Posts Tagged Public Sector

Northern Ireland, David Cameron and his weapons of torture

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Posted in response to Eamonn Mallie’s piece on re David Cameron’s comments on the size of NI’s Public Sector last Friday.

Eammon has this spot on. The analysis was right, the language and timing were naive and amateurish at best.

 I’ll never vote Tory but Cameron is absolutely right in his ultimate assessment that NI must grow it’s Private Sector and reduce our over reliance on the Public Sector. We have an unhealthy imbalance and without a stimulus in the private sector – particularly in attracting a range of jobs which pay in line with and above average Public Sector jobs we are incredibly vulnerable and have been for some time to Public Sector cuts and also any increase in interest rates (likely in the next parliament) which will hit many of our overstretched “property boom” keyholders. I wonder how many interest only mortgages there are in NI held by people borrowing multiples greater than 3 against public sector wages likely to be capped/frozen in the next parliament? 

All our politicians know this is a fact. Many are on record re this in the past. The executive is on record as agreeing with Camerons sentiments on Private Sector growth – the 2009 IREP report recognised it. Many commentators and the occasional blogger like myself have been suggesting for some time that this was the real elephant in the room ( while the Executive stalled and bickered over scraps from the sectarian table. An inclusive, burgeoning private sector economy supplementing our proud Public Sector makes sense not just economically but socially and politically – any post conflict society analysis tells us that employment and it’s associated benefits has one of the biggest impacts on the process of “normalisation”. University of Ulster recently published a report telling us we probably already knew – that young people with limited job or development opportunities are more likely to engage in anti social behaviour (including political and racial violence). 

And yet our representatives on the hill have spent the last few years doing exactly what about this? Think of the time wasted while Stormont has been suspended or in sectarian stand off mode when they could have been addressing this issue given anyone with any secular political nous knew it was coming. And maybe that lack of secular nous is at the heart of this. 

 In spite of a rational if poorly executed SDLP call for a revised NI budget last year to reflect the realities of an economy in freefall nothing happened and an opportunity to stimulate a flagging economy was lost. 

More alarmingly, at a public event in Westminster before Xmas i asked a senior political NI figure (vying now for a Westminster seat and to whose political views I am broadly aligned) what he thought of IREP and his views on developing our private sector given the chances of public sector cuts in the next parliament. His response not only suggested he had barely read IREP but he actually went on to say that he “had no time for these multi national corporations coming in for a few years and then swanning off to Singapore or wherever they get a better deal. The future of our economy has to be the 1-2 person family business…”!! Seriously – you couldn’t make it up, particularly as it came 2 weeks after the great news of NYSEs support centre investment and the audience that night contained at least one potential investor from a financial MNC. It’s just an isolated example but part of a larger failure –  Politicians like that should be vilified far more than Cameron on this issue. This problem has not been addressed on their watch.

But here’s the immediate and rather sad reality for Cameron and the Tory/UU alliance. In spite of the fact all other parties agree in principle with what Cameron says, in spite of the fact they are responsible for allowing the situation to develop, all of them have the good sense to know the timing and turn of phrase he used was an act of political naivety at best and suicide at worst. It not only brings into question the nature of the Tory/UU partnership but also his own political judgement.

The scent of blood (and cuts) is in the air. In a more mature political society Cameron may have been lauded for his honesty and it might even have triggered the long overdue advent of a more secular political debate on the issue at hand. It is badly needed –  anyone who thinks a simple cut in corporation tax is the answer to our problems is surely mistaken. It’s a much more complex consideration and needs early attention. But that’s a separate debate.    

Unfortunately it won’t happen now in the mouth of an election – as Cameron should have known. And it might turn out to be a debate shaped by others than the Tory/DUP alliance, for in politics, perhaps more than anywhere else, “to the victor the spoils” and as Helmut Kohl once said: “You don’t win elections by putting the weapons of torture on display”.    

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(un)Easy Councils

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A few months ago there was much media interest in a proposal by Mike Freer, then leader of Barnet Council, to change the relationship between local councils and the citizens it serves with the focus being on finding and delivering efficiencies.

I read an interesting article with Mr Freer in today’s Guardian which promptd me to scrawl these thoughts…

In summary the three pronged approach proposed is thus:




  1. Offer a basic set of services with additional or prioritised services subject to supplementary payments (where allowed within law). This element of the strategy led to the media labelling the proposal as creating “easyCouncils” after EasyJet and its no frills approach to business – somewhat disproportionately given it was only one part of the “Future Shape” strategy
  2. The consolidation (in the name of efficiency) and streamlining of back office public sector functions in an area (aka shared services) and the creation of (our old favorite) a central shared citizen database to enable easier access to citizen needs across multiple service areas reducing duplication of contact and service
  3. Targeted intervention strategies for those families who are “high cost” cases including a dedicated liaison officer per family.

In principle I think all this is pretty unexciting stuff – none of it is enormously groundbreaking, particularly points 2 & 3. Although I find unpalatable in the extreme the idea of ‘levels of service’ determined by the ability to pay. That’s just not in my view an acceptable way to deliver public services.

The idea of consolidating back office functions in Government is one I have experience of. Having been around a significant number of Public Sector “back office streamlining and consolidation” or “single database” or “revised channel/service strategy” projects it’s not so much “easyCouncils” as (un)easyCouncils. 

None of these things are insurmountable to deliver but they are not insignificant areas of change (people, process and technology) particularly when trying to maintain business operations as usual.  These things require significant and sometimes extended up front and ongoing investment – financial and operational. New systems and new ways of working – across councils and departments while changing front line working practices (a change not easy to facilitate overnight). And who will foot that bill and for how long before savings are realised? And let’s not mention the legal wrangles that are sure to come or how this will impact any attempt at cross Council Service Provision comparison?

Followers of Vanguard and John Seddon would go even further and say that there is no evidence that these “shared service” models work at all:

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done to reinvigorate local government and re-empowering local Councils to find new service models is fundamental to many things, not least reinvigorating our political system. But it definitely isn’t “easy”.

I am counting down the days until we start to hear the language of the last era of Public Sector austerity – the early 2000’s – and in particular that favorite phrase of the day: “Spend to Save”. It rolls off the tongue quite nicely doesn’t it. I can hear many Consultants across the land whispering it manta-like on their way to work…”Spend to Save”…”Spend to Save”…that’s right, repeat after me….


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