BACK-OFFICE STAFF TO THE FORE

Today I heard yet again a government spokesman stress the urgent need for savings in local government and how that could be achieved in a relatively painless way by cuts in back-office staff: he meant firing people of course. As if there is ever a painless way to sack people. But the assumption all along is that ‘back-office staff’ have no useful function to perform, whereas as anyone will appreciate those people are there for a function, although it’s true that the function over the years may change. The introduction of Information Technology means that offices are not dependent on typists, let’s say. I accept that such a change is intended to improve productivity, and who can manage without a computer these days. However in the wake of the changes brought about by new technology certain other functions have assumed priority and no doubt so called back-office staff are required here.

I am prompted to write this piece in some heat as a result of my recent experience of dealing with my local authority and here I would have to add that the lesson as I see it is that with local government losing specialist professional staff in-house in key areas, the remaining ‘back-office staff’ are forced into the position of being jack of all trades acting as go-betweens with a multiplicity of outsourced organisations.

Some years ago, Hereford Council operated an energy conservation scheme on the behalf of central government and to do so they chose to use a single contractor to carry out the work. I presume as a result of a tendering procedure. In due course in applying to Hereford for assistance with such work to be carried out on my now 30 plus years old bungalow, I was directed by Hereford to the contractor they had appointed and after a cursory inspection by that contractor they submitted an estimate. The work being boiler replacement and most importantly cavity fill insulation. In short I had no choice in the matter of selection of contractor. That was wished upon  me by the Council and I accordingly met the percentage of the costs required of me and the work was put in hand.

Flash forward to the present time, and I discover that although my external hardwood joinery has been regularly maintained and a maintenance coat applied to all severely exposed windows yearly, there is evidence of rot in the Iroko window sills in one, possibly two places. As the rot extends into the living area as well and there is evidence of displacement of mortar it is reasonable to infer that at a critical point the cavity has been crossed as a by-product of the cavity fill, applied under pressure, at that point. The next step was to refer the matter to the local authority, tell them of the situation and suggest that as the energy efficiency programme had been put into the hands of one contractor by Hereford Council, that they might wish to send out perhaps a clerk of works or someone with similar knowledge who could determine if the cavity insulation fill work and the penetration of damp with subsequent rotting of the timbers was connected. If that were to be the case, then this could after all apply in the case of many other Herefordshire properties as well.

It was at that point that I was advised by Hereford Council that they were unable to send out anyone to check out the position and that furthermore the firm concerned was no longer in business. Instead Hereford referred me to CIGA (the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency). I duly telephoned CIGA and was informed that the contractor concerned had definitely not gone out of business and was informed that CIGA would contact the contractor concerned and it would be investigated and resolved promptly.

It is now a month later and despite further telephone calls and emails to CIGA (copied to Hereford) there has been no contact of any kind from the contractor nominated by Hereford and of course the present seasonal bad weather is hardly likely to make the problem go away.

It may well be the case that earlier action on the part  of the council concerned could have resolved the issue one way or the other, but here is where I have the suspicion that I am the victim of on-going local government cuts with key responsibilities falling upon ‘back-office staff’ who are unsupported by in-house specialist skills. In short if they have to get anything done they can only do so by juggling the responsibility among various out-sourced agencies. Including one apparently who they thought had gone out of business. And I feel for them, really I do! And yet I would have thought that such a small programme of work would be ideally suited to a small in-house Minor Works and Maintenance Team under a second or third tier manager. After all there is always maintenance work to carry out, or at least there was before the PFI experiment (originating under the Major Government, retained by Blair and now pursued with vigour by the present Cameron Administration). Under PFI maintenance is part of the package and falls to the successful bidder and at what cost to the tax-payer too.

The retention of such work in-house would provide an accountability trail, would save the appointment of further ‘back-office’ staff required for tendering procedures, etc. and would cost the local authority less in the medium to long run. At the moment Joe Public is left to whistle in the dark with no one in-house or anywhere else apparently prepared to put up their hand and accept responsibility. Not good enough!

I spent my professional career partly in the private sector and partly in local government and I have to say that I was fortunate in the case of the majority of private sector firms that I was employed by and I look back upon that time with some pleasure. But it was equally the case in the public sector, wherever that is you were left to get on with the job. In other words there are good and bad in both sectors, but my experience over the years taught me that you would only get the long term planning and follow through of projects required by the public sector if there was a core professional staff able to provide those necessary skills and that those core professionals would benefit both in-house and outsourced agencies. That this is clearly no longer the case must be obvious to all. SCALA (The Society of Chief Architects in Local Authorities) now boasts that it welcomes anyone associated with local authority buildings wherever they may work.

Aditya Chakrabortty (The Guardian 15th Dec) writes of local government as ‘Outsourced and Unaccountable: This is The Future of Local Government’. He goes on to say ‘The gutting of Barnet Council means even births deaths and marriages are managed elsewhere. He goes on to write: Between January 20th 2012 and October 20th 2013, Barnet farmed out its care for people with disabilities, legal services, cemeteries and crematoriums, IT, finance, HR, planning and regeneration, trading standards and licensing, management of council housing, environmental health, procurement, parking, and the highways department. Your town hall may be next’.

As I write this piece according to Chakrabortty: Barnet Council are to consider whether to cut or arrange alternative delivery models (outsource) another tranche of services, including libraries, rubbish collection, street gritting and children’s speech therapy, among others.

There is no question that the underlying motive for such a hair-shirt approach to local government services is driven by dogma. As I wrote earlier in this piece, having a core of professional services in house benefits both local government and the private sector, and if we are to implement infrastructure projects essential to the revival of the economy and the well being of communities as a whole. And by that I mean the decentralising of management and control to our local communities wherever possible, then our local authorities must be staffed appropriately for such a task. This will clearly require that a complete change of course is made by whichever party wins the next election – and you ain’t going to get that from the present bunch are you?

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