; Can LAs handle the increased responsibility?