28th July 2014
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is currently under investigation for allegedly diverting £2m in public grants to Bangladeshi and Somali groups.
This investigation was triggered by a prime time Panorama investigation into goings on in the London Borough and allegations that the Mayor (then and current) has pressured officers to allocate funds to organisations which under a fair and free process would not have received them. According to latest blog from the Guardian this investigation is still ongoing with PWC requesting 10 million pieces of information and Tower Hamlets requesting a Judicial Review into the proportionality of the investigation.
I was reminded of this last week after reading this excellent post from Toby Blume about the award of grants to the Big Society Network. Toby reviewed a recent NAO report into funding given to the Big Society Network and Society Network Foundation and reported:
Among the findings NAO report were:
That the Cabinet Office meddled with the administration of the Social Action Fund that it had commissioned Social Investment Business to run. They told SIB to ‘look again’ (subtext – until you find the right answer) at four bids it had deemed ineligible, including one from Society Network Foundation. And just to make sure the correct answer was arrived at they changed the eligibility criteria after the closing date for applications. When the project was going badly, they put more money in to ‘try and bring the project back on track’….rather than accepting they had made a horrible mistake. They also made further payments even though Society Network Foundation’s own figures showed that the project hadn’t spent the money they’d already had.
This was followed up by a report over the weekend from the Independent which reported that, among other things, the grant process to award funds to the Big Society Network was unduly pressured by Government Ministers. To quote the paper:
Two senior figures on government grant awarding bodies have also made allegations that they were pressured into handing over money to the Big Society Network despite severe reservations about the viability of the projects they were being asked to support.
Liam Black, a former trustee of Nesta, which was then a public body sponsored by the Department for Business, said Nesta had been “forced” to give grants that totalled £480,000 to the Big Society Network in 2010 without a competitive pitch. He described it as a “scandalous waste of money”.
Another senior figure involved in the decision to award £299,800 from the Cabinet Office to the organisation said the funding request had initially been turned down.
“When we did the analysis we turned them down because the bid did not stack up,” they said. “But we were told to go back and change the criteria to make it work.”
The Big Society Network is currently being investigated by the Charity Commission although as I read the story they’re being investigated for reasons not related to the giving of the grants but instead to do with their governance. However, the Labour Party have written to the Cabinet Secretary asking for an investigation into the grant giving much as Eric Pickles sent in PWC to investigate Tower Hamlets.
If we move past the obvious disparity in the way the two issues are being dealt with – where’s the PWC investigation into the Cabinet Office and Panorama investigation? – the more interesting question is whether political interference in grant processes is actually ok.
A generous interpretation of the Big Society Network grant process is that Conservative Ministers influenced the grant process because they wanted to ensure that the grants were given to organisations who shared their ideology; part of which had been a central plank of their manifesto. Similarly in Tower Hamlets a generous interpretation would be that Mayor Rahman had wanted to ensure that a complex grant process did not deny community groups which he knew were good service providers from getting funds.
In both circumstances isn’t that the role of politicians? After all, designing the perfect grants process is nearly impossible and I don’t know of any one that hasn’t resulted in at least one slightly perverse outcome (all of which we learn in hindsight). Likewise, politicians are directly accountable for the grants so why shouldn’t they have responsibility for influencing that spend?
The less generous interpretations both revolve around nepotism.
I have been weighing these issues ever since the Panorama ‘expose’ and despite the obvious risks (as possibly demonstrated by the Big Society Network and Tower Hamlets examples) I would rather have politicians involved and actively influencing the grants process. The key issue, if we allow this, is to ensure that whenever a grant is given based on a political overview it is made clear in the grant notes. Then the public would know and opposition politicians, journalists, citizen auditors and voters can judge politicians on the decisions they make.
The current situation pretends that there is no political influence in spending money; a position which is obviously not true and because of this pretence denies the public the chance to make their own judgements.
If the Conservatives want to invest £2m in a network run by one of their former staff or Mayor Rahman wants to invest £2m in community groups he believes in we should accept that they were elected to do just that.
The public just have the right to know so that when it all goes wrong we know who to blame.
I hate maths. Well, I hate teaching maths. My children are all at an age where they are starting to get on to more complicated calculations, and I’m struggling to adequately describe to them how to get from A to B, or more appropriately 294 to pi.
The trouble is that in my head, I just do it. I don’t quite remember how I developed all of the techniques of chunking things up, rounding them up, doing a few separate sums to get each component correct and then recombining them at the end to get to the answer; I just sort of do it all in my head and blurt something out. My teachers hated teaching me as I’d usually get the right answer, but rarely adequately showed my working out.
The reason I mention this is that I came across a similar situation recently at an event which really got me frustrated. Picture the scene: a circle of senior Council staff from across the country, each describing their challenges and each looking to get some help and support to come up with solutions that will balance the books whilst delivering all of the services needed to those who need them. A few members of the group are taking part as they have been invited to speak as experts, sharing their stories and describing how they are in a better place than many others in the room. One of the group asks them how they can get from where they are to where they need to be; their answer?
“Well, you just have to do it. We do, and we’re great, so act like us.”
I paraphrase, but effectively that is all they ended up saying. There was no thought to the years of preparation that went into all of it, the discussions, the arguments, the position papers, the cajoling, the business cases, the low hanging fruit, the media preparation, the vision statements, the risk assessments or the sheer dumb luck factor; all the advice given was to jump to the end point with an expectation that the intervening steps actually wouldn’t be necessary or difficult.
As I mentioned recently on our podcast (did you know, we have a semi-regular podcast?), in some ways it reminded me of childbirth. While going through pregnancy there is trial after trial, adjustments to arrangements and a lot of negotiation about how things will work afterwards, followed by some extremely painful and difficult birthing pains after which all of that gets forgotten as you look into the baby’s eyes and resolve to have another one as they are so fantastic. You develop a form of pain-amnesia, forgetting all of the hurt and focussing on all that is good about the end product.
Whilst in evolutionary terms this is perfectly reasonable (otherwise our species would be far fewer in number), when it comes to organisational and cultural development it is possibly the most dangerous and/or useless stance to take when people come to you asking for advice. It leads the questioner to end up with one of two visions for success: either do just jump in with both feet and act in that way, or give up as there is just about no help out there. Whilst the latter results in little progress, the former would be far more serious as the internal knowledge and expertise built up during those long fights and debates simply won’t exist.
It is only by fighting the fights and beating down the doubters that a good, innovative idea can truly be tested, and the staff involved build up the required skill set and mental attitude to enact it. Sometimes it may be a case of living up to the adage that timing having an awful lot to do with the success of a rain dance: it might not matter how good or bad you are, sometimes everything just aligns perfectly and works first time. However, more often than not it will require a lot of work and learning to take place along the way.
It seems to be these stages of learning which we are not good at breaking down. We tend to look back and remember the good parts, rather than what we did to get from one stage to the next. We also condense these lessons down to very few, often focussing on the individuals involved rather than the processes we went through. We also rarely talk about any dead ends or failures, a cardinal sin when it comes to learning.
It is always useful to have examples to inspire others, paragons of virtue which we can all point to and say “I want to be more like them!” What we need more of is the real, honest analysis of how they got to where they are so we can then apply this to our own settings and devise appropriate strategies to make progress. Just saying “be more like us” not only does others no good but it does a huge disservice to those who are good, not valuing the effort that went into things and making it seem as if everyone could do exactly the same by tomorrow. Some may say “we were just lucky”, but in my experience there’s no such thing as luck; luck is simply preparation meeting opportunity.
Being open as you go helps as you don’t then need to go back and work out how it all worked. We all need to get a little bit better at showing our workings, lest we end up with a load of sums and answers but no idea how we got there, or even if they’re correct.
It’s not often that I struggle to find the right words to describe something. I take pride in being able to step back, look at a situation from a number of angles and work out the best way to juggle language around until I find a description or term which makes sense. Like the late, great Sid Wadell not all of my analogies make total sense other than to me, but I can pull them together anyway.
This perhaps is why I’ve found it so difficult to immediately write about the LGA conference this year, which I was lucky enough to be able to attend for the second of its three day stint. Held this year in Bournemouth, it brought together leaders, councillors, chief execs and senior staff from across the country to look at the issues facing the sector and hear from others involved what their own thoughts are. It also gave them the chance to meet a wide range of organisations and suppliers looking to work with local government in one way or another, as well as hearing from MPs about how central government is responding to the local government agenda.
Perhaps it was the sessions I attended. Perhaps it was the people I spoke with. Perhaps it was simply the slightly surreal sight of the British Sprinkler Alliance having a stand there (which Chief Exec will have seen that and immediately gone back to order new sprinkler systems?!). Whatever it was, something was different this year. It’s this “something” which I’m struggling to identify, and it’s infuriating.
Compare and contrast this year’s event with just 12 months ago, when the 2013 conference in Manchester saw the unveiling of the Rewired Public Services document which demanded a changed relationship between local and central government. The atmosphere (which we discussed on a special edition of our podcast) was bullish and proud: local government for the first time in ages was standing up and demanding better of the system and relationships which determined how it works.
Eric Pickles got a grilling from an at times hostile crowd back then, being forced to defend his stance on just about everything he discussed and verbally jousting with irate audience member after irate audience member. And whether you loved or hated him, no-one was left in any doubt as to the vision and passion he had to make things happen.
Fast forward to 2014 and, as Hannah Fearn points out, E-Pic looked a shadow of his former self. Not only was his speech not written by even a shadow of a Sam Seaborn-type figure it was delivered as if it was the first time Eric had set eyes on it. There was none of the verve and importance inherent in previous years; this was the performance of a man who simply was going through long-standing and practiced motions, like a couple who have been married thirty years longer than they should have been. Even when the script finished and he opened up to the floor for questions he still didn’t look like he was in anything other than bland broadcast mode, trotting out stats and lines which rarely if ever came close to answering questions whilst cracking jokes and verbally dominating the questioner.
I don’t want this to come across as Pickle-bashing in particular, it was merely an indication of the mood I picked up on. It’s not that local government has given up, far from it in fact, just that the air of constructive conflict and tension had disappeared, to perhaps be replaced by an air of practicality and pragmatism. I saw and spoke with people doing some really exciting things, thinking bigger than ever before and talking about how they would actually get things done rather than necessarily who they needed to ask for permission. The session on income generation was particularly busy, standing room only being in action ten minutes before it was due to kick off and with at least 30 people or more subsequently turned away as the room was simply too full. I believe they were talking about the ability to make money by generating energy, which for some reason sounds familiar…
What was discussed was important, but in many ways it all felt far more tactical rather than strategic.
NLGN ran in ‘innovation bar’ which, like their Apple Genius Bar counterparts gave people the chance to talk through their ideas and thoughts to identify innovative solutions. This was a great idea, but I’m guessing much of what was discussed with the team there was practical in nature rather than any hatching of long term shared strategic visions. That being said, if I needed support around innovative thinking they are some of the first people I’d turn to.
Competing with the Innovation Bar (with excellent innovation juice give-aways too) was the Innovation Zone, which played host to half a dozen discussions at the same time each looking at different things. Admittedly, most of the ones I saw had something of a tech focus, from a couple of open data discussions to FutureGov and Lewes Council launching a finance management app via a ‘digital tips for councillors’ session. These were all fascinating, though there were moments when it felt like preaching to the choir as those in attendance were self-selecting and therefore probably interested already. No bad thing, but I’d love to get some of those more antipathetic into those discussions too.
Perhaps it was the next natural step for discussions and emotions after all. If we are no longer waiting for permission to do things and simply getting on and doing them, why put on the hard hats and go to war with central government? Let’s not waste that oxygen and instead get on with putting plans into motion.
Whether good or bad, next year’s conference for me will be extremely telling. With national elections in 2015 we could have a whole slew of new ministers and ideas which will affect local government, whichever party is more or less successful in their campaigning. In some ways I wish this opportunity had been taken to start the influencing of national parties and forcing them to make early commitments to the local agenda. It would have been invigorating to have people proudly saying how they planned to campaign and lobby for the very things hinted at by ministers throughout the event without any firm commitments being made. By the time next year’s conference rolls around it’ll be too late to start shouting “what about us?”
Yet again, it promises to be an interesting 12 months.
(Big thanks to Laurence Meehan at LGA for the invite to attend, and Sarah Jennings and Liz Copeland at Capacity Grid for a great evening's discussion)