Author Topic: More transparency or less?  (Read 3779 times)

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Offline Muggins

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More transparency or less?
« on: July 10, 2015, 08:42:36 AM »
What do you think?

http://www.governmentfunding.org.uk/News.aspx?WCI=htmResults&WCU=CBC=View,DSCODE=DSCLIVEGF,NEWSITEMID=12-N712


Oi! Listen mush. Old eyes, remember? I’ve been around the block a few times. More than a few. They’ve knocked down the blocks I’ve been around and rebuilt them as bigger blocks. Super blocks. And I’ve been round them as well.  The Doctor (Night Terrors)

Offline Spunkymonkey

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #1 on: July 11, 2015, 12:48:44 AM »
I think it is a bad thing.

Local government has minimal funding, so the more money that is wasted on transparency is less money spent on services.

Had an interesting chat with two council officers today. They were complaining that they are wasting huge amounts of staff time being transparent or attempting to demonstrate value for money to the extent that the costs far outweigh the benefits.

The majority elected councillors to think and act on our behalf. Giving more power to an unelected vocal minority is at best wasteful and at worst undemocratic.

Offline Tobes

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #2 on: July 12, 2015, 01:44:27 AM »
Not so sure I agree Spunx (which is a pretty rare occasion!)

Too many cozy commercial deals have been done which have not been made public previously, and there is the suspicion amongst many (if not overt proof) that money is wasted by councillors, cabinet members and others who 'do deals' with people and/or companies who don't have sufficient competence or ability to perform the function for which they've been hired - meaning bugger all value for the tax payer.

In my opinion, The infamous WiFi deal ticks all of the boxes as a classic example.

Would this change have made those 'commercially sensitive' details which were hushed up for so long, wither in the glare of publicity and cross examination by the numerous people who spotted a stinker right from the off?

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Improved transparency for local government
The Local Government Transparency Code 2014 will place more power into citizens' hands to increase democratic accountability and make it easier for local people to contribute to the local decision making process and help shape public services.

The Local Government Transparency Code 2014, administered by the Department for Communities and Local Government, sets out the minimum data that local authorities should publish, the frequency it should be published and how it should be published.

This recent development means that the government can now obtain evidence about whether its 'open public services' plans are working. It will mean that councils are required to publish the charity or company number of organisations that it awards contracts to. The code has been released in order to give more control to citizens so as to increase democratic accountability. It will make it simpler for communities to contribute to local decision making whilst also helping shape public services.

In order to remain transparent, councils must adhere to 3 key principles of transparency when publishing data. These are:

Respond to public demand
Release data in open formats available for re-use
Release data in a timely way.
This transparency of data will encourage local authorities to use data as a valuable resource to partners and local people.

Mind you, all that said, this move smacks of the usual bullshit: why even pretend to give people more of a say, when on the other hand, the proposed changes to planning make local councils (and voters) effectively an irrelevance? What I'm finding very strange and worrying about the current administration is the double talk and directly contradictory philosophy they are trying to sell us.
I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it - [attributed to] Voltaire... 'Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessita' - William of Occam.... 'You have a right to feel offended, but just cos you are offended doesn't mean you are right'

Offline Spunkymonkey

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #3 on: July 12, 2015, 01:27:14 PM »
This type of move might be intended to stop the Wi-Fi deals etc, but in practice it tends to bog down the smaller deals too.

Senior councillors and officers will find ways around the rules for their big projects, but will force officers to comply or over comply on the smaller items. One of the guys that I was talking to last week, told me that he needed to purchase a £50 text book. His boss made him get three quotations (or find three retailers selling it). He spent £200 of staff time trying to prove that £50 was the best price. The argument for this nonsense was that use of public money must be transparent.

The Wi-Fi deals go almost unchecked but a £50 book is subject to extensive scrutiny.

Another problem with this type of well meaning legislation, is that officers actually become more secretive. In the past, officers had access to comprehensive data and passed a watered down version to the public. This type of legislation intends to share the comprehensive data, but in practice is likely to restrict officers and the public to the watered down data.

My former colleague was telling me that they used to use the traffic light system of red, amber, green (RAG) to manage project risks. A tried and tested system used the world over as part of good project management. However at SBC they still use the system but have been banned from using red. In the past you highlighted the risks and acted on them, but possibly tried to hide the bad news from the public. Now they ignore the risks and bad news altogether and ultimately fail. If the information is used internally the RAG system is useful tool, but if it is being made public you can only use AG making to tool ineffective. (Note - this tactic is not necessarily used to deceive the public. Senior officers use it an attempt to conceal their teams poor performance from councillors. It is also part of the NLP positive thinking bullshit that is becoming increasingly popular with the 'head in the sand' management style employed at SBC. Experienced officers are regularly warning senior officers about potential problems, but are told to be positive and it might not happen).

The problem with making more and more data available to the public, is that all data will need to approved and politicised before production. Regular officers will find more obstacles in performing everyday duties. Nothing will get done without senior officer approval and everything grinds to a halt.

Certain departments at SBC are so badly broken and are performing so badly that introducing more accountability and bureaucracy will cripple them.

Sharing data and information is all well and good, but is pointless if the data is wrong. One of my former colleagues has an annual budget of approximately £300,000. No one can tell him how much he spent last year or how much he has this year to within £100,000. The data that he has seen is clearly wrong. He knows that he has spend around £100,000 on one project, but needed to know whether it is £95k or £105k to help determine how much he has left for other projects. The accountants are telling him that he has spent £18k. The data is clearly wrong and people producing it are clearly overstretched. Wouldn't it be better to get the data right before sharing it in a timely manner.

This isn't a one off. In previous years, he has received a panicked email in February telling him to cancel all projects because he is 100k overspent. A week later they tell him that he is £100k underspent and only has one month to spend it or lose it. The data is so bad that it isn't worth sharing.

One of my biggest concerns about the council's decision making and performance monitoring process, is that incorrect data can lead to poor decisions and incorrectly penalise good contractors. If the people producing the data are misallocating costs to the wrong projects the data becomes meaningless.

Making this data public and readily available makes it harder to correct if/when mistakes are spotted. If the public are told that a project cost £18k and you later find out that it was £100k, it is embarrassing to correct the error so the money remains incorrectly allocated. If the costs to one project are under allocated then another project is overcharged. Next year, decision makers will decide which type of projects represent the best value for money, but will be using incorrect data to make the decision.

Once a mistake or a lie is made public, politicians and officers will run with it. As a result of restructuring, staff have been squeezed into appropriate positions and are producing data that they don't understand. The data isn't being compiled by statisticians, it being produced by staff who in some cases don't have basic mathematic skills.

Another statistic that I heard last week was a claim that Halcrow fees account for 40% of the highways budget. If correct (which I very much doubt), this figure could be used to argue that Halcrow are expensive, but even if the figure is correct it doesn't necessarily mean that Halcrow are at fault. If officers change their minds and Halcrow have to change designs half way through then fees will go up. If a project is designed and then shelved (£0 construction cost), it looks like the fee is 100%. This might imply that Halcrow are expensive, but in truth SBC's poor decision making is the reason for the abortive costs. If this data was kept internal, then officers might acknowledge that it is their problem and solve it. If the data is made public, they always blame the third party?

My former colleagues are telling me that SBC are becoming increasingly incompetent by the day. There are so many people measuring others (internal and external) performance and accountability, but no one is measuring theirs.

With regards to the Bruce Street project, there are more staff dealing with consultation, PR, complaints etc than there are dealing with construction. Thanks to increased accountability, officers are now employed to keep the public updated about problems rather than averting the problems in the first place. (Unfortunately the NLP positive thinking bullshit is also a factor here. Officers are encouraged to think positively and no longer predict problems and solve them before they happen).

Making data accessible isn't the primary problem - recording the data correctly is more important.
Spin doctors making excuses for problems isn't the solution - good planning to predict the problems and avoid mistakes before they happen is.

In summary, there is no point getting the icing right, if you forget to bake the cake.

Offline Muggins

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #4 on: July 12, 2015, 04:35:45 PM »
Your moles are not wrong Spunky, but I have no one telling me that, it's what I can see! 

If they were transparent - the truth would be out. 

But believe me, money is still being wasted.

The reason they have to get three quotes, and they have always had to do this, is to make sure there is no corruption - jobs,  goods being bought from 'mates' etc. 

What you are saying is that it is a waste of time us leaving our doors locked, when no one is going to break in - but locks where invented because sometimes people DO break in. Then they had to invent bigger stronger locks. Which of course is a waste of money because someone will find out how to break into them.

It's my believe that it is the height of irresponsibility to put ones trust, in one person you elected in, even if you didn't know him/her and expect them to know everything about everything and make decisions about it. 

At one time you could be fairly sure that they would be guided by qualified officers - not now - even if the officer is qualified the chances are they are not doing what they are qualified to do.

It is shocking and scary. 




Oi! Listen mush. Old eyes, remember? I’ve been around the block a few times. More than a few. They’ve knocked down the blocks I’ve been around and rebuilt them as bigger blocks. Super blocks. And I’ve been round them as well.  The Doctor (Night Terrors)

Offline Spunkymonkey

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #5 on: July 12, 2015, 06:33:04 PM »
Your moles are not wrong Spunky, but I have no one telling me that, it's what I can see! 
If they were transparent - the truth would be out. But believe me, money is still being wasted.

On that we agree. I have also seen it with my own eyes. Despite all of the legislation about accountability and transparency, I believe that the council wastes more money now that it did in the 1980's when I first worked there. They claim to have progressed, but those of us who have worked with or for them know that things have actually gone backwards.

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The reason they have to get three quotes, and they have always had to do this, is to make sure there is no corruption - jobs,  goods being bought from 'mates' etc.


Actually there has never been and still isn't a requirement to get three quotes for a £50 spend. The rule only applies to a higher spend level.

This is part of the problem. Some officers are applying rules correctly, some are overly cautious and over apply the rules and some are so dozy that they don't know that the rules exist. Some apply the rules to expenditure which is below the threshold, while others attempt to split larger orders into smaller packages to artificially keep under the threshold and cheat the system.

The junior officers are jumping through hoops to get minor expenditure approved but senior officers simply bypass the rules for much higher spends. My girlfriend was just telling me about a manager who insists on travelling first class when he goes to London spending £300 a time instead of £100.

In the case of larger expenditure that should require 3 quotes, I have heard cases where a senior manager instructs one of their partners to provide the product/service and then invoice SBC for it under expenses effectively bypassing the system.

If they are seen to be applying the rules most of the time, the odd occasion goes unnoticed. The £50 spends are scrutinised but the £1000 spends go unchecked. On the other hand, my source was telling me that there are so many managers who can sign off expenses, that more savvy officers know who to ask. If your line manager is a stickler for the rules, wait until he has a day off and get someone else to sign your expenses/invoices.

How can an organisation scrutinise a £50 purchase of a text book and on the other hand apply little or no due diligence to a £450,000 loan to a start up Wi-Fi company with no track record?

It is all a game and I am not convinced that another piece of legislation encouraging more transparency will make any difference.

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What you are saying is that it is a waste of time us leaving our doors locked, when no one is going to break in - but locks where invented because sometimes people DO break in. Then they had to invent bigger stronger locks. Which of course is a waste of money because someone will find out how to break into them.

It's my believe that it is the height of irresponsibility to put ones trust, in one person you elected in, even if you didn't know him/her and expect them to know everything about everything and make decisions about it.
 

I take your point and I was a bit drunk when I wrote my original post. The point that I am making though is that you can make the data available, but what is the point if it is wrong. Isn't it better to spend limited staff resources getting the data right before allocating more staff time to publishing incorrect data. Some officers are now so cautious that they are incapable of making decisions. The more scrutiny they are put under, the less decisive they become and the more money they waste.

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At one time you could be fairly sure that they would be guided by qualified officers - not now - even if the officer is qualified the chances are they are not doing what they are qualified to do.

There is a lot of talk about pay freezes in local government, but actually a lot of council staff are better paid than ever. The pay freeze coupled with voluntary redundancy and early retirement encourages good experienced staff to leave. They try to recruit, but the frozen salary is unattractive to good candidates. They end up dumbing down the job description and either promote from within or recruit someone who would not have previously qualified.

I believe that following a recent resignation there is only one chartered engineer at SBC and he is not in a management position through personal choice. There isn't a single chartered engineer on or directly advising the management team who are making decisions on multi million pound civil engineering projects. At one time you couldn't reach the old SO2 grade (about £30,000 in todays money) without being chartered. Now you can earn upwards of £50,000 without any professional qualifications.

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It is shocking and scary.

I couldn't agree more. Time to hand control of highways back to Wilts County?

Offline Muggins

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Re: More transparency or less?
« Reply #6 on: July 13, 2015, 12:14:21 PM »
Yes, Spunky, sorry I misunderstood the point about the £50 spend, which is of course stupid, however it would take no more than a flick through the internet to see what the general price of said object is.  I don't suppose they are going to get much of a service for a £50 spend, so it must be an item. 

It also worries me, who in the community they ask, in an attempt to bypass the 'same old, same old' they are listening to anyone.  Basically, they know us old activists by now, should know what our motives are for so doing - but they seem to listen to newbies - who haven't put in the hard yards, followed the plot etc, for the sake of what??  Flaming Targets is what and just hanging on to their jobs - and who can blame them?  I'm not saying they should not listen to new people, but they could have saved themselves quite a bit of time and money up here if they had - or at least got better value for money.

I have just had conversations with two officers about an idea I had ages ago, that can now come to fruition - we, in the community can do the hard bits, we only need trouble them with a couple of chats on the phone and a site meeting. They will need to claim partnership working and we will need to claim that too and other things - this will get us funding in the future.

We can find funding or gifts for the cost of the set up, in fact already have  - we might have to look further for the on-going maintenance, but will take that into account at the start.  There are other stat orgs that are looking for similar projects to jump into.  We can do this, we can benefit our community - if they will let us!

What worries me is that the newer timewasters take up too much time, bring the rest of us into disrepute, so that orgs will be scared to work with us in the future. 

When I started doing community things, I was told (by and officer) we know that if we give her the tolls the community will do the job - that's the reputation we need to get more things done. 

What we seem to be getting from newer people is, "I will nag you (outside orgs) to do until you set it up for me - I will refuse to set up any group or org to make sure its a collective and its managed properly etc."  "I do not see the need for land ownership legals, insurance, proper money management"  " future management"  "mission creep" "parameters2. etc.
etc.  And "I don't damn well give fig for what the rest of the community want" 

WE KNOW and understand that All statutory Orgs and higher up voluntary groups (those that provide structure/training for the rest of us) are now scraping the bottom of the barrel - some just can't that through their heads.

My feeling is and always has been that Officer time is the most expensive contribution to any community.  It's still being wasted!  And yes, I've had experience of those costing too. i.e. working to a set of figures that they are not sure what those costs contain. If you don't know the true cost how can you make savings??

Like I said - its scary, in more ways than one!! They have gone much too far with staff cuts. 

Oi! Listen mush. Old eyes, remember? I’ve been around the block a few times. More than a few. They’ve knocked down the blocks I’ve been around and rebuilt them as bigger blocks. Super blocks. And I’ve been round them as well.  The Doctor (Night Terrors)