Reviewing Services

This short chapter is an introduction to the following four. It outlines the thinking behind, and the working of, the Service Review and Information Sub-committee, which had three roles:

  1. Acting as client for the Compulsory Competitive Tendering process
  2. Monitoring improvements to the quality of services
  3. Overseeing the centralised awarding of grants to the voluntary sector

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Striving for Quality
At the same time as dealing with the budget crisis, the splits in the Labour Group, the introduction of the Poll Tax and the Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) legislation, the Labour Group still had to ensure that core services continued to be provided by the Council. But just continuing to provide them was not going to be good enough, as the quality of many council services at that time left much to be desired.

Throughout 1988 and 1989, the issue of improving service delivery was a hot topic of discussion at Labour Group meetings. As a result of the discussions within the Budget Review Working Party (BRWP – see chapter 18), one of the five overriding objectives that it was agreed should inform the whole budget and departmental restructuring process was “to deliver high quality services to the people of Manchester”. The task was to find ways of drastically improving core council services, in spite of the drive to reduce overall expenditure and the necessity under CCT to split departments into client and contractor roles.

At the suggestion of Nick Harris, a Service Review Working Party was established to follow up on some of the work started at the BRWP in scrutinising the delivery of services and the impact of the departmental restructuring and budget cuts. In October 1989, it merged with the Privatisation Working Party (see chapter 14) to form the Corporate Review Working Party, and included within its remit the central departments, such as Personnel, Finance and the Legal section, which had previously been considered not as ‘services’ but an ‘overhead’ for all the service departments, and contributed to the overall costs of every service.

When the formal sub-committee of the Policy and Resources was set up in May 1990, called the Service Review and Information Sub-committee, its remit was to act as the client committee for CCT services (see chapter 14). It also took on the additional role of considering all the ‘service improvement’ issues related to Council services. It was chaired by Nick Harris and took on a huge workload – with possibly the longest agendas of any Council committee. It became a very powerful central committee for steering through some major changes in the culture of the Council, but as with the BRWP began to usurp the role of the service committees.

Although each committee had been instructed to adopt a more hands-off approach by the BRWP, the members involved in the Service Review Sub-committee, who were mostly committee chairs, were expected to have a very detailed knowledge of each service, and so adopted the opposite approach.

Developing a Systematic Approach
Later in May 1990, following an Audit Commission[1] management paper about performance review published in December 1989, the Assistant Chief Executive, Charmian Houslander, sent a discussion paper to Nick Harris, David Black and me, arguing for a corporate approach to performance review. She pointed out that there was no systematic or structured approach, nor any effective mechanism for the members to monitor service delivery, but that if performance review was led by the Chief Executive, it would be thought to be some form of central control. If it was a centralised exercise, it would amount to little more than an elaborate paper chase, and if it was accountancy-led, it would result in quantitative assessments rather than qualitative ones. It was important to ensure that each department had an effective performance review system, reviewing key aspects of its performance, with the Chief Executive role being to help departments design and improve their performance review systems.

Charmian Houslander concluded that performance review would not succeed unless it was one of the main responsibilities of elected members and that it was entirely dependent on reasonable financial, management and information systems (which the Council was committed to improving). She proposed that, rather than a ‘big bang’ approach, there should be an incremental one based on pilot areas. We agreed with this approach and decided to start with the departments managed by the City Solicitor, the City Administrator and the Director of Art Galleries. A small working group was convened by the Chief Executive to progress the pilots, and the consultancy Peat Marwick McClintock was employed to act as facilitators for this group.

Alongside this work on performance monitoring, a good deal of thought and discussion revolved around the costly overheads borne by each service department for the central departments, such as Legal and Financial Services. The potential existed for these services to be subjected to CCT and while everyone wanted to protect Council services from unfair competition, there was still a need to ensure value for money and reduce overheads expenditure as far as possible. It was agreed that there should be a contractual agreement for the central services that were needed by service departments and that these should be clearly specified and costed at the start of the financial year. Service departments would then have more certainty about their budget out-turns at the end of the year. Officers were deputed to draft a report on a way forward, which they produced for the Service Review Sub-committee in July 1990. However, the recommendations were not accepted as we felt it had been written from the point of view of the service provider, rather than the client, and further work needed to be done on it.

Dissatisfaction of Councillors
Leading councillors continued to be unhappy about the quality of some services. In September 1990, Dave Lunts, as Chair of Housing, wrote a paper for the Labour Group saying:

[we] should make a clear commitment to improving the housing service and from such a commitment form a statement of objectives. We have never defined what the housing service is for, although we assume we know the answer.”

The following month, David Black and Nick Harris wrote a paper on ‘Service improvements and decentralisation’, proposing that each committee chair should spell out political aims for the next one or two years for discussion at committee Labour Groups. They suggested that the previous year’s service profiles should be taken as a starting point and that each department should produce ‘service plans’ for the November committee cycle with measurable objectives against which performance could be assessed over the next 18 months. They argued that:

“Rather than criticising ineffective services, [we] should look at good examples from within and outside the Council. Common characteristics of good quality services are: a clear vision of what is being sought; sustained change over a period of at least two years; devolved management on a manageable scale; good quality training; measurable objectives; involvement of the workforce to achieve a shared understanding of the aims of the approach. Service plans are the vehicle through which the objectives should be spelled out.”

David and Nick produced a long list of steps to be taken. These included: developing a clear understanding of the different roles of members and officers (“Members have to act as strategic managers and policy makers, and senior officers have to ensure that these policies are properly implemented”); carrying out a review of the tiers of management within departments; implementing a radical overhaul of the highly centralised information system (aiming to provide information at local level); and increasing training and staff development.

They concluded with a recognition of the ineffectiveness of neighbourhood offices in producing service improvements, and suggested this was because power and responsibility hadn’t been devolved to them and the Neighbourhood Officers were co-ordinators without executive responsibility for staff. I don’t know how much notice the departmental chief officers took of this analysis, but it was very frustrating for some committee chairs with the capability of working as chief officers having to confine their role to political oversight only. I described it once as like trying to operate a mechanical hand from the shoulder via a loose joint at the elbow and another loose joint at the wrist.

Voluntary Sector Grants
In addition to all the work on service quality and the client role for competitively tendered services, the Service Review Sub-committee took on another role – overseeing the centralisation of grants to the voluntary sector. This had originally been proposed in 1988, but had proved both controversial and administratively too difficult to implement at that time.

Almost all service departments had a pot of money for grants to voluntary organisations delivering relevant services. In Education, there were grants given to a myriad of community groups offering drop-in adult education classes, ethnic minority groups offering mother-tongue language classes, and mother and toddler groups operating in community centres and libraries, to name just a few. In Leisure, there were a whole range of sports and athletic clubs given grants. But Social Services had the biggest budget for voluntary organisations – around £1.5 million.

The objections to these grants being centralised was that the services provided needed to be monitored to ensure that consistent standards were met. The concern was that there wouldn’t be the expertise within a central department to do that for every service area. There was also a worry that if all the money was centralised into one huge pot (totalling over £6 million) it would be more susceptible to being cut. However, the assumption that economies could be achieved by centralising the administration of grant applications, and financial monitoring and that the service quality monitoring could still be done by the relevant departments, won. Despite the reservations of service committee chairs, the BRWP decreed in December 1990 that the centralisation should go ahead, with a new unit established in the Chief Executive’s Department under the control of the Service Review Sub-committee.

As it turned out the cut assumption proved eventually to be correct[2]. The change from the Poll Tax to the new Council Tax, scheduled for 1993/94, and the additional budget cuts of around £30 million that were needed (see chapter 18) brought the inevitable review of voluntary sector grants. The sector included branches of large, national organisations, as well as small groups offering Adult Education (which received £200,000 in grants), Social Services (£1.6 million), Children’s Services (£468,000), youth clubs (£200,000), arts and culture projects (£240,000), advice and information (£1.2 million), as well as local community associations, sports groups and organisations providing general advice and support to local groups (£500,000). It fell to the Service Review Sub-committee to oversee the proposals for cuts – and to receive the inevitable lobbying and demonstrations.

In the 1992/93 financial year, a total of nearly £6 million had been given in grants to voluntary and community organisations. It was proposed that this should be cut by 15%, which was a very heavy hit and would have a massive effect on the services provided by the sector. It was decided not to ‘salami slice’ the same percentage from each group, as this would make it impossible for small groups to survive, but to allocate a sum to be cut from each area of service and then decide which groups to continue funding. Of course the whole process was traumatic for both the councillors making the decisions and the people working for the groups, with the inevitable placard-waving and hostile demonstrations, heart-rending articles in the Manchester Evening News, and loss of sleep by all concerned. Even though the sector as a whole in Manchester would still be very well funded after the cuts compared with other local authorities, receiving £4.96 million, this was no consolation to those groups being reduced or closed down. It always feels worse to have something taken away than never to have had it in the first place.

The Work of the Service Review Sub-committee
In the early days of the Service Review Sub-committee in 1990/91, it considered service plans for Direct Works, Operational Services, Education, Social Services, Environmental Health, City Treasurer’s, City Architect’s and City Engineer’s Departments, Libraries and Theatres, Land and Property, and Planning, as well as receiving progress reports on service level agreements, a council-wide IT strategy and a full review of the first six months of neighbourhood offices.

While the sub-committee was working hard and ploughing through tons of paper work, the practice on the ground didn’t seem to be improving commensurately – particularly in relation to Environmental Services. Despite many previous attempts at improving street cleaning and rubbish removal, the state of Manchester streets still left much to be desired. The confrontations with the GMB Union when attempts had been made to change the cleansing department’s ‘task and finish’ regime and introduce wheelie bins (see chapter 12) had left scars. The system of black bin bags that had replaced the old metal bins was a disaster. Animals ripped them open and rubbish was scattered around the streets. To make matters worse, the street sweeping often happened the day before the bin bags were removed, rather than being scheduled to clean up afterwards.

When Val Edwards was seeking selection for one of the Crumpsall seats in 1991 (having moved from Charlestown ward) she noted how the streets contrasted unfavourably with those in the neighbouring ward, which was run by Bury Council, and she made a pledge to do something about it. As part of her election campaign a press stunt was organised involving a photograph of a street where one side was in Bury and the other in Manchester, showing the difference in cleanliness. This caused a huge row within the Labour Group, particularly with the Chair and Deputy of the Environmental Services Committee, Niel Warren and Ronni Myers, who were completely unwilling to reopen the sensitive issue of wheelie bins with the GMB. Val invited representatives of the GMB to a branch meeting and pointed out the advantages for their members of dealing with wheelie bins rather than hazardous plastic bags (with the possibility of cuts from sharp objects in the bags) and persuaded them to agree to a pilot scheme in Crumpsall. The pilot went ahead, proved successful and was eventually rolled out to the whole city. Of course, there continued to be problems with street litter and dumping of waste, but this constant battle between councils trying to keep our streets clean and the public’s lackadaisical attitude to disposing of litter persists, and not just in Manchester.

At every meeting throughout 1991, the Service Review Sub-committee continued to have massive agendas, monitoring the CCT contracts, developing service level agreements and reviewing the departmental service plans. While these plans had to be approved by their service committees before being passed on to the Service Review Sub-committee, the scrutiny was obviously not rigorous enough and some departments came in for criticism, with the plans being sent back for further attention. Social Services came in for a lot of criticism (see chapter 21), as did Leisure, and some departments, including Housing and Personnel, simply didn’t produce their plans on time.

In addition to all this work on service plans and CCT contracts, the service review sub-committee was also dealing with big council-wide issues, such as the centralisation of the Council’s fleet of vehicles, the Council’s IT strategy, energy management and a computerised information system for the Council’s land and property portfolio.

What was very frustrating for councillors was the knowledge from their advice bureaux case work that service quality ‘on the ground’ did not seem to be improving, while huge reams of paper were being produced by chief officers to prove otherwise.

In November 1991, after 18 months of working towards achieving financial stability, a special Labour Group meeting was held (at Heaton Hall) to focus entirely on how the quality of services could be improved. Even though the Neighbourhood Services Committee had been abolished, there was a general agreement that the way to achieve improvements in service delivery was still via decentralisation and co-ordination of services (see chapter 16). It was also agreed that the January cycle of committee meetings should focus solely on service plans and budgets with everything else being cleared off their agendas. The only exceptions were to be “real emergencies affecting life and limb or the financial position of the Council.”

It was decided that for the second-year service plans, the focus should be on improving local residents’ access to services by changing the departmental reception and telephone arrangements and providing better training for front-line staff. There was also to be a corporate approach to dealing with complaints (ie consistent across depart-ments), better co-ordination between non-core services and more opportunities created for local residents and councillors to get involved in monitoring service delivery locally.

Audit Commission Performance Indicators
In 1992, the Audit Commission produced proposals for national ‘statutory performance indicators’ for local authorities[3]. Having worked so hard on improving performance and service quality, we were unhappy about this centralised approach and sent a robust response to the consultation:

“Statutory performance indicators should not seek to substitute the views of the Audit Commission for the judgement of democratically elected local councillors, who ought to be the sole determiners of how services should be delivered.”

Throughout 1992, the huge workload of the Service Review Sub-committee continued: considering the value for money studies (both internal and those done by the district auditor) as well as council-wide efficiencies (such as vehicle fuel usage and the possible change to ‘green’ fuels, and the cost of central department overheads), measures to reduce sickness absence, and the centralised fleet management system, on which there were almost monthly reports. The sub-committee also dealt with the Community Care Plan for the city, which had to be submitted to the national Social Services Inspectorate by 1 April 1992. This was supposedly a joint report of the Chief Executive and the Director of Social Services, but was written by Terry Day, Head of the Equal Opportunities Unit, and Ann Seex, Head of the Neighbourhood Services Unit.

Peer Group Review
In 1994, the issue of co-ordinating services and acting corporately was led by the Chief Executive, Arthur Sandford, rather than by the councillors, and a number of ‘peer-group’ review meetings of chief officers were set up. One of these was the ‘green/clean/environment group. This had the objectives of creating a ‘seamless’ maintenance service, co-ordinating depots and achieving value for money on depot costs, and developing environmental schemes with built-in future maintenance costs. Another of these peer groups dealt with urban regeneration and personal services, in recognition that regeneration is not just about bricks and mortar, but about the quality of life.

In reporting to councillors on the work of these groups, the Chief Executive said:

“Chief Officers believe that Manchester has many strengths – a good reputation and high standing with government and investors; outstanding ‘on-the-ground’ achievements; and high quality strategy documents. To build on these strengths, [we] need to improve the planning of complementary investment from mainstream resources…”

He also stressed that strengthened and improved corporate work on crime should be a priority and proposed that he should take a lead on developing a multi-agency approach. He expressed his concern that the proposed further revenue cuts to the Social Services budget would pre-empt the forthcoming reviews of Children’s Services and the Social Services Teaching Service. But, as far as I can remember, these concerns were not acted upon and the cuts were still imposed.

Reflection
Reflecting on this period many years later, I think it is amazing that more chief officers didn’t resign, given the pressures of cutting budgets (or failing to do so), drawing up new staffing structures and re-deploying staff, producing strategy documents and co-ordinating service delivery with other departments – at the same time as responding to constant demands from councillors to show on paper how targets on improving the quality of services were being met.

Within each service area there were the usual share of problems and crises, both big and small, and I do not have access to all the information about everything that was going on, but what follows in the next few chapters is an account of some of the bigger issues within Housing, Social Services, Education and Leisure Services.

When Nick Harris retired from the Council in April 1995, the Service Review Sub-committee was abolished and the responsibility for ensuring quality reverted back to the service committees.

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Editor’s Comments

This chapter was titled ‘Striving for Quality’ by Kath, but I have demoted that to a sub-heading because I felt the chapter wasn’t about only that and it was misleading. I also felt this chapter jumped about a bit. It seemed odd to me to fit the voluntary sector grants administration in there and there isn’t adequate explanation of why that was felt to fit. Without changing the substance, I have reordered some of the paragraphs, grouping the information about the voluntary sector grants together. (I had to add a sentence and reword the opening sentence of the next section to make it work.) The explanation is that this was also part of a change in philosophy happening across the country (government led) whereby grants awarded to ‘good causes’ became instead contracts for service delivery. So the voluntary sector also became contractors to the Council with service level agreements, in the same way as contractors. So it makes perfect sense to have awarding and monitoring these ‘voluntary sector contracts’ under the same sub-committee.

I moved the paragraph about the 1995 abolishing of the sub-committee to the end, because that seemed the least bad place for it, but it just sticks out to me as a floating PS.

Footnotes

[1] The Audit Commission was an independent public corporation that existed between 1 April 1983 and 31 March 2015, which had the remit to “work with local authorities and their partners to improve services for local people” (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/audit-commission viewed March 2016)

[2] Editor’s note; These two paragraphs were later in the text appearing in a chronological order but it felt better to me to put all of the information about voluntary sector grants together.

[3] The Audit Commission specified the indicators of performance which local authorities were obliged to publish under the Local Government Act 1992. More information about this process is available in the Audit Commission’s Report & Accounts for Year Ended March 1993

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Further Reading

Since 1983, the Audit Commission has published a series of corporate strategy documents, guidance and other papers to support auditors and audited bodies in the exercise of the Commission’s statutory duties. The majority of these corporate papers are available from the archived Audit Commission website

The Audit Commission was replaced by Public Sector Audit Appointments Ltd, National Audit Office, Financial Reporting Council and Cabinet Office in April 2015. An explanation of the transfer of the functions of the Audit Commission is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/explanation-of-the-audit-commissions-future-functions