Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Newspeak

It was entirely predictable that Local Government would face a tight financial settlement from the Assembly Government this year, and many did indeed predict it. The enthusiasm of the junior partner in the coalition for a tighter version of the approach which they condemned so strongly in the past was rather less predictable – the zeal of the convert, perhaps.

In any event, all across Wales, the officers and members of local authorities will be busy scratching their heads as to how they should impose the budget cuts – sorry, identify the efficiency savings - which are now being required of them.

Only the na├»ve or the deluded – and, of course, members of the Assembly Government – can really believe that there will be much in the nature of ‘efficiency’ in what happens. Efficiency, to me, has a very explicit meaning. Doing things more efficiently means achieving the same outcome by expending fewer resources. Yet in most cases, what will be under consideration is how to re-jig what is being done, rather than how it is being done, in order to save cost - not at all the same thing.

There are a few obvious targets, of course. One, which was mentioned, as part of what may happen, by Vaughan Roderick, is to leave jobs unfilled. This certainly avoids expenditure - but does it really improve efficiency? If the work of the post holder gets done by other staff working extra hours, then it's not a service cut as such, but it is a reduction in employment opportunities (aka job cut), and a worsening of employment conditions for the other staff. If the work doesn't get done at all, then it's a service cut. The only way in which it could be called an 'efficiency' saving is if the job contributed nothing in the first place.

Those even more cynical than I might argue that many jobs in Local Government do indeed contribute little or nothing – but that’s not the reality for service users. In practice, unfilled jobs tend to be experienced in terms of longer response times to all sorts of situations - waiting times for grant applications to be processed, delays before children at risk are seen and assessed, delays in processing housing benefit claims and so on. Service level cuts in all but name.

I am aware of some councils looking at reducing the standard of maintenance on buildings and parks. Cutting the grass less frequently may well be something worth doing anyway, but it’s not an ‘efficiency’ saving; it’s a revision of the specification of the service to be delivered.

Maintaining buildings less frequently is a harder case for them to argue; it may save money in the short term, but it stores up problems, and costs, for the longer term. Why else do we have such a backlog of repairs in our schools requiring such a high capital expenditure now to bring them up to standard? This is past ‘efficiency savings’, aka false economies, catching up with us.

There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong with the paymaster, in this case, the Assembly Government, telling the recipients of its largesse, in this case, Welsh local government, that they must manage on less money. It's a valid political decision to take, even if one with which some of us disagree. What I object to is the dishonesty of the presentation - trying to present a budget cut (bad) as efficiency savings (good) when you know that you’re actually going to be reducing the level of services or jobs, is just a form of newspeak.

UPDATE: In a line that I couldn't have made up, a spokesperson for the Vale of Glamorgan Council last week stated that school Christmas lunches would be minus the traditional trimmings, and described this as an 'efficiency saving'. I rest my case.

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