cbebackI’ve been thinking some more about devolution recently, particularly the ‘city region’/combined authority model that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I’ve outlined before why I think this isn’t a good way of going about devolution – not least because the people have been kept as far away from any discussions about it as possible – but I want to look in a bit more detail at the implications of part of that.

One of the mantras readily uttered by proponents of this method of devolution is that ‘people don’t want more politicians’, and so there are no major democratic institutions being set up to oversee these combined authorities. However, just because there aren’t new politicians doesn’t mean that there isn’t any new bureaucracy and like the LEPs before them, combined authorities seem to be a perfect way to create a whole new level of bureaucracy without any sort of democratic oversight. It’s a clever trick, in a way. If a combined authority did come with a new layer of politicians, there might be pressure to abolish something else to make up for that, but by using the distraction of ‘no more politicians’, a lot of bureaucrats can be sneakily created.

The important thing we are told about devolution is that it will hand lots of power to these new combined authorities, so there’ll be a lot of work for people to do, lots of reports to be written, circulated, consulted on, discussed some more and then perhaps approved. The bureaucracy of the combined authority will get to interact with all the existing bureaucracies – remember, nothing’s being abolished or even rolled up into the new authority – but democratic oversight of this process is going to be weak. Control is going to be in the hand of leaders of the local authorities that make up the combined authority, all of whom are going to be quite busy running their own authorities and not scrutinising the work of the combined authority in any detail.

So, we have a situation where there are more layers of bureaucracy than ever before, but fewer ways to keep check on them. What this gives is the possibility to develop what’s effectively a local deep state – a permanent bureaucracy that effectively sets the parameters of what is and isn’t possible within the political sphere and keeps everything within that consensus. An important part of this is having multiple bureaucracies that can feed off each other and give a seemingly democratic imprimatur to anything that emerges from their processes, despite the people having been kept as far away from it as possible.

The important part of having multiple overlapping bureaucracies is that you can give a policy document the impression of having had lots of involvement in it without it having strayed outside the bureaucracy. If there’s one organisation, it’s obvious that a document has just toured the departments, but once a whole host of different organisations are seemingly involved things take on a different complexion. Suddenly, a policy takes on a life of its own, with no clear origin, but lots of people trying to push it through on multiple fronts.

The important thing to note is that there isn’t any active conspiracy here, just people doing what comes naturally when bureaucracy is left unchecked. Their job is to make policy, and in a vacuum of any real political direction, they’ll go ahead and do what seems right to them, which will normally be whatever is the current political mainstream consensus. Even if an idea starts outside the boundaries of the currently acceptable, by the time its been bounced around several different layers of bureaucracy it will have become the requisite shade of grey.

Devolution should be about giving areas the chance to claim power for themselves and do things differently, but the current proposals don’t achieve that. All they’ll do is create a series of new local bureaucracies that are tied into the same way of doing things as everyone else, with no democratic oversight or control that would be able to control the bureaucracy. Instead, we’re likely to get a bureaucratically-dominated system where any democratic involvement is going to involve little more than rubber-stamping decisions that have already emerged from the deep bureaucratic consensus.

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Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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Following up from Monday’s post (a Lord thought it was ‘excellent‘, you know…) and with Nick Clegg launching a new report on devolution today, a few more thoughts that I wanted to set down in advance of writing about this properly.

1) We need a new language of devolution

I’ve had a quick look through the summary of the IPPR report that’s being launched today and it’s generally good. There are some points of implementation where I’d differ from them, but I think the principle is good.

The problem is that if you try explaining it to people, or asking them to read even the summary report, most people’s eyes are going to glaze over very quickly when they hit management-speak phrases like ‘core outcome entitlements’. The reason Yes is doing so well in Scotland is that ‘independence’ is a simple complex, easily understood. ‘Asymmetric devolution to combined authorities’ isn’t, and if we’re going to go out and argue for it, we need to understand how to make that case better. Writing that appeals to fellow policy wonks is not the way to do that.

2) We need to stop the obsession with elected mayors

If there’s anything that shows how much think tanks are generally based within the M25, it’s the idea that everywhere needs an elected Mayor. After all, London has one, so why shouldn’t everywhere else? The problem is, it’s been tried and tried again and people are generally resistant to the idea of having them. That doesn’t stop them sneaking into every report about giving power to the regions or promoting our cities as if they’re the only answer to the question.

There are important questions about how local government (and any future devolved governments) are run, but the options should be more than just status quo or mayors. We also need to break away from the idea that one size fits all, and the same model needs to apply in the same way to every authority.

3) We need simple boundaries and obvious accountability

At the moment, Colchester sits within many different areas for many different things: the East of England, the Haven Gateway, Essex County Council, Essex Police, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and many others. None of those groupings operate on the same boundaries, with lots of them crossing and intersecting with themselves and others. I know we’re not unique in this and the same pattern is repeated across the country. Different regions are set up for different parts of the government, and each one ends up needing a separate bureaucracy and structures for accountability because nothing currently exists in that area that could take it on.

If we’re going to have sensible and popular devolution, then we need to keep things simple. Boundaries need to be set, and then organisations need to be set up to work within those boundaries, allowing them to share the costs of bureaucracy and accountability. Devolved and federal systems work because there’s clearly understood accountability and responsibility, not confusion about which area you might be in for what responsibility at any given time.

Like I said, these are just some general thoughts I wanted to set down before I forget them, but all comments, thoughts and questions are welcome.

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There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.

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I spent yesterday in London at the first ever Councillor Camp. This wasn’t a group of local government people hanging around in tents and/or pretending to be Kenneth Williams, but a version of BarCamp especially for councillors who wanted to look at ways we could use social media to better carry out our roles. It was organised by the LGIU and Futuregov, and we were very lucky to be hosted by Facebook, who gave us the run of their London training and meeting room, complete with Doctor Who-themed room names.

Unlike most local government events that I get invited to, this was a free event, and rather than having a rigid schedule, it was run as an ‘unconference‘ where most of the sessions and what they covered were determined by the participants, not by some schedule determined in advance. Another key feature of the day was that we were all encouraged to keep electronic devices on throughout the day and so as well as what was happening at the event itself, there was lots of discussion on the #cllrcamp hashtag on Twitter.

The day started with a number of different speakers offering a variety of perspectives on the use of social media in local politics. Again, this differed from normal conferences in that they were only allowed five minutes each to speak, and thus none of the presentations turned into death by PowerPoint. (“Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.”) This meant they had to boil things down to a few key points, which helped to set the tone for the day, rather than telling everyone what to think. Some key points I picked up from those speeches:

  • Brighton and Hove Council created their own Twitter hashtag – #bhbudget – to promote online discussion of their budget, and councillors were active participants in the online debate, which did feed concrete proposals into the budget
  • Denmark’s tax authorities use their online presence to post details and pictures of what people’s taxes are used for
  • “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” “Your residents are human, so be human.” Politicians need to be on social media as themselves, not constructing a separate online personality.
  • After those brief talks, we were into the main meat of the day, with people filling out a huge number of post-it that were then collated together into a grid of different sessions, where we could talk about what we wanted to. These discussion sessions were, for me, more useful than breakout sessions at other events. Again, there was no sitting round watching one person PowerPoint us to death, and the fact that people had come to a session because they wanted to be there and had chosen the topic meant people were much more willing to participate.

    (And in itself, letting people define the terms of their engagement and interaction, not having it rigidly imposed from on high is something local government could and should learn to do)

    I could go on for ages, but some of the thoughts I’ve had from Councillor Camp are likely going to generate posts in themselves over the weeks to come, but here are some of the key points for me:

  • Engaging in social media means giving up some control – councils and councillors can create and start discussions, but can’t determine where it goes after that.
  • There has to be more work done to get more people involved and online, so the discussion isn’t just amongst the most savvy.
  • Any social media strategy has to be capable of evolving to recognise the growth of new networks and platforms.
  • A new generation is coming through who see being online and involved in social media as entirely natural and integral to their lives, not an added extra (see this quote fromDouglas Adams). That councillors are generally much older than the population they represent could create issues here.
  • The effectiveness of your social media presence is linked to authenticity – people expect you to be yourself and respond as such, not a programmed drone.
  • Interactivity is expected, not an added-extra. People will expect to interact with the social media presence of councils and councillors and get a meaningful response.
  • There’s more to come – and some of it might link with the thoughts I’ve had after reading The Political Brain this week – but overall Councillor Camp was a great experience, and I’d recommend any follow up and repeat events to other councillors, especially those who aren’t as engaged online and want to discover how to go further. One idea suggested was the potential for regional events, to get more people involved in a more convenient location – anyone fancy a Councillor Camp East?

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    I’ve seen a few people talking this morning about how ‘Westminster Council’ are planning to strip benefits from obese people who don’t exercise. Now, that’s a very silly idea – and Stavvers points out the reasons for that in this post – but the key point that people have missed is that these proposals don’t actually come from Westminster Council.

    The stories are based on this report on the LGIU (Local Government Information Unit) website. While Westminster Council were part of the process in coming up with the report – through some vaguely described ’round table discussions’ with the LGIU – the executive summary of the report (on page 2) states quite clearly:

    Recommendations are, however, made independently by the LGiU and do not necessarily reflect the views of WCC.

    Which actually makes this worse. This isn’t a rogue report floating around one council – this is an officially sanctioned and published LGIU report that will be circulated to hundreds of councils all across the country. Westminster’s name is attached to it as they appear to have been the only Council consulted in drawing up the report and recommendations, but this isn’t their policy unless they choose to adopt it, just like anyone else.

    It’s worth noting that most of the report is pretty standard stuff that’s been seen in many other reports and recommendations 4 and 5 particularly could appear in just about any LGIU report with ‘public health’ replaced by whatever the topic at hand was. The problems mostly stem from one line on page 6:

    Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax
    benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents.

    However because of the nature of the report, this isn’t backed up with any evidence as to who or where it’s come from, why anyone thinks it might be effective or whether the person who wrote it stared deep into their soul before doing so and realised exactly what it was they were proposing. Unfortunately, that advice is now being pushed out all across the country, so expect it to emerge in lots of places other than Westminster with proponents claiming ‘it was in an LGIU report, it must be a good idea!’

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    The trouble with writing a blog post about Eric Pickles is that just when you think he’s dug down to a whole new unbeatable low, he finds himself a better shovel and heads down deeper.

    So today we have the news of the latest round of local government cuts which are about as awful as everyone was expected. But in an effort to claim that any cutbacks in services that result from this aren’t the fault of the Government, we get to hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government telling us that there are easy ways for councils to make more savings.

    “What is it, Eric?” Councils ask eagerly, hoping that the great minds of DCLG have stumbled upon some magical ways to make easy savings without service cuts. “What great idea have you stumbled upon?”

    “It’s not just one suggestion – it’s fifty!” Booms the Secretary of State, and magically sends a list to every Council throughout the land.

    “Wow!” Exclaim the councils. “Fifty ways to save money! Thank you, oh wise and knowledgeable Secretary of State. We’re so grateful for this advice that we won’t even make a Fifty Shades Of Grey joke.”

    “Never fear, my friends.” The Secretary of State says. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate my sage advice.”

    Eagerly the Councils opened their guides and read them quickly, wanting to find what ways the geniuses of Whitehall had found for saving money. What incredible new schemes might they have found? What new advice on making the most of meagre money did they have to impart?

    “Wait a minute!” One small and plucky council finally shouted. “This is just a list of things most councils are doing already, mixed in with some political dogma about Common Purpose and trade unions.”

    “We’re already doing most of these.” Said another.

    “We are too!” Others cried, and soon the calls of agreement became a cacophony, occasionally interspersed with bitter laughter at the idea that Councils might not have noticed that Town Halls made good wedding venues.

    “But wait.” One of them finally asked. “If the geniuses of Whitehall think that this is all new and useful information, and not just reminding us of the same things we’ve all been doing and talking about for the last few years, what are they doing with their time? Are they looking at what councils are actually doing, or is the Secretary of State too busy obsessing over bins and talking to ‘Conservative madrassas’ to bother with finding out what local government is actually doing?”

    And they looked to the Secretary of State for an answer, but he’d departed, leaving just a newly emptied bin in his place.

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