I had a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in my life I put in an FOI request. It was sent to six local authorities, and asked them three or four questions about a topic which wasn’t available in the public domain already. I’d looked through committee papers and spoken with a few people I knew, but FOI was the quickest, most reliable way left to me so I took it.
I took my time crafting the request, remembering the countless frivolous, vague or overly complicated ones I received over the years and made it as succinct and easy to understand as possible. I chose six local authorities who I believed would be able to answer my query and hit the send button, waiting excitedly for first the acknowledgement replies to come in before the information itself.
It’s amazing what it feels like to go through such a process from the other side of the fence, and I've a new found understanding of just why so many people get so frustrated with some local councils.
I’ll break my request down in general terms in order to demonstrate my point. I asked whether they had done something in particular; if so, what were their reasons for, and if not what were their reasons against. I then asked if they were planning on doing it in the future; again, following up with reasons for or against. I also asked whether they expected it to result in any savings, and if so how much.
The acknowledgements trickled in over the next day or two, telling me that it would be dealt with within 20 days which was all as expected. When I in fact got in after the weekend and found not only an acknowledgement from Wigan Council but a response as well I was on a high! “Wow!” I thought, “these guys are really on the ball! I know it wasn’t a complicated request but I didn’t expect them to respond quite so quickly!”
Imagine my disappointment when the respons totalled up to five words and an acronym. Five words: “no”, “n/a” and “not at this time”. Were these responses factually correct? Yes, I suppose so, but the tone of them and the lack of any form of personalised response was very far from what I expected. It takes all of two minutes to type out a sentence to soften those edges, and has not left me with anything like a warm, positive feeling and an appreciation for them taking the time to share some information with me.
This was the first and to date only direct engagement I've had with Wigan Council, and it’s not given me a very positive impression of them. I know they must do some great work, and their website is referred to as an example of good practice, but they let themselves down with such a curt response to a request which should have been right up their alley.
Thankfully though, not everyone is like that. The very next day I received an email from Monmouthshire County Council. I’d not received an acknowledgement from them yet so I nearly dismissed it, before noticing that instead of putting me in the standard 20 day holding pattern they had in fact responded in full. They told me that they hadn’t done the thing I was asking about, and then gave me a few reasons why they might be looking at doing it in the future.
It wasn’t rambling, it didn't go around the houses and bamboozle me, it didn’t refer off to random committee reports which half answer a related topic: it clearly and succinctly answered my question and made me feel like they had appreciated what I wanted rather than simply working out the fewest number of words to respond in.
In short, I was happy to have received it.
FOIs can be a funny thing; advice to officers is usually to provide answers only to what is requested rather than to try to figure out what was intended. This means officers don’t get accused of misleading through their responses, but can also mean plenty of follow-up enquiries as the requestor refines their question and narrows down the scope of investigation. Each of these gets the mandatory 20 days, so it can be months before a simple answer is given. It also is misinterpreted by some to mean keep the information to a minimum, and style to zero. I can handle no style, but would prefer not to handle no courtesy.
Yes, technically officers can (and should) get in touch with the enquirer if they aren’t clear about things, but I rarely hear of this happening. If all of the answers I'd received had been like Wigan's then this post would have been a lot more ranty.
Thankfully Monmouthshire provided the ying to Wigan’s yang and came across as a help rather than a hindrance. Fingers crossed that the remaining responses are on the helpful end of the great FOI spectrum.
Billy Connolly once relayed the story of the moment he got his first tattoo, when the tattoo artist looked up at him after the first stroke: “that’s brilliant,” Connolly was told, “now there’s one more of us and one less of them.”
In the modern age, for many people with a tattoo this holds true. Tattoos can be a symbol of a person’s individuality, of their own personal style, thoughts, attitudes and life journeys. Alternatively they can be a drunken misspelling of a semi-famous quote (don’t even get me started on badly drawn portraits or cartoon hearts with the word ‘Mum’ in it). Whatever they are, they are pretty much irreversible and something which says something about the wearer.
A recent BBC article asked the question whether or not people with tattoos should be protected from anti-discrimination laws in the same way as other people who feel discriminated against either in the workplace or the hunt for jobs. The argument used within the article was one of capability rather than appearance: "If someone can do a job, they should be equal with the next person who has the same CV."
In local government I’ve not heard the arguments for and against such discrimination played out at any length or volume. It seems to be something of a hidden topic, not out of shame or fear but out of disinterest by many, though it may be one which is worth exploring. Should local government universally be able to restrict people with tattoos, visible or otherwise, from working for it if they so choose?
I'm saying tattoos in general – no way, but visible tattoos – yes.
Up front, I need to declare a bit of a conflict of interest in that I have a few tattoos of my own; some swirly designs on my upper right arm and across my shoulders, as well as a small family symbol a couple of inches in diameter at the base of my neck. None of these are visible when I’ve got a shirt on, which was a very deliberate choice I made when these were all done several years ago. I didn’t work in local government at the time, nor did I have any immediate plans to do so, but I felt that in any role which would involve regular interaction with people outside of direct work colleagues, i.e. the general public or other organisations, visible tattoos would carry a degree of stigma.
It’s a strange thing really. Obviously, when people meet someone of a different gender, ethnicity, age, physical ability or other attribute we’d like to think this doesn’t matter when compared to their ability to do their job. Yes, discrimination does unfortunately still exist, but as far as facts go none of these things make a blind bit of difference to competency, and therefore should not affect how you feel about someone you are interacting with. However, if you go into a meeting with someone sporting a large tattoo on their face, covering much of their neck or wandering down onto their hands this tends to cause far more reaction than it really should.
Unlike the attributes listed above no-one is born with their tattoos – they are all conscious choices made by adults at some point in their lives. Some are relatively banal; flowers, abstract shapes or numbers, whilst others say something far more personal about them or their beliefs. Having those beliefs is of course entirely their right, but as soon as they put ink to flesh they are publicly making a statement and projecting those beliefs outwards.
Even those more extreme tattoos, the Mike Tyson facial designs for instance, do not change who they are as a person; they would still be able to do their jobs from their perspective as well as before they got inked. What changes however is how they are perceived by others. Rightly or wrongly, obvious tattoos cause a sense of aversion in many people and distract from who the person is, focussing instead on what their tattoos say about them.
To provide an example, let’s put a situation out there. Imagine that you are a council tenant and are having problems paying your rent this month. After a lot of effort you finally manage to make an appointment to speak to someone at the Town Hall, so in you go with a mountain of paperwork and a story to tell. You sit down with a very nice young lady, go through things and are greeted in a friendly, sympathetic manner before working through your options.
Now, picture exactly the same scene but add that Mike Tyson tattoo. Would you still feel exactly the same about her? Would you be just as comfortable, just as trusting in their abilities? Of course all of us intellectually will insist we would be, but many people wouldn’t. They would be asking what life choices this person made to get to the point where they got such a tattoo, and whether they had sufficient judgement to be able to actually help them.
The Mike Tyson tattoo is certainly an extreme example, but others are also out there. I recall seeing someone in a short sleeved shirt at a number of meetings who had a full sleeve of tattoos, ranging from football crests to deaths heads and Christian crosses. He had the archetypal ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on his knuckles, which all juxtaposed wonderfully with the financial savings associated with managing health and safety which he was always talking about. I know I was often distracted by his tattoos despite the fact they made not one bit of difference to his work; I daresay that if I’d only seen him in winter and not paid attention I wouldn’t have even known about them. However, I did notice them and wondered at his back story.
Some may point to the fact that increasingly young people are getting tattoos in their earlier years as a fashion statement which they can then go on to regret later in life, rather than through any affiliation to a particular group, gang or culture. I know people with faux-religious scripture scrawled up their necks, stating that no-one but god can judge them despite the fact that they’ve not set foot in a church since they were in the Cubs. I know people with #YOLO tattooed on their hands. I know people with teardrops on their faces, not because they know the meaning of it but because it’s what all the men in their family have.
Yet each of these are choices that have been made which will perhaps one day have consequences. People make decisions all the time which have repercussions further down the line, positive or negative, though I struggle to think of an instance other than bonding with others who have tattoos where the repercussion would be positive.
Having tattoos is not a bad thing. They are a personal choice, and express something about an individual. Having visible tattoos, ones which are on display while wearing normal work clothes, muddy’s the water in that it depends on what the tattoo is of, how large it is and where it is positioned. A star on an ankle is one thing, whilst a badge saying ‘F*** the Police’ on the neck would be something different. There can never be a definitive line to be drawn for local government, saying that this tattoo in this place is fine while that tattoo in that place is wrong, but local government needs to retain the ability to make a judgement as to what it feels is acceptable for every role and every situation.
Tattoos are a personal, active decision made by people which will affect how others perceive them. Outside of a tiny number of instances nobody forces anyone to get tattooed at all, let alone where and what is delivered. Staff – both current and prospective – need to bear this in mind as they flick through the catalogue of artistic designs in the tattoo parlour. It may not change their ability to do their jobs but it will affect others opinions, and if that in turn affects their ongoing ability to perform then there will – and should – be consequences.
Councils must retain the ability and strength to decide what is acceptable for the people who are the face of the organisation. Some insist on uniforms for certain roles, others have dress codes all of their own, but they have the ability to decide which things are acceptable and which are not. Unless it is covered by anti-discrimination law or something which a person can’t help, it then becomes a case of the Council setting its standards and then applying them across the board. If it says that visible tattoos are unacceptable then that is entirely its own decision, to be supported or challenged by its staff. But it is their decision to make, not anyone else’s, and as long as it is made clear to existing and prospective staff then they can make their own decisions as to whether or not to get inked.
Now, I’m off to get the WLLG heart done across my chest…
For those of us toiling away at WLLG Towers there is never - never - a nicer moment than when an e-mail pings into our inbox starting with a phrase along the lines of "I've got a guest post for you..." Those are the moments when we can sit back and be happy that people know they can send them to us (and you can too, you know), safe in the knowledge that they will see the light of day. With that in mind, here's a brilliant piece for you to read through about a pretty serious topic; social care...
I will ease you in with a simple thought- the way we care for one another matters most about society. We all have a right to equality, dignity and fairness
Happily this thought underpins the new Care Act; as it did in 1947 when the National Assistance Act was written.
Our systems are not perfect. They do not always adapt to meet the needs of the individual. Appalling abuse, neglect and system failure has a relentless place in every Serious Case Review. When things go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong and people experience inequality, degradation and unfairness. Systems must be held to account by the people they serve. This failure must power a relentless drive for improvement; the status quo can never be accepted.
This article is not a passionate defence for the system but for social care itself. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Care has recently stated that social care in England is fast becoming “unsustainable.” Gone is the era of moderate needs and discretionary spending. Half a million people who received care pre-2009 order no longer do so. £3.53 billion has been taken out of Local Authority budgets (a circa 26% cut) and yet political expectations continue to ratchet up. Social Care is to achieve: fewer hospital admissions, integrated health and social care, a living wage for domiciliary care workers, increased choice of care provision and personalised care and health. There is also a new range of statutory duties: support for Carers, preventative services, a cap for social care spend and many other (formerly discretionary) facets of social care that are now law. The public is therefore entitled to align expectations accordingly.
On the demand side there is significantly more demand for primary and secondary mental health services (poverty and poor mental health are clearly related); increasing number of people aged 85+ with dementia and people with learning disabilities.
Nothing (worsening mental health aside) above should be viewed negatively. The Care Act is a modern take on equality, dignity and fairness. Carers deserve to be paid properly for the increasingly complex and skillful jobs they deliver. Hospitals should be a place of last resort. The problem is that the gap between political expectation and reality is widening at pace and the electorate aren’t yet at the party.
The majority of people (myself included) don’t think about social care until they need it for themselves or a loved one. You may need a hospital at any point in time but the idea of relying on others for care; especially professional care; is too much for most of us to get our heads around. Elections tend to be won and lost about wars, immigration, taxation, crime, unemployment and mortgage rates. A Prime Minister is unlikely to be swept to power on the crest of a radically new approach to dementia care. Social Care isn’t Top of the Pops and it is being treated like a bad tribute act accordingly.
Councils must take some responsibility. Too much defaulting to positive on efficiency surveys and equality impact assessments. Too much bidding for integration initiatives with undeliverable performance targets and the allure of “pathfinder” status. It all smacks being alone for the last two minutes of speed dating, wild and desperate.
There should be more painting the picture of local impact; articulating the story of people who are socially isolated, not ill enough yet to pass threshold: crises waiting to happen.
The case for Health and Social Care is not helped by very high profile instances of misused resources; the scandal of £3,500+ per week beds in assessment and treatment units for one example. This does not mean the system is adequately resourced.
There is a wider context alongside the stick social care is regularly battered with. A few observations:
· Real money is better than virtual or recycled money. Real money can be spent on the care and support people need. You can waste a lot of time and energy with partner agencies arguing about how to make virtual money real and much like magic beans the success ratios are limited.
· Social capital doesn’t mean every neighbour opts to deliver complex care overnight
· If you want to achieve integration you can’t give the NHS (a monopoly provider with tariffs/payment by activity targets) an effective right of veto. I reckon they’ll use it.
· Taking 26% out of any system, saddling it with swinging cuts until at least 2020 and raising public expectation at the same time isn’t cricket.
· Promising people free care, then a cap on care, then a policy that means the typical homeowner has to live for 4 years after death to quality for state assistance isn’t entirely transparent
Let’s dispense with the magic beans and speed dating. It isn’t working for anyone. I want equality, dignity and fairness for social care. Granted this won’t put anyone in No.10 but the millions of people who use and work in social care would love it and maybe it is just the right thing to do.