Blinded by transparency.

The Local Authority, as required to by government, publishes details 
of every payment over £500. Our communications function – deemed 
‘non-frontline’ in the cuts – has been decimated, leaving frontline 
services to take on the role of the press office. I take a phone call 
from a journalist who has an enquiry about a payment to a Travel 
Agent. The tone of newspaper reporting at the publication of this 
information has been to suggest that payments made must be fraudulent 
unless proven otherwise. Thousands of pounds spent on ‘taxi bills’ 
must be signs of employees failing to use their own two legs, rather 
than (as it turns out) the true cost of transporting children with 
special needs to and from schools and daycare provision; a large 
payment to a Travel Agent is – surely – a evidence that the Chief 
Executive and Council Leader are having overseas junkets at the 
Council Taxpayers’ expense? 

The journalist asks what the payment to the Travel Agent is for and I 
say I will find out. The journalist points out that if I don’t come 
back with details they will “print the story anyway”. I am confident 
that any payment we have made is legitimate, but I put aside the work 
I had planned and deal with this query instead. Papers seem to love 
negative stories about what we do in local government. We don’t want a 
hostile press making our already hard work more difficult. I find the 
information and call the journalist back. The payment relates to the 
provision of specialist travel and accommodation to enable a group of 
young people with complex needs to have an adventurous short break 
away from their families, supported by highly skilled professional 
carers. This is a valuable developmental experience for the young 
people and – in some cases at least – a sanity-saving respite for 
families. It is also fully-funded for this purpose by a central 
government grant. I relay this information back to the journalist and 
add an important detail: the group arrives back today. They have been 
having a fantastic time and would love to say more about it. How about 
meeting the coach? The journalist demurs. That would not be a ‘story’. 

As I checked out the details for the journalist it became clear to me 
that for the number of people engaged in the trip, the length of the 
trip, the complex (including medical) arrangements required to support 
it, and the huge positive impact on the children and families this was 
fantastic value for money. Sadly that is no story. 

***

I am in a room with nearly 30 senior managers and directors as part of
a multi-agency task force tackling complex community problems. In the
interests of transparency we are examining the budget for our work
together. We are spending more than the individual agencies are
contributing to the costs; several thousand pounds adrift. No one
thinks the work we are doing is unnecessary, all the agencies are
committed to it. The conversation i am expecting is one where, as
individual organisations and agencies, we each agree to contribute a
little more to offset the deficit. As we pore over the financial
report line by line one member highlights the annual cost of
refreshments (coffee, tea and biscuits). He doesn’t actually know very
much about the work of this group and his usual contributions to the
meetings are weak, but he knows (or thinks he knows) about the cost of
coffee. This £600 bill is, he says, disgraceful, especially as the
coffee is not very nice. His self-righteous indignation dominates the
discussion for which we (busy people all) have little time. The chair
notes that the opportunity cost of all these senior people considering
tea and biscuits instead of their core business is the real disgrace
and cuts off the discussion by promising there will be no more
refreshments. Ever. That one member of the group enjoys a rare ‘win’.
Much of the goodwill in the room evaporates. We have ‘saved’ £600
pounds. No agency agrees to contribute more to the greater costs.

A little mathematical endeavour would quickly show that those
refreshment costs, for the task force, its working groups and
executive meetings over the course of the year work out as pennies per
person. The goodwill lost, when ignorant sanctimony trumps serious
professional discussion, is priceless.

***

Eric Pickles is said to have this week praised the group of ‘armchair
auditors’ liberated by this new ‘transparency’ to take a fine tooth
comb to council spending decisions.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2011/jul/07/eric-p…

It is hard to disagree with the principle of transparency when
committed activists make good use of the new arrangements to hold
public bodies to account. But there are very significant risks here.

First, the political and media-generated cynicism about public service
which seems to take as its starting point the idea that it’s all just
one giant scam or gravy train is corrosive to the very idea of the
public good and the principles of public service, which so many of us
who have chosen to work in this undervalued sector absolutely live as
core values, despite the fact that the world around us shed them long
ago.

Second, collating and publishing this data, responding to enquiries
about it and managing multiple, complex and sometimes frivolous
questions from the public and journalists are new and As yet unfunded
bureaucracies in themselves, which local government can ill-afford at
a time of cuts. I do gain some satisfaction from talking a member of
the public or a journalist, from a zero or low knowledge base about
the professional disciplines I am involved with, through to sufficient
understanding of the field that they can grasp why a particular
payment is justified. But this is not what I was employed to do. And
what I was employed to do does not go away because this new task has
arrived.

Third, the new bureaucracy generates a huge opportunity for exactly
those organisations who have enjoyed such a gravy train over the past
few years at the tax-payers’ expense – private sector consultants and
IT companies who are brought in at vast expense and on contract rates
to deliver the ‘information systems’ which will support the new
transparency industry. Their over-hyped business process engineering
converts skilled professional staff (in disciplines the business
analysts never truly understand) into strange data-feed monkeys whose
job becomes not to do their job but to ‘report’ on the doing of their
job.

Fourth, the new transparency doesn’t distinguish between ‘information’
and ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding’. As I tweeted earlier this week,
let’s now watch while the machinery of government grinds to a halt as
public servants are diverted into the task of justifying every bill a
member of the ‘armchair auditor’ brigade disagrees with or doesn’t
understand; let’s watch public services clog and congeal as ‘informed’
consumers argue the toss with clinicians about medical treatment based
on cost or shiny newness rather than clinical need; as parents argue
with schools based on their league table position or their ‘per pupil’
spending instead of meeting the teacher and finding out whether their
children are inspired.

Above all else though, the risk is that this so-called transparency is
a distraction. In the week that the Guardian reported that all
spending on government credit cards is to be published in order to
‘expose profligacy and waste’ (er, because of course all public
servants misuse and abuse government credit cards terribly)…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jul/07/government-credit-spending-to-…

…the same paper reported that a planned torture enquiry has been
dismissed as a ‘sham’ by human rights groups and is being boycotted by
lawyers for the victims because it is to be held in secret…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/06/uk-torture-inquiry

…and that 1 in 5 MPs don’t see why they should submit receipts for
their expenses:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/one-in-five-mps-still-say-recei…

This government is in favour of transparency only in so far as it
serves its own other nefarious agendas. The flood of ‘data’ about all
our public services now under threat may occasionally tell us
something useful, but mainly points to an ignorant, almost philistine
disregard for professional expertise. There’s no apparent willingness
to shine the same light on the private sector, so public sector
organisations can be vilified if their own service delivery arms are
perceived as poor value, and then vilified again if they externalise
those services and Them private contractors don’t deliver. Where this
happens it becomes characterised as a failure of public sector
commissioning, not of private sector delivery.

Cosy in the pockets of their private sector chums MPs think it
laughable to be asked for receipts, and a public deemed competent to
‘audit’ public service across a range of professional disciplines and
spheres is not considered ready to understand our politicians’
complicity in illegal acts that may have been carried out in our name.

We are blinded by the shiny newness of our transparency. We are as
transparent as mud.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s