I’ve been mulling over whether to bother writing this post. While the publication of DCLG’s ‘50 ways to save – Examples of sensible savings in local government’ made me incredibly irritated, I’m not sure it warrants expending any energy on it…but I can’t stop being cross about it, so I’ve finally succumbed to responding.
The ideas Eric Pickles and his team put forward are a heady mixture of obvious, patronising, inconsequential, offensive, very occasionally sensible and downright bonkers. Here’s my response to some of the highlights:
1. Share back office services – Just like DCLG and all the other central government departments do, right? Nope. Two-thirds of councils already do share back office services.
2. Community Budgets – Bring staff and money together – This one may have some merit, but it’s a government programme and only involves a handful of authorities. I suggest DCLG roll it out quickly.
3. Use transparency to cut waste – publish your spending online and get volunteer ‘armchair auditors’ to do the work of the audit commission.
4. Tackle duplicate payments – stop paying people twice? Great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
5. Clamp down on corporate charge cards – they suggest greater financial controls on credit cards. But hang on, don’t the government set the rules on financial controls? If they aren’t tight enough, why don’t they just tighten them up?
6. Special spending controls – effectively, we’ll save money by have more people signing off on spending money.
7. Tackle fraud – another staggering statement of the bleeding-obvious. I’m sure there’s not a finance director anywhere who has thought of that.
8. Claw back money from benefit cheats – funny how there’s nothing in here about clawing back money from white collar fraud, or unscrupulous banks in here. Hmmmm.
9. Get more for less by improving procurement – how many of Whitehall’s finest were needed to come up with this one? I must abandon my own plans for worsening procurement straight away.
10. Buy together – okay. I can accept that collective purchasing could save some money.
11. Stop the scope for procurement fraud – if the Government weren’t so anti-regulation, maybe they’d act to stop this directly, rather than suggesting others do it.
12. Utilise £16 billion of reserves creatively – woohoo! A sensible idea.
13. Improve council tax collection rates – see no.9 & replace the last bit with ‘worsening collection rates’
14. Encourage direct debit and e-billing for council tax – and don’t worry about further excluding all those people who can’t get bank accounts.
15. Close council cash offices – and turn them into ‘gold offices’? they seem to be doing really well on the high streets, after all.
16. Better land and property management – that’s something government are really great at.
17. Hot-desking, estate rationalisation and sub-letting – who’s renting all that empty space at Eland House (DCLG’s offices) then?
18. Open a ‘pop up’ shop in spare office space – DCLG have had whole floors empty for well over a year. Coulda popped up a whole lot earlier, or did you only just think of this one?
19. Close subsidised council canteens – like the subsidised bars in Parliament? No, thought not…our MPs and Lords deserve a cheap glass of Chablis after a hard days law-making.
20. Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies – I know, it’s impossible to get a room in a posh hotel these days with all the local government officials staying there.
21. Open a coffee shop in the library – don’t worry about that £80 black hole in your budget, you can open a coffee shop in the library (which you can’t afford to keep open) and everything will be okay.
22. Cut senior pay – even better make anyone with any experience and knowledge redundant and you can just employ junior officials on half the salaries. That’s worked marvellously at DCLG. [NB this comment does not mean I believe no senior officials are overpaid!]
23. Share senior staff – see 22. Actually, while I think of it…with all the cuts to public sector spending going on, why do we need so many Ministers being paid salaries and with staff to support them? Shouldn’t we cut the number of Ministers by, say, 20% too?
24. Scrapping the chief executive post entirely – okay and do we really need so many Ministers? Can we scrap some of them too? Especially with this whole localism agenda, surely decisions are now taken locally…so why do we need the same numbers of Ministers?
25. Introduce a recruitment freeze – and do what exactly when people leave?
26. Freeze councillor allowances and end councillor pensions – yup, we only want to have councillors who can afford to do it for free. “even Ministers have cut Ministerial salaries” we’re proudly told. Yes, because they’re all millionaires who don’t need the money.
27. Cut spending on consultants and agency staff – yeah, because no local authorities are doing that.
28. End expensive ’leadership’ courses – obviously Common Purpose have pissed off someone at DCLG and are now getting a dig. Aside from that, we don’t need any training or any leadership anyway…obviously.
29. Cut spending on head hunters and expensive adverts – now I do think some of these firms charge extortionate rates for not very much. But I’m not sure that the advice to just advertise online is gonna be the answer. Reading this line – “publish job vacancy information online as open data instead” – I can only assume that someone thought that if they included ‘open data’ in there it’d make it sound cool and meaningful. *sigh*
30. Review and reduce absenteeism – Staffordshire Council may have saved £100,000 a month by “providing support for staff with musculoskeletal problems” but I’m sure that HR departments up and down the country think this idea is a Christmas present come early…I can hear the uniform cries of “why didn’t we think of that?” from town halls across the land.
31. Scrap trade union posts – I simply cannot believe that this blatant union bashing is being offered up as a serious recommendation by a government department. Describing union officials as ‘non-jobs’ is highly subjective and philosophically motivated. Don’t mince your words, just tell us what you think.
32. Charge for collecting trade union subscriptions – and improve industrial relations in the process. Sure to save bucket loads of money, as you can charge what you want, so it’s bound to well worth pissing people off to do it.
33. Stop spending money on commercial lobbyists –at last, something I can wholeheartedly endorse. Ah, but hang on, councils are already told not to in DCLG’s own guidance. Errr, maybe the government should just deal with any councils that aren’t following this.
34. Stop translating documents into foreign languages – yeah, sure. Why waste money making sure people can understand what you’re saying. Come to think of it, maybe that explains why government publishes so much gobbledygook! I thought it was just because they can’t do ‘plain English’, but maybe it’s a deliberate ploy to stop people understanding?
35. Reduce the number of publications and media monitoring – makes perfect sense not to pay to find out what people think of you, if you don’t care what people think of you. Simples.
36. Earn more from private advertising – oh, brilliant. That should sort out the £60m savings we need to make to our budget. And I’m sure putting adverts on town hall noticeboards (as suggested) is bound to raise morale and make for a greater sense of civic pride.
37. Cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’ – anyone who quotes the IEA’s outrageously poor report on charities’ dependent on the state deserves to be put in the corner with a big dunce hat on. It was ridiculous when it was published and it’s not aged well. I won’t waste any more time on this crap.
38. Scrap the town hall Pravda – quick, someone tell the comms department that we need to change the name of newsletter, Eric is on to us. For god’s sake. Referring to Pravda only serves to highlight how ridiculously partisan and politically motivated this rubbish is.
39. Stop providing free food and drink for meetings – now, I don’t expect to be fed and watered by the state, but things at DCLG have got quite ridiculous to the point that staff are buying biscuits out of their own pockets because they’re embarrassed to sit in a room with a bunch of people they’ve invited to come for a 4 hour meeting over lunchtime and they can just about rustle up a glass of water (if you’re lucky).
40. Reduce first class travel – sensible…but is there really any evidence that we have public servants across the land travelling first class?
41. Cut mileage payments – we’re told councils spent £400m on mileage allowances and that some authorities are paying more than the HMRC figure. Okay, sort it. move on. Even better, don’t let staff out the town hall – nail them to their chairs and they’ll be even more productive.
42. Video conference instead of travel – bingo!
43. Help the voluntary sector save you money – by calling them fake charities and stopping their funding (see 37).
44. Cut printing costs – I’ve no real problem with digital by default, as long as you ensure that people who don’t have access to the internet aren’t excluded. We’re not anywhere near that point…so until then we’re going to have to print a fair bit.
45. End lifestyle and equality questionnaires – yeah, being old or disabled is a lifestyle choice, so let’s stop worrying about it. And telling councils they don’t need to spend time and money on Equality Impact Assessments is another politically motivated attack on vulnerable groups. Charming.
46. Sell services – if the picture of councils painted by these suggestions is anywhere close to the mark, there’s clearly so little business acumen in local government as to make this suggestion laughable. And even if there were now’s bound to be the best time to launch a new business. Or perhaps it means councils should charge for public services? Hmmm….isn’t that what our taxes are for?
47. Hire out the town hall – and retire to the Bahamas. Another one no one has ever thought of doing….ever.
48. Lease works of art not on display – to make money?
49. Save money on computer software – go back to chalk and slates
50. And finally… ask your staff for more sensible savings ideas – unless you work at DCLG, in which case, I probably wouldn’t bother.
Merry bloomin Christmas, to quote Raymond Briggs!