In defence of paying local government Chief Executives what they’re worth…

Important disclaimer: itsmotherswork is not a local authority chief executive, nor ever likely to become one! itsmotherswork has worked in the private sector, and in central and local government and as a volunteer for a 3rd sector orgnisation engaged in public health work.

On Question Time this week, Janet Street-Porter got a round of applause for demanding that local government chief executives should take a 20% pay cut across the board. I wonder what she is paid, and what she does for the money? We don’t know of course, because that information isn’t made public. But local government senior managers’ pay details – personalised, by name – are published. Not with any information about what they do, or how that compares with the pay of senior staff in other organisations or sectors to see if the rates are fair. Just enough information, in fact, to fuel the politics of envy and not enough to enable a voice of reason to be heard.

Hmmm.

Before I weigh in, let me clarify what I’m not trying to defend:

  • Chief Executives who implement pay freezes or cuts for lower paid staff, but don’t submit to the same themselves.
  • Chief Executives who implement new costs or charges for their staff (e.g. changes to mileage rates & other arrangements) without also accepting that these should apply to them too.

If there are examples of those behaviours out there, I’d be glad to hear of them. I’ll join the chorus of shouts of ‘UNFAIR!’.

I’m also not trying to defend any Chief Executives who are incompetent or underperforming. When a person isn’t doing their job adequately, this should be reflected in their remuneration – up to and including being sacked on the grounds of poor performance. Nor am I defending any individual example of unfair pay that a reader of this blog may be experiencing in their current work. All local government staff (in fact all workers in any sector) should be paid what their jobs are worth.

But there are a couple of general principles around pay that I think it’s worth defending. These are:

  • Not all jobs should get paid the same. Some jobs require more skills, more experience and have greater accountability and a broader span of control than others. Differences in pay between jobs, where those differences are reasonable and proportionate, are fair.
  • There’s no reason why public sector managers should be paid less than their private sector counterparts for work of similar scale and complexity.

Pay differentials

To take the first point – pay differentials: What is a reasonable ‘pay differential’ between the highest paid and lowest paid workers in a workforce?

Well – Will Hutton’s ‘Fair Pay Review – Interim Report’ (*) proposes a pay differential no greater than 20:1 in public sector organisations. People might want to argue the toss about this ratio, but for today, let’s accept it as a reasonable place to start, not least because the pay differential for FTSE 100 CEO’s median earnings compared with UK median earnings was 88:1 in 2009, and that for the FTSE 250 38:1 for the same period.

Lets have a look at some information about Chief Executives’ salaries:

http://www.sustainablegov.co.uk/local-government/procurement-finance-local-government/local-authority-chief-executives-average-earnings-reach-147934

This article (Feb 2011) shares some salary information for the highest and lowest paid local government Chief Executives. The highest paid was the CEx of the London Borough of Wandsworth; paid a total of £299,925, including a £54,000 bonus covering an 18 month period. The highest paid female Chief Executive at Essex County Council was paid £237,000. By contrast, the lowest paid chief executive (West Somerset District Council) had a total package of £62,261.

This suggests two things to me; first, that Chief Executives are definitely not being paid more than 20 times the lowest paid in their workforces. The very highest – the Wandsworth salary – if divided by 20 would give a full-time salary lower than the minimum wage. As far as I know, no local government organisation is breaching minimum wage legislation in the pay of its workforce. Again, if there’s evidence out there of such a breach, I’ll join the protests in an instant.

Second, the salaries appear to be in proportion to the scale and complexity of the Chief Executive’s role. It would be strange and worthy of comment if the Chief Executive of a small, west-country district council commanded the same salary as the Chief Executive of a London Borough – but nothing odd like that is happening. Big counties and complex London boroughs demand greater leadership and management skills and the relevant knowledge and experience to cover a wider brief than district councils. No surprises there.

Comparison with the private sector

So let’s take the second principle: are local government Chief Executives earning more than their private sector counterparts. What are these Chief Executives actually in charge of?

Wandsworth is the largest inner London Borough. The council employs over 6,000 FTE staff. It provides the following services (among others I’ve no doubt forgotten to list):

  • Services to older people and those with sensory disabilities
  • Services to adults with mental health problems or learning disabilities
  • Children’s social care, including child protection & safeguarding.
  • Support for ‘looked after children’ including arrangements for fostering and adoption
  • Integrated youth services
  • Teenage pregnancy prevention
  • Support for 14-19 learning
  • Support for care leavers
  • Support for schools and school improvement
  • Services to ‘narrow the gap’ in attainment for young people in vulnerable groups
  • Management of the council’s housing stock including repairs and lettings.
  • Warden services for sheltered housing
  • Provison of housing advice
  • Support and management of homelessness
  • Provision of libraries and arts facilities
  • Provision and maintenance of parks, open spaces and other leisure facilities
  • Maintenance of cemeteries
  • Street cleaning.
  • Waste management and recycling
  • Licencing and management of street trading
  • Development management / planning
  • Maintenance of council buildings, highways etc.
  • Enuring food safety, envionmental health, licensing trading standards, pest control
  • Ensuring community safety in conjunction with police, fire and other services
  • Managing parking policy and enforcement.

This is a complex, busy, vital, high-stakes organisation. It takes pride in operating with low council tax; it is characterised as an excellent authority, having collected 86 Charter Marks. Its Children’s Services function (the bit I feel really passionate about) is rated as performing ‘excellently’.  

County Councils are huge and complex. Essex County Council is part of a two-tier local government structure, so doesn’t cover the full range of services provided by a metropolitan borough or unitary authority. But those services it does provide must cover a much larger geographical area. Essex County Council employs 43,000 staff. This is another big, complex organisation. The Chief Executive of Essex County Council is – not to get too technical about it – a big job. The typical operating budget of a Shire County is £850million (ooh, by coincidence, the equivalent of the RBS bonus pot!). Page 50 of Hutton’s report helpfully maps the pay-scales of Chief Executives of private sector organisations with a turnover similar in size to this operating budget. We know our Essex County Council CEx earns £237,000. Chief Executives of comparator organisations earn in the region of £600,000.

So it doesn’t seem to me that Chief Executives are overpaid in relation to their counterparts in the private sector either. If anything, their pay seems to be rather adrift considering the scale and complexity of their overall remit and the probable consequences of any failure to deliver.

But surely the job satisfaction of public service is its own reward?   

Yes – to a certain extent, this is true. Not everyone is financially motivatated, which is just as well. There’s not a lot of profit to be made out of child protection, securing accommodation for the homeless or treating mental illness. Nor should there be. But recruiting and retaining high calibre leaders and managers in an environment where executive reward is increasing at a faster rate than pay for non-managerial work will always be a challenge. The job satisfaction of being responsible for making real and positive differences in the lives of people and whole communities can be immense. That job satisfaction is reduced every time someone derides your sector as lazy or inefficient, calls your job a ‘non-job’, or implies that the public sector is a drain, rather than a vital contribution both to the wealth creation of the country and to the maintenance of a civilised society. Will Hutton’s report gives short shrift to this idea that public servants should be paid less than workers in the private sector because of the warm, fuzzy feeling engendered by all this wonderful public love:  

“Public servants’ sense of public duty should not be exploited in an effort to avoid paying fair reward”.

I’m not arguing that local government Chief Executives should be paid as much as top-level bankers (heaven forbid!), or television ‘talent’ or premier league footballers, just that they should be paid what they’re worth, and people should stop calling them fat cats while they’re busy doing their utmost to ‘deliver more for less’.

But…but…they’re paid more than the Prime Minister!!

Ah yes. That old red herring. Using the Prime Minister’s salary as a benchmark for public sector pay is one of the biggest bogus arguments there is.

43% of local government Chief Executives earn more than the Prime Minister. That means that the majority of them earn less. But is it really a scandal that 43% of them should earn more? No.

Again, the Hutton report is strong on this point, p56 demonstrating the full value of the PM’s remuneration to be higher than the headline figure usually quoted, that there’s no shortage of applicants for the post, no job description and no market or recruitment process.

But even if the PM’s total remuneration were as low as the usual headlines suggest, I would still say that Chief Executives in big local authorities should earn more. The Prime Minister is not responsible for ‘delivery’ of anything. He is responsible for promoting ideas (not neccessarily his own), and for generating a sufficient level of public interest and support in those ideas to secure his election. Upon election he and his government are responsible for telling others: ‘make it so’. The doing happens elsewhere.

One of the main locations for the ‘doing’ – particularly now – is local government. In the face of a miserable financial settlement local authorities are being asked to maintain public services with diminishing resources and increasing levels of need. Doing this at all will require very sound leadership and management skills throughout the organisation, including at Chief Executive level; doing it well will take excellence. In any other sector a revision to the job spec that made it more challenging would usually lead to a pay increase – not a flurry of name-calling and brickbats.

If you want to make a local government comparison to the Prime Minister’s role and pay scale, have a look at the pay of Council Leaders. These are the local political equivalents of the PM and his cabinet. If a Council Leader is paid more than the Prime Minister then I think that’s worth a second look. Meanwhile, let the Chief Executives get on with the business of ensuring that life is liveable in our cities, towns and shires. If they and their workforces manage to achieve this, despite all the obstacles currently being put in their way, perhaps we may one day grudgingly accept that they are paid what they are worth, and worth every penny.    

 (*) The Hutton report here: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/hutton_interim_report.pdf

Advertisements

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin, UK: Uncut? A question of solidarity, multi-culturalism and public-service values.

Solidarity?

Spend a little time watching the twitter hashtag #solidarity. What are these people expressing ‘solidarity’ about?

A snapshot from this morning finds mentions of: the people of Wisconsin’s passionate defence of public service values; the UCL occupation, protesting UK higher education cuts and increased tuition fees; support for the popular uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain; UKUncut action against the NHS cuts, a call for protesters in Libya to ‘stay strong’. Then a neat tweet from @JLAmidei which sums it all up thus: #solidarity movement worldwide = EU (against austerity), USA (against union busting) & ME (against dictators).

Elsewhere there are some who deride those protesting the so-called ‘austerity’ measures in the UK for seeking to make common cause with the fight for long-overdue democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. One of the tedious-lefty-infighting arguments that followed a recent protest march in London was whether it was right or wrong for the march to divert to take in the Egyptian Embassy in support of the Tahrir Square occupation. The UK isn’t Egypt, we are reminded, and it certainly isn’t Libya. We dilute our own arguments by taking such a scattergun approach to our protests, and it’s little short of offensive to compare the short-term discomforts of a UK protester with the extraordinary bravery of those who face violent oppression in the various brutal dictatorships we have until recently been so happy to consider our ‘partners’ in the War on Terror. 

There has been at least one police-inflicted, life-threatening injury to a UK protester that I can recall in the recent round of protests, (not to mention the fire-extiguisher ‘near-miss’ which was certainly a fatality in the making). Kettling is without doubt an unneccesarily brutal and repressive response to legitimate, peaceful protest in a ‘functioning democracy’*. However, no-one who has seen recent pictures of the bodies of protesters from Libya, extracted – it would seem – from some giant blender from hell, can doubt that the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa require a qualitatively different level of courage, commitment and – frankly – desperation in order to risk an uprising against their local despots.  

Does it damage or diminish that courage and commitment if we see and claim a connection between the anti-cuts movement in the UK and the uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran and elsewhere? Are we blind to that desperation when we declare #solidarity? No. It is clear that for those engaged in these uprisings, knowledge of the international community’s awareness of their struggle and support for their aims is a powerful incentive, a motivator, and sustains hope and courage in very dark times. The fact that our own ‘struggle’ may be modest and largely non-violent does not mean it isn’t important. Nor is it unnconnected with what is going on in the Middle East, North Africa or Wisconsin.

Multi-culturalism fail?

David Cameron recently chose the day of an English Defence League (EDL), anti-Islamist march through the ethnically diverse town of Luton to announce (from Munich!) that ‘multi-culturalism’ in the UK had failed. He had to set up a nonsensical definition of multi-culturalism in order to to be able to knock it down, but the nub of his gist was that by being ‘tolerant’ of cultural differences between communities from diverse backgrounds the UK is encouraging extremism (particularly of the Islamic kind). His cure was to propose the imposition of a shared set of ‘British Values’ which would bind us together. But what are these values? While Cameron was spouting this nonsense, various communities in Luton – united against the digusting, racist attitudes of the EDL – exhibited their shared values by standing up against the EDL and showing the benefits the success of multi-culturalism brings. I wasn’t there to see it, but I understand that one of the biggest cheers of the day came when a group of Sikhs came to stand together in support of their Muslim neighbours. It seems the day ended with various EDL thugs fighting each other. Nice. 

Cameron, in his opportunistic visit to Egypt blames ‘Britain’ (though not himself) for a ‘prejudice that borders on racism’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/22/david-cameron-uk-muslims-democracy ) for believing that Arabs or Muslims ‘can’t do democracy’. He utterly fails to recognise that this is more or less exactly the prejudice that borders on racism that he projected into his Munich speech. The EDL score a big fat zero on my ‘shares my values’ test, as does any Islamist group seeking the goal of a world caliphate by violent means. But the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others striving to establish true democracy in their nations by peaceful means seem to me to espouse a set of values that I am proud to share. That our politicians (of all parties) have ignored these shared values, this common cause, for decades in the pursuit of cheap oil and advantageous trading arrangements is a fact that should shame us as a nation and a ‘value’ right-thinking people must repudiate.

Sadly Cameron can’t make a good case for the ‘values’ he seems to hold. As he continues his loathsome, arms-dealing tour of the volatile Middle East / North Africa region, at this most inappropriate of times, it is clear that the pursuit of profit at the expense of human life and human rights is the shiniest ‘value’ in his collection. I am reminded again that he is basically a glorified salesman, his background in the soothing, smoothing world of falsehood that is PR. Simon Jenkins makes this case better than I could ever hope to here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/22/britain-push-democracy-weapons-cameron?INTCMP=SRCH   

If there are shared ‘British Values’ that bind us together as a nation, regardless of ethnic or reigious background, don’t we want to articulate them, loudly and proudly as distinct from this shabby, money-grabbing, self-interested world-view? We may discover that they are in fact ‘world values’ that bind us together as a community of nations and peoples.   

*Functioning democracy and Public Service Values?

This is where the Middle East / North Africa uprisings, the UKUncut, student protests and public sector union unrest in the UK, and the developing public sector fightback in the USA really do come together as part of a single, albeit broad, spectrum of activity.

A middle-aged white man of incalculable privilege in the UK slashes benefits and services to the poor and vulnerable, surrounding himself with a cabinet of suits with identical backgrounds, and promising to ‘break the monopoly’ of public sector provision, despite having no mandate to do so. At the same time he complains, with no sense of irony, of the ‘separatist’ tendencies of other groups he doesn’t know or understand. Technically he is ‘unelected’ having not won an outright majority, and his reforms bear no resemblance to any manifesto content before the election. He may be less brutal than his now-toppling counterparts elsewhere, but he has no more of a mandate to progress this wholesale slash and burn than they had to subjugate their people. The self-interested, profit-oriented reforms he now proposes fill me and many others with disgust, and with a real fear for the lives of those vulnerable families and communities they will destroy. Meanwhile the taunted and tormented public sector workers, whose public service ethos is invoked when convenient and ignored when contracts are let, are accused of ‘self interest’ in opposing these unkindest of cuts. 

In Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker is doing the same. The rhetoric of the argument may focus on ‘union-busting’ and protecting and preserving the working conditions of public service workers and it is easy to cast this as public sector ‘fat-cattery’. But in truth there are no cats in the public sector as fat as those who head the private firms poised to move into this lucrative game if only the rights of workers and the interests of users / clients / the public in general can be ignored. The protections and rights extended to unionised workers are, or should be, the starting point for civilised employment in any sector in a ‘functioning democracy’. Making them so shoud be another one of our ‘shared values’.

Cameron made one good point in his Egypt speech: it takes more than a free election to create democracy. But the “building blocks” of democracy that he cites – an independent judiciary, free media and a “proper place” for the army – create a building full of holes. Where, for example, is the commitment to human rights? Where is the social contract which ensures human dignity for all? Where are the commitments to the health, to education, to elder care? What about sensitive, responsive policing. Where is the ethos of service that should be the golden thread that binds our public services to our public?

The assault on what ought to be our ‘shared values’ as a nation is as breathtaking as it is disgraceful. Our response to it does share common cause with actions in the US, and in North Africa and the Middle East. The globalisation of capital and its attendant destructive tendencies means that there needs to be a corresponding globalisation of the battle for human dignity.

If you feel solidarity with the public sector workers in Wisconsin; with the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East; with the Anti-Fascist League and others’ spirited defence of the success of multi-culturalism in the UK; with the beleaguered public sector workers in the NHS, our schools or local government; with the students protesting the loss of their EMA or the tuition fees hike…. or if you simply don’t like to see this country going to hell in a handcart …. get on your feet on March 26th. And march!

What’s the problem with the Big Society (2)

I’m commenting far too much on my original blog-post, which is self-indulgent and untidy, so I thought I’d start a new one to reflect the fact that Cameron himself has now got into the discussion with his piece in the Observer: “Have no doubt the Big Society is on its way”.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/12/david-cameron-big-society-good

In his article, the PM declares himself ‘upbeat about the torrent of newsprint’ about the Big Society (despite the fact that so much of it has been negative), presumably in much the same way as his Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove has decided to be ‘delighted’ to be spanked by the courts for his ‘abuse of power’ over the cancellation of BSF.

He goes on to – as he puts it – address the critcisms head on. But his comments don’t deal with any of the previous objections I have raised. He says the Big Society has three strands:

1) “devolving power…so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny”. Nowhere does he address the fact that neighbouhoods are not homogenous communities with shared interests, but diverse groupings with interests in conflict. This devolution bypasses democratically accountable local government and puts power in the hands of those who are already well able to mobilise their existing resources.

2) “opening up public services” by which he straightforwardly means making public servants redundant and replacing them with other workers (quite possibly their newly redundant selves!) on worse terms and conditions; ‘putting trust in professionals’ – except, of course, those professionals who will be replaced by unskilled volunteers or unqualified paid staff (cf teachers in free schools).

3) “encouraging volunteering and social action” – well great, but how? Like many people, I already volunteer, but the time I have available to volunteer has shrunk now that I have had to take on the work of colleagues whose jobs no longer exist; cuts are decimating the funding to voluntary sector infrastructure groups; the transition fund won’t be able to replace what has gone.

“Big Society” says Cameron “applies to many areas of policy” Well, call me cynical, but of course it does. That way, any time something appears to be going well, Cameron can claim it as an example of ‘Big Society’ success. So, if government cuts and privatisation take your post office away and you don’t get together with your neighbours and save it, that’s your tough luck, but if you do find the time energy and resources to do so, that’s a victory for Cameron’s big idea. If any special interest group without a clue wants to set up a school, that will be allowed, but if local government professionals (of the type that Cameron’s not so interested in trusting) have developed a school commissioning strategy that serves the needs of a whole area rather than one privileged group, they’ll find resources syphoned off to one of Gove’s vanity projects and any number of obstacles in their way. As for the claim that: “… if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them”. both as a children’s services professional and as a parent, I don’t want the children I’m responsible for to be unprotected as a result of a relaxation of the laws and systems that help to keep them safe. What is he thinking!

Was Cameron talking about social responsibility before the cuts: yes he was. Why? Because the cuts are (principally) ideological. The Tories would be ‘breaking up the public sector’ (Francis Maude on Question Time this week) whether or not the bankers had drained the economy of resources. Cameron is right: the Big Society is not a cover for the cuts, in fact the cuts provide pseudo-economic cover for a set of ideologically driven changes that will increase pressure on the vulnerable, remove power from democratically accountable local government and place it in the hands of those who already have access to time, money and other resources.

Cameron says that big government failed to prevent the widening inequality gap over the last decade. This is true. What he doesn’t note is that there is strong evidence to suggest that the gap would have been even wider had it not been for the range of redistributive policies which were implemented and which his government is so determined to reverse.

Bless him: he then references Balsall Heath. This is so like his notorious election-campaign claim (‘I met a black man once’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1267000/David-Camerons-40-year-old-black-man-criticises-Tory-leader-inaccuracies.html ) only this time he’s saying ‘I went to a sink estate once’… He’s right about one thing though – people do have the ‘compassion, flexibility and local knowledge to help their neighbours and communities’, but nothing he’s doing will increase or assist that. He’s just going to preside over a signficant increase in individuals and communities who more desperately need that help. Meanwhile, of course, he’ll be showing compassion to his own neighbours and ‘community’: to people like himself, who he will gladly allow to evade and avoid tax and take home vast bonuses, generally accumulating an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth.

I don’t want to see any good intentions stopped or smothered – yet I have seen nothing but stopping and smothering since the very earliest days after the election last year. Cameron says: This is not another government initiative – it’s about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things. Well, people were already doing all those things both in their professional and personal lives and this government has only made that more difficult. Where local activism is surviving or even thriving, it’s because it is ‘our society’, Mr Cameron, not your ‘Big Society’; it’s got nothing to do with you at all.

 

I’m a feminist but…

What might it feel like to have to qualify the statement “I am a feminist” with “…but that doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you.” ?

Fossicking about on twitter, this blog-post http://halftheworldiswatching.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/the-feminism-discovery/ by @sophwarnes caught my eye.

I was struck by several remarks in the piece. Like this one:

To me, feminism has long been shorthand for ‘sleeping around and not caring’.

And this:

…my view of what counts as feminism had largely been propagated to me by men who are “feminists”. I don’t doubt they genuinely believe in equality between the sexes – but they use this as an excuse and a way to cajole women into bed.

Wow! These were eye-openers to me. There are many myths about what feminism does or doesn’t mean, but can there really be a need for women and men who self-define as feminists to clarify that feminism doesn’t mean constant female sexual availability?

I’ve been on the receiving end of some dodgy chat-up lines in my time, and like every woman I know, I’ve been subjected to frequent and unwelcome doses of uninvited slap-arsery. I’m guessing I’m probably 20 years older than @sophwarnes and now a mother of four, yet that kind of attention hasn’t stopped. But…no man has ever directly or indirectly implied that I should be having sex with him because I’m a feminist.  I’m not disagreeing with @sophwarnes. Her experience is real. I find it interesting that my experience has been so different and wonder if I’m from a generation of feminists where that argument isn’t tried because it just doesn’t cut ice.  

As far as I can gather the original twitter traffic (which I didn’t see) that led to @sophwarnes’ blog was about whether or not men can self-define as feminist; and if they do, what that means in terms of their expectations of and behaviour towards women. 

In my professional life I work with men who absolutely self-define as feminists (and – of course – some who don’t); my husband is clear that he is a feminist too. Again, these are mostly people in their thirties, forties and fifties. If they qualify their feminism at all it will be by saying something like “I’m a feminist, but I’m not sure about all-women shortlists” or, “I’m a feminist, but I don’t think positive-discrimination is appropriate” or maybe “I’m a feminist but that doesn’t mean I think all men are rapists” (a 1970s disclaimer). I don’t think any of these men would think it necessary to say “I’m a feminist but that doesn’t mean I think women should be sexually available at all times”. I am sure they would think that notion was nonsense. They understand that feminism is about equality as a human-being, nothing more or less. They also understand that systemic gender inequality still persists in many areas of life and needs to be rectified. If they think about feminism in terms of sexual activity they would accept that it means that women have a right to say ‘yes’ to sex and a right to say ‘no’ and a right not to be judged, whichever decision they make. Just like men. 

So where I part company with @sophwarnes is that I do doubt that these men she writes about are genuinely committed to equality between the sexes. Men who use the term feminism to cajole women into bed are lazy, inadequate, manipulative or all three. And they are treating the women they cajole with disrespect. They are no different from the ones, back in the day, who used to say: “If you really loved me you would”; or “If I don’t get any, it makes my balls ache” or “My wife is happy that we have an open marriage” or any of the other woeful, desperate manoeuvres that get played out in bars, clubs and parties or other places sad men try to pull.

No cajoling should be necessary. Men sometimes lie to get sex, but lots of men are simply sexy, interesting, fun. Good to go to bed with; if that’s your thing. 

So, lets fine tune our radars, work out which is which. Be a feminist. Say ‘yes’, or say ‘no’. And let’s not accept others’ judgements about that decision.

I am a feminist. No buts.

What’s the problem with the ‘Big Society’?

Nat Wei is experiencing something of a buffeting for sensibly deciding that working for the government for free for three days a week creates an imbalance in his responsibilities to provide for his family and ‘have a life’. He can continue to work two days per week for free to promote the Big Society and remains an advocate for the concept.

 

The Evening Standard covers this story here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23920428-how-my-top-government-job-left-me-almost-penniless-and-unable-to-support-my-family.do

 

Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society (@minforcivsoc on Twitter) defended him against the ‘silly knocking’ saying that he is a ‘tireless champion of the citizen’ and that he is ‘personally v grateful for the time he gives us’.

 

I like to see a man stand up for his friends, but I don’t think the knocking is really about Nat Wei. This story just neatly illustrates the underlying problems that afflict the concept of the ‘Big Society’ itself. So I tweeted as much to Nick Hurd and he came back with this challenge: “What don’t you like about concept?”

 

Fair question. Here’s my 10-point starter:

 

The ‘Big Society’ is conceptually flawed because:

 

1)       It fails to recognise local democratic accountability and structures

2)       It shows no understanding of how the existing voluntary sector is funded, supported and intertwined with local government

3)       It overlooks local government’s capacity and intelligence as a commissioner, supporter and enabler of local activism

4)       It pretends that geographical communities are homogenous with shared needs and interests whereas they are in fact fragmented into smaller groups with needs and interests in conflict

5)       For this reason, it privileges the ‘wants’ and ‘demands’ of the already well-resourced, aggressive, organised or time-rich over those whose need may be greater but whose capacity for activism is less

6)       It enshrines a Victorian model of philanthropy which will enable those with time and money to decide which causes are ‘deserving’

7)       It enables a framework of public discourse in which vital public services can disappear and that’s OK because “if you’d really wanted them you’d have got together and saved them”

8)       It insults professionals whose jobs big society advocates don’t understand by implying that they are easy and can be done by others without skills or training

9)       It legitimises public sector redundancies when clearly the roles and responsibilities are not ‘redundant’, big society advocates just want people to work for nothing while cheerfully destabilising families and individuals who work for a living, not a hobby

10)   It is accompanied by cuts which will savage the infrastructure for local voluntarism where it is effective

 

And for a bonus point:

 

*) It is rooted in a sense of (already privileged) entitlement and has no basis in social justice

As our Minister for Civil Society is never less than civil, he’s kindly replied and asked whether there’s anyone wanting to add to the list, or argue with it?

Please feel free to do either of those things.

@Itsmotherswork