Friday 27 February 2009

Yay for leaks


The Evening Post has scored quite a coup, obtaining a 'leaked' copy of the notorious report commissioned by former deputy Chief Exec Adrienne Roberts then buried because they didn't like the answers it gave them.

Apparently, the report states

"Put simply, this council is dysfunctional."

Hmmm, from my experience working there I'd go along with that.

Inevitably my own experiences were limited to a particular backwater of the social welfare field but descriptions such as

"a lack of strategic direction or prioritisation, poor project management and performance management, where employees are not held to account"

certainly ring true. Nobody had even the faintest idea what our service was for which meant that individuals were free to make up their own minds and push their own agendas.

In addition senior management were described as

"totally ineffective"

The Post has separate articles on its website about how NCC doesn't 'listen and learn', Labour councillors constantly 'interfere and micro manage', and how the opposition aren't much better. Strangely, JoCo didn't come out as bad as expected, merely being described as meddling.

Got to say I'd love to see a copy of the report myself.

Jane Todd has provided a statement but its the usual tosh about how we've 'moved on' and the next audit will show things are all fine and dandy now. Mind you, seeing how easy it is to pull the wool over the Audit Commission's eyes I'm not surprised she can feel so confident.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Mea Culpa

Ok, who else apart from me and the Evening Post didn't bother to read the whole Audit Commission re-inspection report on Nottingham City Homes because we fell for all the PR hype about everything being rosy now?

Have a look at para 131 to 133 in the above link. The number of tenants who received Notices Seeking Possession was running at over 27% through 2008. Thats horrendous. Actual evictions were running at around 1% through out the same period although there was a small reduction, that works out to around 300 people per year.

The report says that liaison with Housing Benefits is good and that 'money advice is readily available' via a link up with St Anns Advice Centre. Not sure how much good the latter is to someone in the Meadows, lets hope NCH remember their 'other advice services may be available' disclaimer. Needless to say, there's no mention of Discretionary Housing Payments being an option to help prevent rent arrears, but then Housing Benefits seem to regard their existence as a trade secret.

So back to this trigger happy approach to sending out NSPs. There might be a clue in a report to NCC's Debt Recovery Task and Finsh Panel from July 2006. Here's a quote from early in the report;

"Nottingham’s Corporate Debt Policy states that ‘it is assumed that all individuals (…..) are won’t payers until they are identified as can’t payers.’ This should be reversed and all appropriate needs assessed and referrals made for debt advice early on. "

This was after NCH was set up. Do you think some of this 'won't pay' attitude remained behind at NCH?

I've got to admit, I still haven't read the whole report, if I find anything else in it I'll stick it up here.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Jane Todd Talks Utter Shite

Jane Todd, chief JoCo worshipper at the Council has taken an early lead in the 'Bullshitter of the Year' contest. The City Council website carries a response from her to the Evening Post's coverage of the 'top secret report' on officer/member relationships.

I feel obliged to reproduce it below, along with my comments, so you can see it for the execrable kak it is.

"Sometimes I wonder what it will take for the Nottingham Evening Post to recognise that things have changed and continue to change – for the better – at Nottingham City Council."

Er, maybe when it stops trying to cover up critical reports...?

"The front page story headlined City's Top Secret File, on which the council was not even invited to comment, is so wide of the mark and so out of date that many readers must be beginning to wonder if their local newspaper has it in for their local council."

Erm no Jane, we're not. Anybody reading this might suspect that you're trying to deny the media's legitimate role in holding public services and public servants to account in the...

"No-one would deny the media's legitimate role in holding public services and public servants to account in the public interest. But where is the public interest in splashing on the front page a story that dates back to 2006? Well before I was Chief Executive. Before even Michael Frater was Chief Executive."

Well Jane I'm so glad you asked. Part of the issue is that although the report is pre Frater a significant other party is still in place. Whats more, that significant other party was in place when the previous two Chief Execs were bundled out of the door at our expense. So, some people might suspect that this significant other party may be a large part of the cause of the 'cultural problems' the council was suffering from and, as he is still there, may be cynical about whether the problems have been solved at all. You never know, there might be a few clues to this in that report.

Another thing is that, as the report is almost certain to be politically embarressing some residents of Nottingham might just want to take such things into account when they next get a chance to vote.

"It seems the Post may have its iPod stuck on shuffle and it's playing one old tune after another."

Guffaw! *insert yoof relevant ipod reference here for teh kidz*.

"It's been acknowledged that relationships between senior Councillors and senior managers previously – but no longer - employed by the council did not work as well as they could. But things have moved on. I've been here since 1st May last year and I think it reflects on my time here that the Post has been unable to date any of its "Trouble at the City Council" stories later than June last year."

June last year! Why thats...ages ago, 8 months even. A whole different epoch.

"What will reflect even more upon how things have changed will be the Audit Commission's next Comprehensive Performance Assessment Direction of Travel report due to be published in March. I don't expect it to say everything is perfect but I am confident that our significant steps in the right direction will be acknowledged."

Awww, Jane doesn't expect the next Audit Commission report to be perfect. Thats probably for the best. Maybe she hasn't managed to get the whole council to pull the wool over the Audit Commission's eyes by following the Housing Benefits Service's exercise in tick box management.

"To be very clear, we have not released an old, draft report to Councillor Sutton because, on balance, our legal officers and advisors do not believe it to be in the public interest to do so. I must emphasise that councillors have had no role whatsoever in making this decision."

No Jane, you have refused to release a still relevant report because it would be politically embarressing to Jon Collins, your lord and master.

"It strikes me – and I know it strikes people I talk to – that the Post seem to be seeking to denigrate the City Council at any opportunity – no matter how old the story – and I think people deserve better. It does Nottingham no good and the Post no good if we're raking over old coals rather than pulling together, particularly in these difficult economic times, in the interests of Nottingham and the people who live here.

Jane ToddChief Executive,

Nottingham City Council "

Trans; 'Yes come on team, lets pull together for Nottingham's sake. Lets have some of that supine journalism we know you're good at, this bolshy stuff doesn't suit you at all. You're letting me down, you're letting the team down but most of all, you're letting yourself down.'

You see? What a bullshitting patronising little gobshite she is.

Meanwhile, today's Evening Post reports that as well as the £30k for the report thats gone up the swannee, the Council also spent £5k on legal advice on how to cover it up. Some people might wonder if £35k for avoiding embaressment to the Labour party is good value for money.

Furthermore Cllr Sutton has announced that he is referring the matter to the Information Commissioner which should be interesting. Generally the ICO has taken a fairly robust view in favour of complainants when it suspects that covering up political embaressment is the issue so I don't hold out much hope for JoCo and JaTo on this one.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Evening Post on Officer/Member Battles and Freedom of Information

The Super Soaraway Evening Post is going at it hammer and tongs on the supposedly thorny subject of relationships between NCC officers and elected members today. The most high profile aspect of this has been the inability to keep a Chief Exec for more than about 20 minutes causing a fortune to be paid out in severance payments.

Anyway, today the EP provides a useful summary of key events in the reporting of this issue by the Audit Commission and reports on attempts to get hold of a report by external consultants on the same issue.

It seems that EP requested a copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act last April but doesn't seem to have exctly chased it up or challenged it when the request was refused. They don't mention which of the exemptions were used by NCC, only saying that the council's Legal Officer said that it wasn't in the public interest for the report to be released. Unfortunately, NCC are not the fiirst organisation to confuse 'politically embarrassing' with 'not in the public interest', someone really needs to explain the difference to these people. Why the EP didn't refer the matter to the Information Commissioner is not explained.

At around the same time Lib Dem Cllr Tony Sutton (recently on the receiving end of JoCo's blistering savagery, who called him a 'prat') has also been trying to get hold of the report and associated correspondence. He was gently informed by the council's Legal Officer that he "did not need to see the document to carry out his duties as a councillor". Cllr Sutton has apparently now submitted his own FoIA request, been refused and appealed. This is still ongoing.

On an admittedly less fundamental note, my own FoIA requests have yet to be resolved and they are outside the 20 day time limit for an appeal, not to mention the time limit for the info they forgot to provide on my original request. I've given them until Friday lunchtime before I pass it on to the ICO.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Run! Its the rozzers!

Ok so apparently NCC have passed the housing shizzle over to the boys in blue after all.

So what was all that flim flam and name calling at the full Council meeting all about then?

Compulsory Direct Debits? Shurely etc

Article on Indymedia today about somewhat dodgy wording in a letter from the NCC Council Tax goons.

It seems that they may have let their enthusiasm for direct debits run away with them, the letter says;

"In order to pay next year's Council Tax and make it as easy as possible you need to pay by Direct Debit."

You could be forgiven for taking this to mean that its compulsory to pay your Council Tax by Direct Debit, not least because thats what it actually says. Yet of course this isn't the case at all.

To be fair there are legitimate reasons for the Council to encourage direct debit payments, on the other hand there are legitimate reasons for people being unhappy with the direct debit system. For instance the Indymedia poster mentions Virgin Media...

But its wrong to give the false impression that something is compulsory when it isn't. There are laws telling us what we must do and laws that tell us what we can do and NCC shouldn't get them mixed up.

Housing Scandal Pratfalls

I've just been having a read of the Evening Post's reports about last night's Council meeting called to discuss the recent Audit Commission report on council house thievery. You might have heard something of this.

It turns out that, despite all the rhetoric, NCC aren't going to make a formal referral to the police after all. Strangely, the formal response issued immediately on publication of the report which quoted Jon Collins extensively (and which I linked to in my earlier article) seems to be no longer available so I can't go back and compare his attitude then with now.

[Update, thanks to Nick B (see comments) here's a quote from JoCo from that statement;

"The Police were informed in 2006 of investigations into these matters and we may ask them to consider again whether they should investigate them now. Where individuals involved in any of these cases are still employed by either organisation internal investigations will be commenced immediately." (my emphasis)

So he left himself some wiggle room. We 'may' ask the police to look into it but, now much of the fuss has died down we're not going to bother. Lets move on eh people?]

However the fun really starts when opposition councillors start suggesting that, horror of horrors, Labour councillors might possibly have realised that their humble and completely legitimate representations on behalf of their constituents got them a not totally legitimate leg up the queue. Cllr Brian Grocock is the headline boy on this one. For some reason he pretended that a constituent was a relative when contacting on his behalf. Its difficult to imagine a reason for this other than that the clear message that 'Cllr Grocock's lad' needed a house pronto would be heard loud and clear.

One of the Lib Dems highlighted a case where JoCo himself wrote in on behalf of a constituent resulting in a memo from Tyron Browne saying

"As you are aware this is a case that has been brought to my attention by the leader, I should appreciate it, therefore, if you would arrange for an offer to be made as soon as possible."

On being confronted with this JoCo apparently showed his statesmanlike qualities by calling the Lib Dem a 'prat' and blaming his secretary.

Whats interesting to me here is the whole dynamic of what was happening in NCH at the time and, probably, for years previously. Councillors will say in their defence that they never explicitly ordered staff to bump their constituents up the queue and therefore accusations of a conspiracy are unfounded. Yet clearly the report from the Audit Commission shows that those constituents clearly benefited.

I think there are parallels with a media theory constructed by Chomsky and Herman called the 'Propaganda Model'. This examines how the media's capitalist interests effectively 'filter' the stories that are published but not necessarily by an explicit central 'command' from capitalists. Rather a "...decentralized and nonconspiratorial...system of control and processing..." occurs, carried out by individuals who nevertheless are aware of what's expected of them.

So I think a similar thing was happening at NCH/NCC Housing Dept. Of course, councillors never said "move these people to the top of the queue" because they never needed to do, staff already knew what to do. Occasionally a hint would have to be dropped such as claiming that the constituent was a grandson for instance but generally the wheels were already well greased.

Incidentally this whole business of Cllr Grocock is very strange. In an ideal world where everybody is above board, when a Councillor makes representations on behalf of a constituent who is also a close family member or friend, in my experience at other authorities they would declare this interest. The idea being that everyone is open and honest and a councillor's family doesn't get an unfair advantage.

Yet in Nottingham, the Grocock case shows that not only had this basic principle of accountability flown out of the window, it had actually been turned inside out so that a Councillor, knowing that one of his family members would get special treatment, went as far as pretending that a constituent was a family member so they could take advantage of the family special offers too. Unbelievable.

Friday 6 February 2009

CCTV lols

I think the CCTV is run by NCC and I hope beyond my wildest dreams that this pic isn't photoshopped...

Caution; involves swearing.

Update; check out Questionmarc's site for more on this... ---->

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Housing Benefits and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment

I'm going to introduce you to some new jargon, the 'Comprehensive Performance Assessment' (CPA). Broadly speaking its (allegedly) an overall assessment of a council's performance collated by the Audit Commission (AC). Not all individual services are directly inspected by AC but its them who get the job of pulling the whole lot together for the overall report. Once you've read this post you can afford to completely erase CPAs from your memory cos they're old hat baby, there's a new gun in town, the Comprehensive Area Assessment (before you ask I don't really know whats different but I'm sure its new and exciting and full of the stuff that gets auditors creaming their pants. I could look into it but I don't need to for this article and its probably too boring).

Housing and Council Tax benefits services were previously inspected by a body called the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate (other titles considered - Scourge of Scroungers, Witchfynder General) but this was abolished in April 2008 and benefits are now one of the services inspected by AC directly. However the most recent CPA published drew on the 2007 inspection by BFI. In this assessment, Nottingham City Council's benefits service scored 4, the highest rating.

So, NCC's benefits services are brilliant then? Well, they are better than they were but if we take a look underneath the hood its not quite so rosy.

I contacted the AC and they sent me details of the methodology behind the 2008 CPA and they confirmed that this was broadly the same as that used by the BFI in 2007. Scroll down to page 17 for the stuff on the detailed benefits assessment.

One thing thats immediately clear is that two of my pet issues, the illegal decision notices and the huge underspend of the Discretionary Housing Payment budget play no part in the assessment. To be fair, I'm not surprised that the former doesn't make it in, its not easy to see how such an issue could be easily assessed in audit terms and as decision letters are usually standard templates from a specialist software package AC could be forgiven for assuming that getting them legally correct is a given. However, I find it pretty alarming that DHPs are completely ignored.

Another thing that is apparent from the document is that different 'performance measures' are given different weightings in percentage terms in the overall assessment of the service.

Lets have a look at two of them which I don't think would be controversial to describe as 'very important'. One, the average speed of processing new claims deserves a 15% weighting in the assessment, while the percentage of claims that are calculated correctly is only worth 6%.

WTF? Why so different? Don't get me wrong, speed of processing is important but so is accuracy. More worryingly, as there is a bit of a conflict between the two (the age old quantity v quality battle), giving one a much higher weighting might tempt managers to throw all their resources at one at the expense of the other in order to get a better inspection score.

But this is Nottingham City Council, they've got a 4 star assessment, the best there is, surely they wouldn't be that cynical? A quick look at the figures should clear this up....oh.

The performance figures are available on the Department of Work and Pensions website (this is an MS Excel file so if you haven't got Excel you can get a free viewer here). Scroll down a bit to find the Government Office East Midlands bit, Nottingham's at row 120.

Nottingham's average claim processing time for 2007/8 was 28 days, enough to get it a rating of 4 (the highest) for this performance measure which, lets remind ourselves is weighted at 15% of the overall assessment. Trebles all round for that. Now, scroll across for the performance measure for claims calculated correctly and Nottingham achieved 93% which gives it a big fat 1 (the lowest). Look at the other councils and this is in fact the worst score for accuracy in the whole of the East Midlands. Still, never mind eh, that one's only worth 6% of the overall rating so fucking up on that doesn't matter too much. Can you see where this is going?

So, to summarise, NCC has allowed itself to continue issuing illegal decision notices for over 9 months and has comprehensively mismanaged the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme every year since its inception. Neither of these affect its CPA score. It has also, I think its fair to infer, thrown resources at a performance measure that has a very large effect on its CPA score while allowing another (low weighted) measure to fall so low that it is the worst scoring in the whole region. This is tick box management at its worst.

The Audit Commission are due to release the report for the 2008 CPA for NCC this month and, although they have taken over the inspection the methodology remains the same. They tell me that a new approach is due for the 2009 inspection which will appear next year (summarised here for those who are still awake).

So we can look forward to another round of nauseatingly self congratulatory press releases about our 'excellent' benefits service any day now probably (especially after the bigging up of NCH's not outstanding 2 star assessment recently). Unfortunately, what we probably can't look forward to is your benefit being calculated correctly, claimants being told that they can appeal against the incorrect assessment or for their Discretionary Housing Payments claim being administered properly. Keep an eye on those eviction rates.