I can’t help but like Ed Miliband’s small piece in today’s Guardian on his promise to lead a localist Government. A lot of the article is, unsurprisingly, a mix of political and platitude. It’s difficult to see, without details, how some of the pledges are different from the status quo. However, what caught my eye was his pledge to set up local Public Accounts Committees:

Labour will introduce a statutory requirement for authorities to set up a public accounts committee (PAC) with powers to scrutinise value for money for all local services. The role played by Labour’s formidable chairman of the Commons PAC shows what can be done – and every town or city should have its own Margaret Hodge.

These committees, coupled with new requirements to publish performance data, would be led by councillors so they can challenge, hold to account and improve all public services in their area.

It’s an idea about which I wrote a brief post nearly a month ago having seen the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s somewhat older suggestions.

It is, perhaps, evidence that I’m optimistic (despite my usual demeanour), and over-estimate the volume of liquid in containers, to see this as positive. I recall I clung to the mistaken belief that Eric Pickles was a localist long after it was quite clear he was anything but. There is a tendency for oppositions—at whatever level—to be localist until they get power, at which point they realise that localism works best at exactly their level and no lower.

This is merely a trailer for a policy a potential Labour government would introduce, and I just can’t see Ed Miliband winning an election: whatever the polls say and whatever efficiency of the Labour vote under the first past the post system. However, it does look like a manifesto commitment from a major political party, which starts the debate.

Most public money in the area is spent with remarkably little public oversight and accountability. Even that spent by the council often isn’t directly scrutinised, but instead via the performance of a contract, and innovations like staff mutuals mean some of that gets another step further away from councillors. The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s (and now Ed Miliband’s) idea won’t shine a spotlight on every single penny spent, but councillor-led public accounts committees will bring into focus how public money is collectively spent and how effectively it is being used in achieving common aims.

It won’t be discussed in many living rooms and pubs tonight, but it’s a debate about the machinery of local government rather than merely whether councils collect bins weekly or fortnightly and regardless of who starts it, I’m glad someone has.

Local Government is all about measurement (or at least it was until the coalition set about abolishing most of it). We were assessed, and assessed ourselves, on a range of criteria, outputs and scores. We’d rank ourselves according to the region we are in, or against ‘most similar groups’ of boroughs. We’d measure whether we’re in the top quartile, or suffer the angst of finding ourselves in the bottom quartile.

Sometimes we’d even stop and ask ourselves what benefit this brought.

Most measurement is irrelevant
An experience that sticks with me (and which I’ve probably written about before) was when canvassing in Merton in 2006.

I was on the doorstep talking to a woman who was perfectly happy. “But what about the state of the streets?” I asked, glancing around at the uneven, broken pavements, strewn with litter and week-old papers.

“Why, what’s wrong with them?” was her simple response.

She did not think there was a problem with Merton. That it didn’t score as highly on street cleaning as Wandsworth (and most other places, for that matter) didn’t bother her, she didn’t live in any of those other places, she lived in Merton and Merton did all right by her.

Conversely, it isn’t any consolation to a Wandsworth resident who thinks their street is dirty to know that, actually, it’s a lot cleaner than Merton. They don’t live in Merton, they live in their road, and that looks dirty to them.

So we spent our time completing irrelevant assessments, but as far as I know we’ve never actually tried to measure something that should be incredibly relevant: the health of local government.

Measuring the abstract
Now what I don’t mean is an assessment of an individual council in the way of the old Corporate Performance or Comprehensive Area Assessments. But an assessment of local government as an institution. We live in a political culture in which increasingly we are looking at localism, but paradoxically government is becoming more central.

Of course, localism doesn’t mean that the council should do everything – it shouldn’t – but if power is to be exercised at as low a level as possible and communities are to be empowered then surely councils are the best positioned to deliver on that localism promise.

The difficulty is in measuring something that doesn’t give itself to objective measurement; councils don’t have a collective heartbeat to log and monitor. But that is not a problem in other areas. Perhaps one of the best known subjective measures is the Doomsday clock. While it will be quite obvious to all when that hits midnight, what is the real difference between 11:53 and 11:54?

Even with seemingly more scientific measures there are difficulties. Take the Gini Coefficient, which attempts to measure inequality. While seemingly scientific there are all sorts of potential criticisms about methodology. But even then, there’s a fundamental argument to be had about what is a ‘good’ result. Assuming we accept there should be some inequality, if only to reflect experience and expertise at work, what is the acceptable level?

A perfect council
Politics means there will be no agreement on what a perfect council looks like. Even within parties there will be variations, interpretations and different flavours. However, there are some aspects on which there should be agreement. For example, local government should have some freedom. Wandsworth shouldn’t be able to declare war on Sweden, but shouldn’t we have the right to decide how we deliver services to residents?

And presumably few would argue that there should be a sense of connection between residents and their council, people should feel informed, there should be a high turnout at elections and people should see how the vote they cast (or most of their neighbours cast) has an impact on the direction and policies of the borough. There’d probably be a growing consensus there should be transparency, so people can easily see what a council is doing and get information about their local area.

If there can be a broad consensus on the framework in which a good council exists, the broad powers it has and the relationship it has with its residents, then surely we can measure it.

Sticking my finger in the air
Herein lies the difficulty. There are all sorts of measures you could try. What set me off thinking about this was a discussion I was having with someone on whether or not I would recommend a career in local government (as a councillor or an officer). A fairly straightforward measure might be the changes in numbers applying for graduate positions in local government and the civil service. In terms of engagement we might look at the turnout at elections. But others are far more subjective measures – can you ever objectively measure administrative power and freedom?

But to a degree accurate measure isn’t that important. If you take the Doomsday Clock it’s the arbitrary judgement of experts. There probably isn’t that much difference, in practical terms, between 11:53 and 11:54 – the point is that it provokes discussion, debate and raises awareness.

And I think this is something we need more of in local government. In the time I have been interested in and followed politics I’ve seen local government become, relatively, less and less important. From Thatcher onwards power has been centralised and local government devalued. Blair talked the localism game, but cloaked it in targets that meant councils could do little more than deliver central government goals.

I have hope for the coalition government. But I also know from 30 years of history that the words of an incoming administration are frequently forgotten as new policy priorities emerge and local government changes political complexion. My biggest fear is that currently localism and populism are very close, and I have my suspicions which will win when they diverge.

The Digby
So in the spirit of arbitrary judgements I propose that we measure the health of local government with the Digby Index (the naming of which I will explain if anyone pays any attention). It’s simple, it goes from zero to one: zero being no local government and one being ‘perfect’ local government. And it’s measured to three decimal places (because I like the arbitrary, and also because it makes the smallest unit of measurement the milli-Digby).

I happen to believe that local government is probably looking the healthiest it has for decades. But that cannot overcome the fact that there has been decades of centralisation. Our powers are incredibly limited and most of our money comes via central government. Additionally, the mindset is still overcoming all those years of central direction. So although opportunities might be there, it’s still coming to terms with being in a position to overcome them. The threat is that they might not be able to adapt before a government (whether coalition or something else) starts centralising again.

On that basis I’m think the Digby index currently stands at 0.378, although there is the prospect for significant revision upwards.

What do you think?

On Wednesday I attended a Local Government Leadership debate on ‘the next big thing’. After a thought provoking morning session on the problems caused by the deficit the afternoon’s cross-party panel discussion proved disappointing.

It is, perhaps, a sign that somethings never change and the panel seemed more intent on talking about the past and having digs at other parties. If there was any conclusion on what the next big thing should be it was that it was localism. Of course, that was also the last big thing. And the current big thing. So it isn’t a particularly novel answer.

Now it always easy to criticise. Which set me wondering what my contribution would be. The easy get out is to say that, actually, it is localism. Or if it isn’t, it’s something that will be a result of localism. Someone, somewhere, will by design or accident stumble on the next big thing and it will be like council house sales were to the 80s. But that’s too easy a get out. So I’m going to say the next big thing should be failure, or at least permission to fail.

Failure is seen as negative, something to be avoided and while I wouldn’t suggest councils should deliberately set out to fail. I believe that we need a culture change which accepts that failures are a necessary part of progress and improvement rather than buying into a Daily Mail or Taxpayers’ Alliance style agenda of knee jerk condemnation of local authorities that might not always achieve what they set out to do.

There are two aspects to this.

First is that localism will inevitably result in some failures. Not every group of parents can run a school, not every neighbourhood group will keep a community centre going. Part of giving up control of an asset or service means that you also give up the ability to stop failure. But this is not a reason to abandon principles like localism. Giving people the right to run their own services also means giving them the right to fail to run their own services; if the government or councils can’t fully let go of control then it isn’t localism, but just another form of contracting out services.

Second is the innovation has always been accompanied by failure. A quick Google will bring up lots of examples, from champagne (failure to make ordinary wine) to Post-It notes (failure to make a strong glue). One of my favourite stories is of new Coke – an episode I just about remember from childhood – when the recipe was changed to a ‘new and improved formula’. That I have vague memories of it, despite the recipe not being changed in the UK and that it happened when I was young indicates the perceived enormity of the episode.

In the 80s Coke, as ever battling with Pepsi for soft drink dominance, introduced a new, sweeter version of the drink. Despite having won taste tests during development it was a disaster for the company and the public demanded, and after a few months, got the multi-national company to back-track and restore the old version.

However, despite being seen as a costly mistake Coca-Cola are today more of a market leader than they ever were and not a single person lost their job over the debacle.

This seems incredible. Development of the drink alone cost millions, before you even consider the costs of twice changing the manufacturing techniques and publicity surrounding the changes. But the company’s view was that to be a market leader they had to be prepared to innovate and take risks. Firing people because one of those risky innovations didn’t work (despite all the prior evidence and research that said it would) would only encourage stagnation as future executives played it safe.

I’ve repeatedly stated that I can see the positives from the deficit because it will result in new and innovative ways of providing services and involving residents. But that will also mean that some new things will be tried that won’t work. Edison’s famous quote was that he had never failed, he just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work. Of course, he didn’t try any of those 10,000 failures because he wanted them to fail, he tried them because it was worth the effort to get to the 10,001st one that did work.

Just the same as technology, local government will have to try new ways of working. And while we can do all we can to ensure success and manage risks we mustn’t allow a fear of failure to stifle innovation.

John Redwood is not everyone’s cup of tea, even within the Conservative Party, and while I don’t read his blog that often he has an interesting post today.

Asking (but not answering) the question Do Councillors want to be free? he discusses the problems of officer led authorities:

Labour arrived in office in 1997 keen to give Councils more powers, only to sink them under the biggest weight of circulars, regulations , controls and money with strings attached that local government has ever seen. By April 2010 local government in the UK was just the outpost of Whitehall in each community, implementing Labour’s policies across the board… there is a generation of senior officers in local government who only know how to work under Labour’s top down down target driven highly bureaucratic system. Their first impulse when they hear of the Coalition’s changes is to ask “What have they put in place of whatever the government is scrapping?” “What does the government want us to do instead?”

And he’s absolutely right. There’s a real problem with officer-led authorities that don’t, by definition, react well to political change. Time and time again you see council’s change political complexion because of an unpopular administration, only for the incoming party to do pretty much the same and be just as unpopular. The reason is often because the officers are in charge and the politicians haven’t got a grip.

Wandsworth is almost unique in managing, all the way back in 1978, to wield political authority of councillors over officers and making the council different enough for people to have a good reason to vote Conservative, rather than going back to Labour, in the 80s. But for every Wandsworth there are dozens of other councils where it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the officers are still in charge.

But part of the problem, to answer his question, is that I think many councillors do not want to be free. If you’ve just got your feet under the desk after years in opposition it must be incredibly daunting. There will be a certain comfort in following the advice of officers, they are, after all, the experts. And soon you’ll have got on top of things and can take control.

The problem is that your window of opportunity is small. While I have faith in the government to continue its localising agenda I also know that the lesson of history is that every government centralises.

After removing the ring-fences of so many grants Monday saw the announcement of, yes, a ring-fenced budget. Once the health reforms are through public health spending will be ring-fenced.

Hopefully not a sign of things to come, but perhaps a warning to newly elected leaders that they shouldn’t waste a second in making their marks.

I only occasionally comment on politics on here. I think I managed to avoid it almost entirely during the election campaign, and to a degree I’m rather proud of that: avoiding politics during an election is what 98% of the population do which makes me decidedly normal.

The irony is that I’m now getting more and more excited by politics. Having been a self-declared semi-detached politician for so long I’m re-thinking it all.

There are a few reasons for this. For a start, I’m increasingly becoming a fan of the coalition. I was instinctively against coalitions, I’m not sure that horse-trading – with the third placed party conducting negotiations with both Labour and the Conservatives – should be the way the government is formed.

But that’s what we were left with. And the end result isn’t too bad. I was pleased to see the strong commitment to civil liberties, for example, that came out from the coalition agreement and pleased to see that localism remains a key policy (whether or not it’s wrapped up in the ‘Big Society’).

The other reason for my rediscovered excitement is the challenge we all face. And this isn’t just the Conservatives, or Liberal Democrats, nor just central government, but everyone. The letter left by Liam Byrne, Labour’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to his successor was telling: “I’m afraid there is no money.” A revealingly honest assessment from a government that, having run up record debt, put off the difficult decisions that needed to be taken.

We will all be paying the price for some years to come. It is a price we would have had to pay whatever the outcome of the election, and it won’t be easy. So why am I excited by something that is likely to be so painful?

It’s because it makes politics important again.

I wrote an article for the Local Government Information Unit’s C’llr magazine recently that used an example of some work I did with a local authority in the north. The political leadership had decided that council tax was too high and needed reducing, so they asked council officers to do this.

Of course, council officers couldn’t reduce council tax. They looked at the services they were providing and ran them effectively and efficiently, they didn’t waste money. But they couldn’t take decisions on whether spending on the elderly was more important than spending on reducing teenage pregnancy, or whether investing in playgrounds should take priority over investing in roads – they needed a political steer on what services were nice to have, and which were the essential priorities to the political leadership.

And that is the sort of thinking we will all need to do in the coming months and years. How do we want our areas to develop and what is the best way of making sure that happens? How do we define what is nice to have and what is essential to maintain a healthy and happy society?

To me, that is the new politics. For the past thirteen years Labour has been reducing local government to little more than a delivery agency for their national policies. Now, with a new government, and new challenges, local councils are likely, once again, to free to be the innovators and deliverers who can make a real difference to their neighbourhoods.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) sees an opposition day debate on ‘local spending reports’. These were introduced by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and were intended to detail all the public spending in a borough.

You might think that already exists. For example it’s easy to identify what the council is spending in Wandsworth, everything the council spends is (pretty much) in Wandsworth. But there are complications. How do you account for children educated in a neighbouring borough, or children from neighbouring boroughs educated here?

And then there are a whole range of other agencies who work in Wandsworth but do not publish their spending, so, for example obviously Job Centre Plus work in the borough, but we don’t know their borough spend. Likewise, we’ve no idea of the ‘share’ of NHS spend Wandsworth. Nor do we know how much of the central spend of the police goes to Wandsworth. The list goes on.

The fact is that no-one really has a good idea of how public money is being spent in their area. And because no-one really has that idea can anyone really say that public money is being spent effectively? It was a core part of the Sustainable Communities Act that local spending reports would support informed localism by allowing us to ‘bid’ to take the funding to provide a service locally.

Unfortunately the Government seem to be watering down the commitment to public local spending reports. Instead they are proposing to only publish the easily available information from councils, the police, fire brigade and primary care trusts. This means that the bulk of public spending by central government will go unreported, and spending will lack transparency.

The debate is allied with Early Day Motion 1064 which has cross-party support (in Wandsworth it’s been signed by Labour’s Martin Linton and Conservative Justine Greening) and is part of the Local Works campaign.

I’d encourage anyone to follow the Local Works advice of taking a few moments and calling or emailing their MP and asking them to “Please vote in support of Early Day Motion 1064 on Local Spending Reports at the substantive debate in Parliament this Wednesday.” You can find our who your MP is from findyourmp.parliament.uk.

I’m sure many are getting bored with my council surgeries and engagement obsession, but sadly for those that are it’s my blog – and if a blog has any point it’s surely to allow the blogger an outlet for all those thoughts and ideas which he worries bore his wife far too much – so I’m going to have one last post on the subject.

I’ll begin by pretty much ignoring the letters to the South London Press on the subject. Both correspondents, in their unseemly haste to make political points, fail to appreciate the very point I was making is that I do actually engage in many other ways (including sessions on the doorstep once or twice a week) and that surgeries might just be a little outmoded. Luckily, I know readers of this blog are a far more literate bunch.

So instead, I want to continue the discussion by referring to a comment left on my blog last time I discussed it, and with a post over on The Local Government Officer to which I’ve linked a few times before.

I’ll take them in reverse order.

The social working MP
My contention is that councillors’ surgeries just aren’t working. People aren’t using them. If I were to nail my colours to the mast I would say that we should just get rid of them because there are so many better ways to provide the same service. The post on The Local Government Officer suggested that one of the reasons councillor’s surgeries might be failing is because people are going to see their MP instead. And I’ve no doubt this is part of the problem.

I don’t know exactly what attendence at Martin Linton’s surgeries is like, but I know it’s better than at the councillors surgeries. I’d guess there’s a fairly high proportion generated by housing matters, a significant amount generated by social services and education related matters and goodly number on other issues in which the council has a say, like anti-social behaviour.

So why do people go to MPs’ surgeries rather than councillors’ surgeries. My instinct, backed up by conversations I’ve had with people who’ve made that choice, is that it’s driven by a belief all government in this country is central government, therefore, and elected politician’s power and ability to help is directly proportional to their distance from Downing Street or Westminster. A councillor at the town hall down the road cannot possibly match the might of an MP who occasionally sits in the same room as the Prime Minister.

But that’s wrong. On council matters the councillor is the one who will have direct access to the relevant officers, he or she might even be the one with executive responsibility. This isn’t to say the MP can’t help, or won’t be able to take up your case, but they won’t be the most direct way to get it addressed.

Communication. Communication. Communication.
And that brings me on to the comment, which suggested that lack of communication is the problem, “there is not enough communication on the work of a councillor,” it says, before continuing “not enough communication on where to meet with them. Not enough communications on the issues of the ward. I would be very interested to know how many people out of 20-50 you stop in Lavender Hill can name their councillors.”

I would disagree. While the egotist in me rather likes the idea the council should put out more information about me and the work I do, perhaps using tax-payers money to print and delivery glossy leaflets in which I smile benevolently and detail everything I do. But the rational side of me knows there are probably much better things to spend your money on. And actually, there’s quite a lot of publicity already.

There’s Brightside, which lists all the councillors after the election and features councillors in every issue. There’s the council directory, delivered to each household listing useful numbers and details of the councillors. Every two years we hold a report-back meeting (which is never that well attended, if I’m honest) and every household will get a leaflet with a lovely picture of me and colleagues and what we’ve been doing. If you walk past Battersea library there’s a poster outside detailing the dates and time of the surgeries. There’s another inside. If you go on the council’s website there’s plenty about the councillors on there with contact details and more details of the surgeries. There’s plenty of leaflets about who we are and what we have been doing pushed through your doors by the political parties. And I can’t not point to this website or my Twitter account.

I think there’s plenty of communication going on. But, it’s competing with the perception that the people at Westminster are the important ones. I won’t pretend that I’d get high name recognition on Lavender Hill. But councillors are the bottom of the pile. Everyone might be able to name Gordon Brown, fewer Alistair Darling, fewer still Martin Linton and probably hardly anyone their councillors. But then again, isn’t that the same with anything? When you are on a Virgin Atlantic plane, you probably know Richard Branson heads the company. You might have remembered the name of the captain. But do you know the name of the stewards and stewardesses bringing you food and drink and most directly responsible for your comfort?

The solution?
There are two issues. First, people are either going to the wrong place with their problems, either through choice or because they are unaware of the right place. Second, the communication we are putting out isn’t getting to everyone.

I’m not sure the solution to either lies with the council. We cannot control people, we can inform, perhaps guide, but we can’t oblige them to attend surgeries. And while we are responsible for the communication, exactly where do we draw the line? We can pump thousands of pounds into leaflets, posters, websites, carrier pigeons and smoke signals – but I’m not sure we can justify that extra expenditure.

The fact is that while there is such a strong perception that central government is the only tier that matters however much we spend communicating our work it’s going to be impossible to counter that view. And to address that we need a government that actually believes in a truly localist agenda – and that means a Cameron-led Conservative government, whatever his views on Twitter.