“Eric Pickles can save you money!”


How a recent document from the Department for Communities and Local Government has ruffled more than a few feathers. Plus a few other Christmas pressies from Whitehall

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced the new financial settlement for local councils in an oral statement to the House of Commons on 19 December 2012. Not surprisingly, there are further cuts in the grant towards local councils of between 1.7-8.8%. At the same time as that announcement was being made, there was this intriguing little document full of ideas on how local authorities can save money. It’s where the headline for this blogpost screamed at me.

I guess I can only describe the document as an eclectic mix of nuggets, nonsense, & the bleedin’ obvious that I’d like to think should not need to be stated in a government document. Having been through each of the 50 recommendations, I came away feeling that such a document would have been more suitable being published by a partisan think-tank with a ministerial foreword at the start. [Updated to add: Toby Blume has gone through each one of them here.]

There were a couple of points of principle that I can’t help but think someone would have raised objections to – both on tone and content. In terms of tone, it feels like it reflects Eric Pickles’ style of public speaking – it reads as it would sound as the Secretary of State reading aloud.

More detailed criticisms of the document have been made by Demos , as well as the the Directory of Social Change and the NCVO in an article in Third Sector magazine.

While the document itself is not a sizeable one, it has the feel of it having been written entirely by the Secretary of State, rather than one by officials which a minister puts a foreword onto, checks and signs off. Isn’t that the way it should be done? I winced at the terms “Town hall pravda”, “Sock puppets” (Puffles’ relatives have form in treating such things with violence) and “Fake charities”. Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned and times have changed – I did notice more than a few grey hairs in my stubble this morning.

Actually, the NCVO’s Charlotte Stuffins took apart the terms ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’ in an article on Page 7 of June/July ’12’s Charity Times. I can see why. In particular I have an issue with the term ‘fake charities’ because in England and Wales, a charity is something that is defined in law. As far as Part 1 Chapter 1 of the Charities Act 2011, the law is very clear on what constitutes a charity. If it does not meet those criteria, it’s not a charity. If it purports to be a charity in breach of the law, it should be shut down by the Charity Commission. So to see the term ‘fake charities’ used in a government document (that is not in the context of regulating charities) is actually quite depressing.

Singling out an organisation’s products and services for criticism

The other issue I have is one of principle – the identification of a particular product of a particular organisation for criticism. Recommendation 28 singles out leadership training provided by Common Purpose. Now, I’m not here to defend the organisation which has been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories – to the extent they have formally responded. The issue of principle is whether official government publications should criticise particular products or services from specific organisations, and then to apply whatever decision is taken, consistently.

The wider public procurement picture

One of the things a number of people with business expertise have asked me over the years is whether there were examples of firms not only losing contracts but being barred from bidding for future contracts as a result of poor performance in an existing one. I’ve never been able to think of one off the top of my head – do you know of any? With the large outsourcing firms going for large government contracts, it’s as if it’s almost impossible to impose such a penalty. Even now, G4S are on the shortlist for future contracts despite the very high profile failure at the Olympics.

You could say that public sector organisations are well within their rights to provide negative feedback where things go wrong – and tell their public sector partners. You could argue that there is a public interest for them to do so where things have gone catastrophically wrong where the delivery organisation was to blame. The thing is, in order to let others know, you pretty much have to go public. Internal communications and feedback loops in my experience are not nearly developed enough to feedback into decision-making processes as far as commissioners are concerned. At the other end as far as contractors (of which I am one myself) are concerned, we very much look at feedback forms and comments – even when we are torn to pieces. At the sharp end on small scale things, we very much encourage honest and constructive feedback so as to improve things next time around.

I guess my main point is that if you think leadership courses are over-priced, that’s fine. (Especially if you have negative experiences of being on one). From an organisational perspective, is there any evidence to demonstrate that they are poor value for money? (And in particular those of the organisation mentioned?) There may well be evidence if organisations commissioning such training make it mandatory for their employees to fill in feedback forms for the courses they go on. If that feedback shows delegates rating such courses negatively and as being poor value for money, then perhaps there is a public interest in publishing summary results. Not least because it will send a signal for those delivering such services to improve their offer both in terms of increased quality and lower prices.

“Talking of training and objectives, what’s Francis Maude been up to?”

As part of the ongoing reforms to the civil service, Maude has ordered the publication of the objectives of all permanent secretaries. This was accompanied by this seemingly alarming headline in The Independent about naming and shaming the worst civil servants. You can see the headlines now. “Exposed! Worst senior civil servant in country!” Actually, some of this isn’t really news – news of identifying the bottom 10% of senior civil servants was announced in the summer as part of plans to improve performance. The recent news is the publication of the agreed objectives. What do you think of both the principle of publishing them, and of their content? Not everyone is content with the proposals, as Jane Dudman of the Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network explains.

I guess the main issue I have is what defence those identified at the bottom 10% will have – especially where it’s not clear whose fault the failure to meet certain objectives was. Also, the risk with some of the more high profile failures going public means that there needs to be some protocol as to what senior civil servants can and cannot say in their defence if they find themselves in the middle of a firestorm – political, legal and HR-wise as illustrated by the ongoing case involving Kate Mingay of the Department for Transport.

As I’ve mentioned previously, senior civil servants – in particularly those on six figure salaries should quite rightly expect a greater degree of public scrutiny. But that scrutiny should not come at the expense of fairness. It’s very easy to foresee a scenario where ministers of any political party could use this greater transparency to dump the blame of policy failures onto senior civil servants, even though the policy itself as decided upon by ministers, was flawed in the first place. This is one of the things the likes of Sir Bob Kerslake, the Civil Service Commissioners and Parliament through the Public Administration Select Committee will need to be very vigilant about.

“Anything else?”

The ongoing battle about power over permanent secretary appointments. I kind of agree with David Walker, formerly of the Audit Commission, in that it might not be as big a deal as is being made out. If a cabinet minister doesn’t like a permanent secretary, can’t he have a quiet word with the Prime Minister, who has a quiet word with the Cabinet Secretary and/or Head of Home Civil Service to ensure a nice quiet sideways move out of the spotlight? As Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government points out, the public confirmation by the Prime Minister that he vetoed the appointment of David Kennedy seems to indicate a different modus operandi. (Way of working…I think).

If you’re interested in the accountability of the civil service, keep tabs on the work Akash Paun is doing here for the Institute for Government.


2 thoughts on ““Eric Pickles can save you money!”

  1. “The thing is, in order to let others know, you pretty much have to go public.”

    Problem with going public about your bad experience with a private sector company (I guess) is the company may respond vigorously to your public criticisms.

    I can easily see a council being sued by said operations if a piece of work fell apart.

  2. “whether there were examples of firms not only losing contracts but being barred from bidding for future contracts as a result of poor performance in an existing one.”

    This would be difficult if not impossible to do under the EU Public Procurement regime. Past performance in carrying out public contracts can be a criterion at the qualification stage but it would be open to challenge if poor previous performance was a knockout. At the very least it would be necessary to show that previous performance of specific things was relevant to the ability of the bidder to carry out the contract being bid for – however, this would not be easy to build into the tender documentation without it appearing to target a particular bidder, particularly for large contracts where there might only be a limited pool of broadly qualified bidders.

    This works both ways. I’ve previously advised contractors who were disappointed that they were unable to win contracts when they had very strong past records in the field (eg as incumbent service providers who had met or exceeded the contract requirements previously set and wanted to use this to support their bid to be reappointed). I also had a rather heated battle with OGC on whether a public authority could have award criteria which were also capable of being construed as references to past performance in similar contracts (got away with it but the more orthodox and uncontroversial interpretation of the ECJ case on point is that this shouldn’t be allowed).

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