Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy

I recently visited the SCL (The Society of Chief Librarians) with a few other library campaigners at their first stakeholder forum. Despite my many criticisms of the SCL I see this as a good sign. I won't go into the whole two hours, Public Library News covered it in great detail here. I do however want to go through my main gripe with the SCL which is their policy on volunteers, and more specifically volunteers replacing paid staff. The SCL according to their site exist to:

"The Society of Chief Librarians leads the debate on the future of public libraries and advocates for continuous improvement of the public library service on behalf of local people"

They are great supporters of volunteers in libraries, but controversially they support volunteers replacing paid staff in libraries. They don't have any evidence to support this, the position is based on their experience as librarians and they cite a specific hypothetical example of where a volunteer replacing a paid staff member would save a library that would otherwise close:

Volunteers could remove the need to double staff some service points which would reduce costs and this meant libraries were kept open. If there was absolutely no job substitution then libraries will close.

Unfortunately in my opinion, their stance, however well intended has opened the flood gates and councils up and down the land are going straight to the volunteers option without looking to save costs elsewhere in the library service first. We now know that 201 libraries closed last year so they didn't appear to benefit from the stance given by the SCL. I doubt many libraries were actually saved by their position, I think quite a few senior librarians were though as someone senior has to be there to push through the volunteers policy.

The SCL are taxpayer funded, unaccountable to local people (who they say they act on behalf of) and we as taxpayers have no say in their policy. Its one thing for a single chief librarian giving their best professional advice, its entirely another thing a for a taxpayer funded organisation without any sort of evidence or mandate endorsing a policy that affects the library provision of all. 

They have said they will publish guidance on what tasks are suitable, and which are not for volunteers. It is a start but not enough. We are meeting again in the spring I believe and this is something I want to explore with them further, especially the democratic deficit of their organisation. By their own words they are supposed to be debating on the future of libraries and advocating for its continuous improvement. 

I will put a little survey widget on the blog, please vote and ask any library users (explain who the SCL are) you know to vote, also leave comments if there are things you want me to raise with them the next time we meet. 

Previous posts on the SCL and their position on volunteers replacing staff:

Vaizey done good

I hate to say it but Vaizey has actually done a very good thing in getting CIPFA to do these comparisons. It confirms what I have been saying all along about the Oxfordshire library service, its expensive and bloated and the back office spend is far too high, this has to be tackled instead of forcing volunteers to replace low paid library assistants in a scheme that doesn't really save any money.

Oxfordshire has:

  • Average number of libraries and users
  • Just below average population in the comparison group
  • Just above average number of active borrowers (although there isn't much in it)
  • High level of book issues (this is the best thing they are doing)
  • High level of total revenue expenditure. (bad, bad, bad)
  • Low level of volunteers.

There are lots of other comparisons in there and Oxon does quite well in quite a few of them, I think the central library does skew our stats a bit because we have Oxford University, one of the biggest in the world and the central library is always full of students which you wouldn't get in cities with small universities, perhaps the colleges should be encouraged to chip in a few staff? The authorities with the busiest central libraries are ones with big universities. I would love to see some stats on centrals usage by people who live outside the county, I know the 1964 act says we have to provide to all but I'm sure its a massive, hidden subsidy to the colleges by the taxpayer of Oxon, I don't object at all but I would love to see how much it is. The high book issues is very good but this shouldn't be linked to the back office costs, the 4.4 million service support is outside of the main library service budget and I don't think it can be linked to the book issues. It says more about the people of Oxfordshire being avid readers than anything.

On the total revenue expenditure:

As I have been banging on about for months, the cost of the library service, especially the back office is too high. You cannot designate the rural libraries as non-statutory, not mention it in the consultation at all and then expect the volunteers to replace the low paid, front line library assistants when such a increasingly expensive, bloated back office is allowed to exist. My view is that it has always been to high but its just getting worse, a roughly 7.4 million library service is now costing 4.4 million in other expenditure (includes service support) according to the CIPFA returns and its far too high. These costs HAVE to be reduced or shared with other authorities, 17 miles away Bucks duplicate these back office activities and costs.

On volunteers, Oxfordshire scored below the average, there are lots of volunteers in our library and in the other rural ones I have visited. We can get our volunteer numbers up from 1.7% of worked hours, to the average of 4.5% only if the entire library service embraces volunteers, The rural libraries already depend heavily on volunteers to add extra services, its the big city libraries that I think are not getting enough volunteers in, they said after the "consultation" that they cannot have volunteers in their "statutory" libraries, this has to change.

Volunteers can and should make the library service better as it does in the small threatened rural libraries, but we cannot and shouldn't be used to replace low paid library assistants while such back office bloat is allowed to increase. Replace the statutory status and the hours, it will cost almost nothing, share the bloat with Bucks and lets encourage as many volunteers as we can in all libraries to make our library service a thing to be proud of.

Despite being supine and ignoring his responsibilities under the 1964 act, on the specific point of getting CIPFA to do this, I will say this again, well done Ed Vaizey. <cough, choke, cough>

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The 3 mile Economy Drive

Newcastle City Council say they have to find 90 million pounds worth of savings because of increased costs and cuts of 39.3 million to their grant. They are proposing to close 10 of their 18 libraries to help achieve these savings. Staffing costs tend to one of the biggest areas of spending in libraries and looking at their CIPFA returns since 2008 staffing has already dropped by about 20%

Which to me shows that the staffing in the library service has already had more that its fair share of the cuts. Having further cuts to staff numbers is clearly why they have to close libraries. In the CIPFA returns there are always two areas of expenditure that I always find really murky. There are called Service Support Costs and Other Expenditure.

According to the forms service support costs are defined as:

"Include an apportionment for administrative buildings, central departments, central support services, central expenses and departmental administration even if the authority does not make such an allocation to the public library account. Also include any executive costs of the department (of which libraries form a part) which are fairly attributable to libraries. Exclude any costs included in Cell 95. No attempt should be made to separately identify the staff element of central administrative charges, nor should such costs be included in Cell 77 / 114. Include recharges that arise as a result of either Internal Service Level Agreements (SLAs) or the authority externally contracting out central professional services."

And Other Expenditure, which is defined as:

"Other Expenditure (Estimates only - this should include Computing Costs, Other Supplies and Services, Transport, Third Party Payments and Support Services Costs)"

The other expenditure includes the service support costs and various other costs involved in running the library service. The service support costs specifically are the cost to the council, outside of the actual library budget that it costs to run. So HR, Payroll, accounts, share of the building costs for the non-library buildings etc.

Frustratingly different councils fill in what appear to be slightly different versions of the CIPFA forms (councils hate direct comparison) but on the 2012 return Newcastle City Council has a figure of £4.1 million for their other expenditure costs:

And a very short hop over the tyne, Gateshead Borough Council has service support costs of £1.2 million

 Both of these councils are cutting or closing libraries, both maintain a separate and expensive (in proportion to their library budgets) back office support cost. The Newcastle total budget for example is around 9 million pounds yet the council need to spend 4.1 million on service support and other expenditure. In Gateshead the library budget is about 4.1 million and their service support costs  (not the total other expenditure) are 1.2 million.

Obviously we cannot make a direct comparison as they haven't used the same figure but there is clearly lots of scope there for not only efficiencies but with two councils very close together they should not be duplicating this work, their main council offices are three miles apart. To be cutting libraries and not pooling these costs is wrong and Gateshead and Newcastle Council should not cut a single library until this duplication and inefficiency is driven out of their budgets. They should follow a similar scheme to the tri-borough proposals in London, they joined up the running and costs of three library authorities and saved lots of money and not closed any libraries. This level of waste would never be tolerated in the private sector. Its time for the councillors in Newcastle and Gateshead to start showing some leadership and stop blaming the other side, if Labour were in Government we would be in exactly in the same position as we are in now.

The Cipfa returns:

Info on the tri-borough back office sharing scheme in London:

Saturday, 8 December 2012

PFI-Perfidious Financial Idiocy

Newcastle libraries have a budget of around 9.1 million for the year 2011-2012 according to their CIPFA returns. In 2009, via a private fiance initiative they built two new libraries, a replacement for their central library and a new library in High Heaton (completed in 08). PFI was something that was dream't up in the dying days of the last Tory government in the 90's. It was taken up and enthusiastically pushed as a way of building new public sector infrastructure by New Labour. The premise is supposed to be simple, private funding is sought to build the building and a contractor runs the property providing upkeep and maintenance. The public body pays a monthly fee, similar to a mortgage over normally a 25 year period and at the end the building belongs to them. It is supposed to deliver value for money and because the private sector can do things cheaper than public, a better deal for the taxpayer. Anyone who has read private eye of the past few years will realise the is often not the case. I know nothing of the detail of the Newcastle libraries deal but we have all heard of cases where the PFI contractor charges £300 to change a light bulb or fit a new electrical socket for a similar amount. Public sector bodies were only supposed to go for the PFI option if it demonstrated value for money over using their own capital budget to build the thing themselves. Because of the small print it can mean the companies end up charging for lots of extras and the fact that the repayments are linked to inflation means that depending on how the economy is doing it may not be cheaper. If the economy continues the way it is for the next few years or longer with low to zero growth and inflation always higher then councils and public bodies who have gone for the "Wonga option" are going to struggle to service the payments and keep services going during the cuts to their budgets. But back to the Toon. They had a library budget of 9.1 million, their monthly payments for 09-10 were £271,761.33 per MONTH! That is 3.2 million a year for two libraries out of eighteen. And of course while the economy continues to die on its arse, thanks to the cost of petrol, gas and electric from our rigged energy market and all other goods going up in cost each year inflation will continue to rise and the monthly cost will continue to grow. In 2012-13 the monthly cost has risen to £281,506.50 which will mean a annual cost of £3,378,07.00 million. 

I accept that thanks to years of neglect that infrastructure was in need of investment during the Labour years. By 2009 though it was clear to everyone apart from those in charge that PFI wasn't the way forward, especially since it was pretty clear by then that the economy wasn't going to be bouncing back any time soon, coupled with the fact that procurement in the public sector tends to be very poor. The private sector always come out winners in contract negotiations.

If Newcastle City Council want to blame anyone for having to cut libraries I think they have to look at themselves mainly, going for the neo-liberal wonga option will haunt them for many years to come. 

Link to the PFI data:

Channel 4 fact check on PFI:

Article in the Indy on PFI buggering up the NHS: