Is it that time already?

 These are the personal views of Yinnon Ezra, Specialist Advisor for Libraries, and not those of DCMS.

The year at DCMS has really flown by! What follows are some thoughts about my time in DCMS, which ended on the 31st December 2013 and some wider observations, which I hope won’t bore the reader too much.

I had not expected to go back to work after nearly forty years in Local Government and the voluntary sector, but as I mentioned in my very first blog, what made me go back was that I was still reading in the press that when it came to the huge challenge of finding savings in public libraries, Council Members were still being advised to cut book funds, reduce opening hours and close libraries. I was given this advice in my first Chief Officer role in 1991!  Hence, I did feel that, even at this stage in my working life I could add value.

So how has it gone?

Very early on I agreed with DCMS that given the enormity of the brief and the obvious restrictions of a part-time job, that I would focus on Leadership, Shared Services and Public Libraries doing ‘other people’s business’.

Leadership

The Local Government Association (LGA) has an excellent programme of seminars for Local Authority Cabinet Members/Portfolio Holders that give Members the opportunity to discuss frankly how to deal with everything from community consultation to finance. The variable nature of Local Government is a huge strength, but so much more can be done by sharing what works. More of these seminars are planned in 2014 and cCLOA colleagues should ensure that their Members are both aware of their existence and that they go along.

I have spent endless hours talking to Local Authority colleagues – at the last count it was 46! These discussions have been wide ranging and I have described the approach Local Authorities have taken to budget reductions as grouped into Three Divisions – the First where service transformation with innovation is central to the way the Council as a whole is being managed – here you will see the best in political and officer leadership linked to a clear forward plan. The Second is where the Council has gone through much ‘agony’, have agreed an approach which has been implemented,  but now find that even more cash is required and are stuck between electoral cycles. The Third is where there is no plan and the Authority is going from one crisis to another – fortunately this group is getting smaller. I have often asked the question about whether discussions have taken place with other LAs in similar positions; the answer is always in the negative.  But out of this I have been able to create a small ‘dating agency’ where colleagues have been able to talk confidentially with others. What has delighted me is that there is now real evidence that these discussions have changed some plans. So many colleagues talk about the “fatigue” of constant change and the “loneliness” of “having to make hard decisions”.  But there is a great deal of  ‘re-inventing’ the wheel going on – the LGA is an important ‘shoulder to lean on’ and can quickly find someone out there in local government world who can help!  Laura.Caton@local.gov.uk  is the contact person.

For DCMS the importance of having a creative proactive relationship with Local Government is crucial to ensuring that Public Libraries and Cultural Services as a whole flourish. This diverse, complex, autonomous, immensely resilient and innovative sector is a key partner. Despite the financial situation, many still continue, to demonstrate an enormous commitment to Public Libraries and support for Culture.  DCMS working with the LGA is important, but it is vital that this conversation happens outside the Culture roundabout – it is the Leaders of Councils, Chief Executives and Corporate Directors that need to be engaged at all times. There are numerous examples of outstanding practice that demonstrate the integration between corporate Council objectives and Culture.  From the re-invention/creative refurbishment of Public Libraries as vital community/citizen information centres to huge regeneration schemes with Culture at the heart. I have suggested a number of new ways DCMS could stay in close contact with this group linking into SOLACE and the Regional LGA Meetings – hopefully local government will be seeing more of DCMS Ministers. 

The Arts Council of England are also important partners – besides many other things, they have a role in supporting innovative practice, bringing together  all those involved in the leadership of public libraries and ensuring that the best bits of Envisioning the Library of the Future are taken forward.  This together with the many opportunities around how Arts and Museums work even more closely with public libraries often with Archives provides exciting opportunities to grab new audiences.   Brian.ashley@artscouncil.org.uk  is the contact person.  

The 1964 Act

I have been very impressed at the process colleagues in DCMS go through when assessing if a local authority is in breach of the 1964 Act. Believe me, it is a really painstaking process and I have seen just how aware they are of their legal duties.

A great deal of discussion goes on about the statutory duty of local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library service.  It is my view that a statutory duty is only as good as the people who are responsible for making it happen and can only be delivered at a price the nation can afford.  Good innovative professional and political leadership can do extraordinary things particularly when money is scarce.

It is around the issues of Consultation and Communication on possible service changes arising out of balancing the books that there is the most concern. Setting out possible options clearly and honestly with a transparent analysis about costs and possible savings is essential.  I wrote an article with Graeme McDonald CEO of SOLACE and Janene Cox Chair of SCL called An approach to making savings in public libraries published in the Leisure Review.

Shared Services

There are a number of excellent examples of the sharing of services between local Councils. In the main this is around IT, Professional Support, Property, Human Resources and in some areas District and County Councils working together.  But bespoke arrangements continue in most places. The LGA have a team supported by Central Government who support shared services across all of local government targeting the bigger budgets.  For a small financial contribution, this could be extended to public libraries and cultural services.  The benefits of having someone in this important team would instantly secure the ‘raising of the profile’ of the sector in this important work – perhaps the investment could be linked to the amount of money saved? I have left this with DCMS colleagues to consider.   

Public Libraries ‘doing other people’s business’

It has not been necessary for me to become too involved in this area of work – as SCL with the ‘universal offer’ and the discussions within Whitehall led by Ed Vaizey Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries has taken this forward.  However, when in discussions with individual LAs l have spent time exploring the progress that has been made – some have taken this further expanding the reach of the public library into economic development and support to business with others focusing on the space being used for widening cultural activity particularly for young people – many are also expanding work around reading and literacy, Adult Education and Advice & Information.  Much more can be done to inform everyone about what public libraries do – so often the response is “we did not know you do that” – also the ‘rationalisation’ of public facing buildings – so much money could be saved if public libraries were the ‘Department Store of Public Service’!

Visits and Conferences

Given the time constraints, I was still able to visit a handful of local authorities including a very useful discussion with London cCLOA – I am very grateful to all for their time and insights. I was able to meet many colleagues at the LGA Leisure and Tourism Conference and contributed to The Library Campaign Conference where there was much debate, but hopefully a joint mission to widen the use being made of public libraries. 

So what are my conclusions after a year at DCMS?

It did take a few months to get used to everything particularly working from home.  I hope you won’t be surprised to learn that DCMS is made up of human beings who strive hard to assert the importance of Culture across all Government agendas. They have also had to make savings – people working in Local Government might take comfort from the fact that the men and women in Whitehall have also had their share of upheavals.

I have tried to ensure that the wider world is aware of what I have been doing through the blogs, articles, long telephone conversations, meetings and visits.  It has also been possible to show some senior civil servants local government in action which has been both useful and enjoyable.

I have found everyone to be dedicated, helpful, hardworking and willing to listen. But the pressure on diary time particularly when a Minister is so willing to meet, discuss and champion the Culture cause is enormous.

Everyone wants to ‘add value’ but Whitehall Departments are by their very nature a long way from the coal face – hopefully my role has helped to bridge this.

Finally, I mentioned to a senior colleague the feedback I was getting, particularly from excellent local authorities, on the central wider issue of whether the current model of local government finance is still viable? If nothing else there is a real need for new creative debate.

With very best wishes for 2014. Over and out!

Yinnon Ezra MBE MA FRSA & cCLOA Member