Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Big Society isn't about cuts, or is it?

The Oxfordshire libraries consultation is due to close on Friday (30/09/11) and apart from one library group who I haven't been able to get hold of yet to confirm, all of the affected libraries contacted either don't have a friends group setup or the friends group are saying no to the current proposal put forward by OCC:

I think its fair to say most of the groups want to work with OCC on this but the current proposal won't work.

Oxfordshire County Council have tried to use the "Big Society" as a front for their cuts. Indeed the first proposal was to close libraries unless big society volunteers stepped in to save them. Clearly words had been said in the Conservative party as David Cameron doesn't want to associate his centrepiece policy with the cuts. The press release for the proposal has since been taken down and any reference to the "Big Society" has been purged from the current proposal. Thanks to the magic of google cache the page and press release is still available:

One of the relevant quotes:

"In line with the Government's Big Society agenda, we are very keen to hear from local communities and organisations who may wish to take on the running of local libraries and we believe there will be enthusiasm from people who wish to get involved."

The library groups in Oxfordshire are clearly not happy with Oxfordshire County Councils take on the big society. The annoying thing is the friends groups are doing what the big society is actually supposed to be anyway, making existing services better.

We have also updated our estimated volunteer costs based on the in house training courses that OCC use for their own staff. The director for social care and community services confirmed to Burford that the training costs would be met by OCC and use their own internal training, the costs are sourced from their own site:

The other issue with using volunteers is that its against their own guidance, this is what OCC staff use when assessing if a role is suitable for a volunteer:

This clearly shows using volunteers as freebie professional librarians is against their own guidance. 

Also they have said the volunteers are not allowed to claim back expenses, again against their own policy:

“Expenses are extremely important to volunteers, and are also important in attracting a diverse volunteer ‘workforce’.”
ref OCC Valuing our volunteer’s policy doc

Yet for library volunteers we get this:

“The Library Service seeks to provide the best possible service to the public at a time when its budgets are being reduced. It is not therefore normally able to refund expenses to volunteers working in their local library. However, certain expenses may be payable, for example to attend training activities”
Ref OCC Volunteers in Proposed Community libraries

On the issue of what is expected of the volunteers, even at the end of the consultation process we still don't have a completed job specification for the volunteers. Their draft version is here:

It still hasn't been finalised. The well meaning residents who ticked yes (me included) to volunteering many months ago were not given any information on what was required of them. The "volunteer" job specification is longer than any job description I have ever had. In fact I would imagine it reads almost exactly the same as a professional librarian's job description.

Update 29/Sep/2011

Keith Mitchell responded to this blog with a couple of tweets which shows the mindset we are up against. He also suggested that I am displaying "glee" about this whole thing. How exactly that is I don't know, I would rather not be fighting to save our local library, if the volunteer proposals made sense I would volunteer and try to make them work. Sadly they don't, here are Keith's tweets:

So we can sum up Keith's (and presumibly OCC's, since he leads it) position in three bullet points.

  1. If the library groups win and the volunteer proposals are chucked out, old people will suffer
  2. If the library groups cannot make the volunteer proposals work, some libraries will be cut
  3. There are no other options, its a take it or leave it deal, the consultation is purely for show, no ideas put up by the friends groups will be considered.

At no point have any library groups to my knowledge said they won't work with OCC, its quite the opposite. We want to work with OCC but their proposal is the only game in town as shown above.

I personally believe the plan all along is cuts by the back door. Put up a volunteer proposal that cannot work and then when the libraries close they can blame the communities for not supporting them. Again this is worth stating, the "savings" are somewhere in the region of 350k. OCC have a billion pound budget. Getting volunteers to clean the libraries rather than a expensive contractor would save more money than the current proposals but OCC aren't listening it seems.

Here is Cameron's quote on the big society again:

"This is not about trying to save money, it is about trying to have a bigger, better society."   

Volunteers are already making the library service better Keith, the proposals want to destroy that.

Here is the link to the Oxfordshire Save Our Libraries statement:

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