Thursday, 16 October 2008

A waste of public money

Neighbourhood Partnerships (NPs)were set up 18 months ago to
  • deliver local community services
  • enable public engagement with local decisions
  • provide a means to deliver services the Council are legally obliged to provide (eg under recent community planning legislation)

These appear very laudable. After observing and participating fully in the system for the last 18 months, today I called for them to be scrapped on the grounds that they are inefficient and wasteful of public money and, particularly in terms of public engagement, are failing.

First public money. An extensive training programme for community members was neither effective nor focused on what participants needed. Council officers and members of the NPs put considerable effort into these training sessions but many were of dubious value. For example, I attended a totally wasteful afternoon on Government Standards for Community Engagement which produced an expensive glossy brochure and pretty well nothing in the Standards which was helpful for participating in NPs.

More concerning is that many NPs meet with a raft of Council Officers - typically 10-12 - in attendance and only a few members of the public. It is not unusual for the paid public employees to outnumber the members of the public. Council employees would be better employed on more productive work.

Then community participation. As we have seen participation is limited to a relatively few people. In my NP these are local people who care about the community. But there is a huge degree of frustration that they have not really achieved very much. This is because they have dealt with few real decisions and the system has been painfully slow to get up and running - or devolve real powers to NPs. Many - if not most of these people are already involved in Community Councils. The frustration is very clear for all to see.

Accountability. The presence of NPs adds another layer of bureaucracy to the delivery of local services. Council officers, already with a responsibility to their line managers and elected councillors, now also have to work to satisfy NPs. This divided allegiance is no way to deliver services efficiently. Then there is a democratic deficit. Often NP members are elected by no one and represent a particular interest. Because they are often retired people they are often not representative of the community in discussions and decisions.

All of these things make for the inefficiency which uses up scarce council resources. The current climate indicates trouble ahead for the economy and for public finances. I am in no doubt that a key priority of the voters who elected me was efficiency and effectiveness in public services. Neighbourhood Partnerships fail these tests and should be scrapped. There are alternative and better ways of achieving good local services.


Colin Christison said...

Some comments -

I thought that the Council were required by the community planning legislation to set up NPs (or equivalent) whether they wanted to to or not, or whether the NPs were affordable or not. Similar schemes were supposedly required throughout Scotland, although this was before the change of government at Holyrood.

The previous set-up (Local Development Committees) were very well-attended by members of the public, as well as Councillors, officials, and staff. Questions and problems raised at these meetings seemed to be considered either at the time, or later, and were dealt with accordingly. The transition between LDCs and NPs has not been seamless, and people have perhaps not been made aware of the NPs' existence. Perhaps the multi-member wards cause confusion?
It is important that the City Council relates to its citizens and voters through an efficient mechanism which is transparent and accountable, and not bogged down by long-winded irrelevant presentations which curtail time for asking questions and discussion. Do the NPs require more time to settle in? Their role is wider than that of the LDCs.

CR said...

Thanks for your comment. I believe there are other ways to provide community planning - for example, making use of Community councils. There is also the Edinburgh Partnership - though I have concerns about its accountability and balance. And there are other ways to consult and develop such plans required by legislation. Perhaps the legislation needs changed as well. We are in a process heavy environment. I fear community engagement and efficiency are working in opposite directions. Engagement does not equal transparency.

As to LDCs. Why did the previous administration consider the need to change them if they worked successfully. I appreciate they did have achievements - but they hardly competed with prime time TV in the common mind.

I agree that things might improve as they bed in. Indeed, almost certainly they will. But will that improvement be enough. I think we need to set our sights higher. I am frustrated by the lack of decisiveness of Council decision taking on many fronts. I just don't think we can afford to allow a poorly functioning body to bump along amidst mediocrity.

(BTW I do not absolve councillors, including myself, from the blame for the failure of NPs. For example, I should have been less willing to be consensual on some issues which have contributed to the current anomie!)

I hope that clarifies.

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