Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster council’s published their ‘lessons learned’ from the first year of their tri-borough project last month. Despite finding the report fascinating reading, I did little else with it. I’ll confess that part of that was down to jealousy! It’s an incredibly exciting project, and while it has risks, there are undoubted benefits.

Reading through the report, it’s hard to not form the conclusion that an administrative merger has taken place. While politically the three councils remain separate (and legislation would be required to change that) it’s clear that at every other level they are becoming increasingly intertwined.

Three things really stuck out of the report for me.

First, was the political honesty that the tri-borough plans were not universally supported – even within the controlling groups: “there are sceptics in our majority groups about Tri-borough,” the report reads. “Their arguments have been heard and listened to. They have helped make the proposals better and many hours of public and informal discussion on these plans have taken place.” A rare public reference to the internal arguments that happen in pretty much any large organisation, but especially political organisations. Rarely do any proposals spring into life fully formed and with unanimous support. However, many ideas are greatly improved by the internal debate. That debate does, and should, remain private – otherwise it could not take place – but I think we should acknowledge it more often.

Second, and undoubtedly related, is the focus on sovereignty; but I can’t help wondering what sovereignty actually means here. There may be a 19 point ‘Sovereignty Guarantee’, but it’s very hard to imagine how any of the councils could easily extricate themselves from the tri-borough arrangements when so many of their staff will be employed jointly by two or all three of the councils. I’m sure there are examples of organisations seceding from similar partnerships, but I’m finding it hard to think of any. Indeed, such a project becomes self-fulfilling, as more and more staff are appointed jointly and, therefore, have a bigger stake in making the joint arrangements work.

Third, is the success they have had. Their first annual report makes much of the impact of ‘Summer in the City’, a joint campaign, in improving public perception of the councils. But the same can be said of any publicity campaign, much more interesting is the list of savings contained in the appendix. While I’m sure there were all sorts of political arguments when those savings were made, it’s hard to sniff at a group of councils who are running things for £33 million less by removing duplication in their services. I suspect that most residents have noticed little, if any, impact on the services they receive.

My suspicion is that few people really care that much about what happens behind the frontline. Wandsworth has a highly rated library service, for example, but I don’t think have any idea that behind it is the London Library Consortium, through whom we get and manage stock, or that we are looking at jointly running services with Croydon. What most people using a library care about are the facilities it offers and whether they can get the books they want.

There are real gains to be had in removing much of the duplication in services and realising economies of scale to free up resources for the really important stuff that happens locally and makes an area special. Civic pride comes from what happens in their areas, and doesn’t care much about where a council’s human resources or legal services are based.

But the scale of the tri-borough project is something beyond the shared services taking place everywhere else. When I have done work with various partnerships around the country I would always ask focus groups: “Do you work for the council, police (or the health service, voluntary organisation, etc.) or the partnership?” The response was always telling and revealed a lot about the culture.

It would be interesting to see how officers from those three councils respond to a similar question in a few years time.

(What finally prompted me to write something about this was that I’m taking part in an online discussion on the future of local government on the Guardian Local Government Network this afternoon between 12 noon and 2pm. Given that nothing I say can be proved or disproved I’m looking forward to speculating about flying Mayoral cars and paperless councils where we all have iPads.)

My post yesterday about the Redbridge YouChoose site reminded me of some work I’d done looking at what services people thought were important.

Back in 2008 and 2009 we were required to conduct the Place Survey. Now abolished by the coalition government, the Place Survey was, very simply, a survey of people about the place they lived.

The most recent I could find was reported to the council in paper 09-823 (link to PDF). It makes interesting reading, not least because it seems to generally reflect the views of Redbridge residents. My recent interest in it was a result of my thinking about what it was that made Wandsworth Wandsworth. Why do people like it here and what do they like about it?

In some ways it isn’t that illuminating, because it doesn’t really give any unique answers. But it does provide some insight into what people think is important.

The 2009 Place Survey
They survey asked two questions that I’m particularly interested in for the purposes of this post:

Thinking generally, which of the things below would you are most important in making somewhere a good place to live?


And thinking about this local area, which of the things below, if any, do you think most need improving?

The list provided was fairly generic, covering things like transport, crime, parks and the like. The results for Wandsworth, inner and outer London are all fairly much aligned. While there are differences, there are no major differences that would point to a specific ‘Wandsworth’ mentality or issue that is a major problem here compared to elsewhere.

Where it’s a little less useful is in helping the council allocate its budget in the way that Redbridge’s does.

Crime: feelings and practice
For example, the most important thing in making an area a nice place to live is ‘The level of crime’ – 69% said that was an important factor (people could choose more than one) and 34% went on to say that it was something that needed improving (again, people could choose more than one).

When you look at the council’s budget on this (using the 2009-10 actual revenue expenditure) it only spent just over 2.6% of its revenue budget on this, around £5.5 million which went on the community safety division, youth offending team and graffiti removal. Odd, you might think, to spend relatively little on resident’s highest concern. But, of course, this reflects that the council is not the biggest player when it comes to crime, that’s the police. Additionally, there are roles for other public bodies to play – for example housing associations – when it comes to preventing and tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Health: feelings and practice
The inverse happens with health where 36% said health services were important and 13% said they needed improving. Effectively half as important. But this takes (using the adult care services figure) £84.4 million from the revenue budget – just under 41%, nearly twelve times as much as ‘crime’. And that’s only the start of it, on top you would have to add the huge budgets of the NHS!

Evidence of ‘imminence’ affecting people’s views?
What, of course, is interesting about these two examples is that they also deal with very different attitudes and services.

When you consider the adult care services budget large sums of that will be spent on a relatively small number of people with significant needs. The crime budget will largely be trying to address the fear of crime amongst a community in which the majority of whom, thankfully, will never be a victim of crime in their lifetime.

Oddly, for many answering it’s probably more likely that they would eventually need some sort of care provision from the council or NHS than they would need the services of the council’s community safety team because they’d been a victim of crime. However, for many their responses would have been driven by the feeling that they could be a victim of crime at any time, but are unlikely to have imminent need of health services.

Does this help at all?
Does this help the council in setting the budget? I’m not sure it does, and I’ll give two reasons why.

First, we have no choice about a lot of this spending. This is especially true when it comes to spending on things like social services. While we can look at making our spending more cost effective, in many cases we are legally obliged to provide a service and we cannot cut it.

Second, there has to be an element of strategic thought in this. While that might be there in the Redbridge exercise, I don’t think it is here. Indeed, it’s telling that the majority of the top factors in making somewhere a good place are what I would call ‘doorstep’ issues, basically the things that strike you when you walk out your front door in the morning: is the transport working? are the streets clean?

And it certainly doesn’t get anyone any closer to working out why people like their particular borough.

[The data I used in this post are at jamescousins.com/data.]

Government at every level tends to be set up like a machine. You put something in one end, and a set process is followed until something else comes out of the other. To misquote Bismarck it is a sausage machine.

Quite how efficient this machine is varies enormously. I’m tempted to suggest it’s correlated to the engineering and manufacturing capability of the place in question. But while that holds true for Germany or 70s Britain, it rather falls down when you consider the government of Italy, and, say, Ferrari.

Of course, this has many benefits. Not least that it allows an easy check on how public money is being spent, you know the inputs (money going in) and can count the output (bins emptied, children educated, library books issued). It allows for easy measurement and management, and it allows for easy comparison since -theoretically – the costs should be roughly the same in each borough.

But what’s missing is the humanity. People make judgements on fuzzy feelings not on the percentage of missed bin collections (hopefully low), children educated (hopefully high) or books issued (hopefully high). Yes, these play a part, if your bin was never collected then you would probably not be pleased with the council. But generally, I think, people are willing to accept the occasional mistake, as long as it is rectified and not repeated.

So they know their bin will get emptied and they judge their satisfaction on things like their local shops, the transport, the nightlife (which they may, or may not, want) near them. It is not about numbers but a whole collection of individual factors that contribute to how they feel.

To give an example, when I first moved to London I lived in Brent for a very short while. I lived there for a short while because I didn’t like it. To be fair the services that I used were good, transport excellent, I felt safe on the street and there was a strong sense of community. If you looked at all the measures that government traditionally use there is no reason at all I shouldn’t like it. But I didn’t.

Conversely, it’s very difficult for me to say exactly why I liked Wandsworth immediately and have lived here ever since. Bins are emptied and public transport is good (well, acceptable if you can bear the crush) but there’s more to it than these fairly binary measures. And while I know the council has played its part, even been a key driver, in getting all these sums to add up to a great borough I’m not sure I fully understand the maths. 

The new government and my new job on the council has started me thinking about the maths quite a lot, and its amazing how much a new hat changes your way of thinking, even if you are dealing with the same issues. We do, of course, need these binary measures, we need to check that what we are doing is effective and making a difference. But there is also the question of how these fit into the bigger pictures, because somehow all these individual factors, added to those of local business, the police, health service and so many others are added together to make the Wandsworth we all live in. 

So, what is it about Wandsworth that you like… or love… or hate? And what do you think are the ingredients of that particular sausage?