Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Lets do something constructive...

I was bored this morning so I decided to write to some local councillors about the criminally bad management of Discretionary Housing Payments and ask them for an on the record comment on the issue and to make some suggestions as to what needs to be done. I wrote to one of the members for the area in which I live, the portfolio holder and the leaders of the main political groups. Needless to say anything that comes back (if, indeed, anything DOES come back) will be put up here unless whoever sends it gives me a really, REALLY good reason why it shouldn't.

Anyway, here's what I wrote -

"Dear Cllrs,

I am writing to you as one of my local representatives, the relevant portfolio holder and the leaders of the main political groups to raise my concerns and I would be grateful for an on the record response to my findings.

Please see below a post from my blog describing the issue that I have been looking into for some time, namely the management of Discretionary Housing Payments.

Please note that there are further links at the end of this article which you will also need to read in order to get the full story. There are also a number of links within the various articles as further information.

My own view is that immediate action should be taken to

a) commence ongoing monitoring of refusal rates of DHPs (assuming of course that isn’t already happening, this question is currently before the Information Commissioner)

b) identify target groups of the most likely potential recipient groups of DHPs

c) use this information to launch an ongoing take up strategy for DHPs

d) start an investigation into the true levels of rent arrears and eviction rates and the potential of DHPs preventing such problems

e) use this information to inform a decision as to whether further funds over and above the government grant should be allocated to pay for an increased take up

f) draw up local guidance for allocation of DHPs to inform rational and consistent decision making Thank you for your attention. I should point out that I have a considerable level of expertise in issues such as this and have put quite a bit of work into the investigation of this matter so I hope that you will do me the courtesy of taking this issue seriously and providing me with a response.

Thank you"

To be honest I'm getting a bit fed up with pissing in the wind about what are some very important issues (scattered amongst some blatant piss taking admittedly) and would really like to see NCC do something about DHPs.

On a related note, the appeal to the Information Commisioner over the refusal/inability to provide all the info I asked for has gone off so hopefully I'll hear something about that in the not too distant future. All will be reported here.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Nottingham City Council Supports Nottingham Culture....oh

Nottingham City Council has paid £22k for a photograph by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, to be exhibited at the the Castle Museum from yesterday.

The piece, called 'Escape Artist (multicoloured)' is, apparently, both "ambiguous and playful". So that's alright then.

You may remember that I recently highlighted NCC's attempt to save a few bob by shamelessly exploiting flickr members, asking them to provide their work for free to be used on a campaign on the city's bus stops. Not surprisingly this latest move has triggered off a little bit of discussion.

However, never let it be said that I'm not a fair man so I must point out the lion's share of the cost was covered by external grants. However this still left NCC covering £3000 towards the cost. Flickr members were asking for payments in the region of £50 per shot. For most it would have been their first 'commission' and as such could have been a source of pride rather than exploitation. It would also have meant that NCC was supporting Nottingham artists and would have bought them a huge amount of goodwill. £3000 would have probably also paid for a decent end of campaign exhibition which was the other 'benefit in kind' that flickr members were suggesting as an alternative to a direct payment.

A backdrop to this is the recent announced intention to close the Industrial Museum. Now of course grant aid is very specific and only the £3k from NCC's own coffers could have been potentially available for the Industrial Museum. But applying for grant aid is time consuming and I wonder what on earth NCC's culture staff are doing running round after grants to buy trophy art with no connection to Nottingham instead of working on keeping Nottingham's heritage accessible to us all? Who decided that should be a priority?

Interestingly, the local history bods I linked to above note that the 2009/10 budget proposes possible trust management arrangements for cultural services. This has been tried in a number of areas but I'm not sure its gone that well. Certainly when I was working at Leicester City Council there was an attempt to transfer cultural services to a charitable trust. However, the savings expected would have been wiped out by even the tiniest overspend and the idea was quietly dropped. This is one to watch I reckon.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Off Topic Question of the Day

Now why would someone sign up as a follower of your blog only to then give you a massive, highly personalised possibly libellous slagging off over on theirs?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Discretionary Housing Payments - Still Not Enough Answers

For those of you who haven't been paying attention *tsk* or are new, Discretionary Housing Payments are system by which Local Authority Housing Benefits offices can make extra top up payments to recipients of mainstream Housing and Council Tax Benefits if they accept that they are in need of extra help with their housing costs. The government sets an overall limit for how much can be spent on DHPs each year and provides a central grant towards the cost, normally providing 40% of the overall limit. Other than that councils are pretty much free to decide how they award these payments subject to the normal rules of rationality and not fettering discretion.

While councils are not obliged to spend up to the overall limit, there is clearly nothing for them to lose by spending at least the whole amount of the government grant although they are not obliged to do that either. Councils are expected to make their own decisions as to whether they wish to spend any higher than the central grant bearing in mind their stated priorities.

The catch - if you don't spend the whole of the grant next year's grant is reduced. So, not only is there nothing to lose, there is a clear incentive to manage decision making so that all of the central grant is spent, also meaning that there is more money coming into the local economy.

That's the background. Unfortunately I have found out via Freedom of Information Act requests that NCC has been consistently and significantly spending less that the central grant for each year the DHP scheme has been in operation and as a result, each year the central grant has been reduced. NCC gave me the numbers of successful applications to the scheme, the figures for grants and overall spending limits as well as the amounts awarded but claimed that they couldn't provide the total number of applications because doing so would cost too much. Strangely, they could provide the figures for 18 months or so when asked by a relatively minor councillors committee and these figures suggested that nearly 60% of applications were refused. Because of this refusal I couldn't calculate the refusal rates for all the other years. Funny that.

I've just had my appeal back over the refusal to provide the total numbers of applications to the scheme and its still a no-no. They say

"I have raised your concerns about the information you require seeming to be readily available in previous years as evidenced by the Debt Collection report and have had the following reply; “ The figures were generated in that particular year as part of a business need and a manual monitoring exercise had to be carried out”. Unfortunately this means we are in the same position as stated in this office’s previous reply in that figures can only be obtained by significant manual work being conducted."

So, if this is to be believed, having reported to a committee that there are concerns about high levels of refusals, NCC still has no mechanism for collecting routine information allowing it to monitor the refusal rate. And the extra information they would need would be fantastically easy to collect, you just count the number of applications that land on the doormat, divide the number of successful applications (which they do monitor) by this number and you have the success rate. That such a lack of simple performance management could be allowed to continue beggars belief.

The alternative of course is that they are lying through their teeth and are using the excuse of expense to get out of releasing embarrassing information, a common tactic in the public sector I'm led to believe by my reading of Private Eye. Its the Information Commissioner's Office for this one I'm afraid.

Oh and they were very pleased to make the following claim;

"I can also advise that the level of Discretionary Housing Payments made has steadily increased and current forecasting of awards through to the end of the financial year for 2008/09 shows that expenditure will closely match the DHP grant."

Ok, the first bit I like but they've left a vital factor out of the second bit. The reason why expenditure is now forecasted to closely match the central grant is not just because expenditure is increased, its also because the central grant has reduced year on year. Expenditure has only increased by £19.5k between 2002 ( the first full year of operation) and 2007 (the last year I've got figures for), whereas the central grant has dropped by £37.3k and has carried on dropping since. That's nothing to be proud of and I did make a snide remark in one of my previous posts that I hoped the proportion of grant spent wouldn't be taken as a performance indicator. Little did I know that they actually would see it as something to be proud of...

Other questions I asked them were whether they'd taken any initiatives to increase take up of DHPs and they told me they had done the following;

- awareness training for frontline staff so they could advise callers of potential entitlement. They sent me their training notes and presentation which, in all honesty looked fine and dandy for non specialist staff

- two leaflets, one aimed at claimants, the other at advisers. However, they just seemed to have packed a supply off to local advice agencies and housing offices rather than do anything active like targeting potential client groups*

- giving advice agencies "an input" into evidence requirements for claims. However, this seems to have been merely to use budgeting guidance from National Debtline. This is probably the best guidance there is I should say but kind of lacks a local element. I wonder if that was really all the advice agencies suggested?

- a dedicated team of staff to make decisions. This won't really increase take up per se but is good for consistency so we'll not knock it

The final question I asked was whether NCC had set up guidance for decision makers. The answer was that they use the Department for Work and Pensions best practise guidance and the above mentioned Debtline budgeting guidance. So the answer really then is 'no, they haven't' in terms of whether there is any local guidance on what factors inform decisions to award or refuse a payment, how the budget should be managed throughout the year etc. I'm sure the DWP guidance is very good but it is national and the whole point of asking councils to administer DHPs is that they can take local factors into account. What works in Bognor may not be appropriate for Bulwell is what I'm saying here.

They sent me copies of this national guidance (not a lot of work as its available on the DWP website) and of the Debtline info.

Call me impatient but there's not a lot there that would take much effort to get together to tell the truth. Its all stuff that, if they were actually using it as they claim, would be lying about the place on a shared network drive. So why did it take them 2 months to get it to me?

One last thing. A small part of me has been worrying that I'm the only person who seems bothered about this. Maybe its all a fuss about nothing? So I did a 'back of a fag packet' calculation to get some idea of how much Nottingham has missed out on in lost central grant due to failure to manage the scheme properly.

I decided to work out how much the central grant would have been each year if the budget had been managed so that the grant remained the same in real terms each year i.e. an inflationary increase. I used an average inflation figure of 3% to make it a bit easier cos its not far out and I'm just trying to find out what order of magnitude we're talking about here. I added all this up and compared it with actual expenditure.

You want to know the difference? Over half a million quid lost, or about 3 former Chief Executive's leaving presents worth if I'm being cheeky. That's money that, at no cost to the council itself, could have been brought into Nottingham's economy, helping to reduce poverty and homelessness.

And of course that's only the half of it. If NCC had decided that preventing poverty and homelessness was a priority they could have allocated some funding to enable a spending level over and above the level of government grant each year. This would in all probability have demonstrated a greater need and resulted in a higher level of central grant.

Like I said, the issue of not telling me the total number of applications is going to the Information Commissioner in due course and I'll write up what happens when they adjudicate. In the meantime we can say quite safely that NCC refuses nearly 60% of DHPs while money is going begging. NCC are of course free to rebut this claim with figures should they chose to do so.
My first post on DHPs

My second post on DHPs

My post on my adventures with the Freedom of Information Act

*see my first post linked to above and my experience suggesting a targeted distribution of leaflets

Friday, 13 March 2009

Lessons NOT Learnt after Nottingham City Homes Debacle

Quite rightly, NCC is still ruminating over the potential fall-out and lessons to be learnt following the Audit Commission's report on the housing allocations scam. The Standards Committee met on 4 March 2009 and discussed some of the recommendations relating to Councillor behaviour.

You may remember in one of my previous discussions on this I said

"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."

It seems that the Audit Commission said something similar on page 6 of its report (I hadn't read that bit before making my comment honest) and said that NCC should

"Ensure there are mechanisms in place that require councillors to register any potential conflicts of interest when seeking to advcate on behalf of local constituents."

I've got to say that, when I made my original remark I presumed that there would be such a peocedure but, like so many, it was routinely ignored. It didn't really occur to me that THERE WOULD BE NO FRICKIN PROCEDURE WHATSOEVER.

Happily, the Standards Committee has rejected this most basic tenet of accountability on the grounds that it may

"...cause confusion and conflict between it and the Members Code of Conduct in the minds of councillors."

and decided that a bit more guidance would be sufficient instead. This guidance would be on

"...factors which councillors need to consider when acting in housing allocations, with illustrative examples."

So the guidance will only talk about housing allocations, like thats the only possible area where conflict of interest may occur. What about planning for example?

There's nothing in the minutes suggesting where any conflict may actually occur and the idea that conflict of interest measures should be rejected because councillors won't be able to understand them just means that we need some new and cleverer councillors.

So much for the 'lessons will be learnt' rhetoric.

Voice Risk Analysis

Here's an interesting idea, I am now going to briefly draw your attention to something that will almost certainly be future NCC bullshit.

The Liberal Conspiracy blog has been running a series analysing the use of 'Voice Risk Analysis' in benefit administration. Lie detectors to you and me.

The system has been piloted among a small number of Local Authority housing benefit departments with debateable success.

Now, knowing what we know about NCC's generally macho authoritarian nature and tendency to jump on anything to do with bashing working class fraud (as opposed to middle clas and private sector fraud) and 'anti-social' whatever, I'd bet my left buttock that somebody, somewhere in NCC is positively creaming themselves about getting the chance to play with these new toys.

Ok, I admit that was a fairly weak attempt to link what is really a national story with my usual brief but I reckon its worth it as its a big issue in my opinion and will almost certainly reach these shores eventually.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Budget Day - The Aftermath

Well the budget was passed without amendment to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Graham Chapman said it was the hardest budget he had ever worked on because following cuts he had nobody to add the numbers up for him so he had to do it himself. Hoho. Just my little joke Cllr C.

The Post is reporting that plans for the Victoria Leisure Centre were discussed at greater length than the proposed job cuts. Strange cos I don't remember seeing that on the agenda and will presumably come as a surprise to campaigners against its demolition who weren't expecting anything until the Area 6 Commttee meeting when a design will be chosen for approval by the Council's Executive Board later that month. Not got the minutes yet so I've no idea to what extent it was discussed.

The demo against the cuts seemed reasonably well attended, helped no doubt by the appearance of Sam Morton who gave an emotional plea for reconsideration of the plans. She struck me as absolutely sincere and about as far from the typical rent-a-quote celebrity as its possible to get. One of the other speakers raised a chuckle by suggesting that if there was any money left NCC should spend it on Horlicks because they'd need all the help they could get to sleep at night.

In a rare feature here are a few pics from the demo;


Catchy slogan

Sam Morton

The demo from afar

One of the key criticisms by the unions is that rather than actually increasing the spending on chilfren's services all they are actually doing is increasing the budget to the level they actually spent last year, when they significantly overspent. I have already commented on the fact that 200 odd redundancies was being spun by the council to being an investment in services for the vulnerable but this seems to me to be a spin too far.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Budget Day

Well, today's budget day for NCC, full Council meeting where the main (but not only, see here) agenda item is approval or otherwise of the budget.

I say "or otherwise" but of course there's not really any chance of it being thrown out. I do wonder of the slight possibility that the decision to close one of the kids homes being reversed, what with Sam Morton popping in for a chat and all. It depends whether the proposal was a red herring designed to draw fire (i.e they never intended to go through with it) or whether NCC are on one of their frequent macho trips.

Which of course leads me to the Union demo against the cuts in the Market Square at 1pm, which has the uber talented and really rather lovely Ms M as special guest speaker. I'm really hoping she's gonna turn up in a donkey jacket and stand round an authentic 1970s brazier and I'm gonna pop in with me camera to see if I can get a snap or two. Mind you I'd be equally happy if she were to


Its a busy day in the Markey Square today because because there's also a 'birthday party' for the tram on at roughly the same time and apparently Geoff Hoon has been invited. That'll give Sam Morton a run for her money in the autographing stakes I'll be bound. Not really sure how the two events will mix to tell the truth, not least because a record attempt for the largest number of people doing a 'high 5' is planned as part of the celebrations.

Very obvious conspiracy theory alert; maybe NCC organised the tram do on the same day as the full council meeting to deflect attention and to mess up the expected demo against the cuts.

There, I feel better getting that one out. The trouble with being a born conspiracy theorist is that you know that many of them are rediculous but conspiracy theories are like farts. You try and keep them in but occasionally you've got to let one out to relieve the pressure.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

More Money Spent on 'Culture' Problems

Hats off again to the 'Post' who have found that NCC have spent another £69,000 on consultants trying to solve the 'culture' problems. This after £30k spent on a report by Hardmoor Associates which was binned at the draft stage.

The new consultants, called Invigor8 (no really. Kind of suggests the use of workshops where 'facilitators' demonstrate the conflicts between workers and manager through the medium of modern dance) have not been doing the same work that Hardmoor did, no siree Bob. The 'Post quotes a council spokesdroid;

"This is a critical piece of work that in no way repeats previous work commissioned by the council, but uses past research to inform the current work to ensure its success."

So its not the same see? Hope thats now clear.

The 'Post' passes on some quotes from a draft report;

"a lack of clarity about purpose, vision, and relationship boundaries (what should we expect from each other?)" and "a need for stronger, more consistent, more visible leadership".

(NCCLOLs translation service; 'nobody's got a fucking clue what they or anybody else is supposed to be doing')

"there is a developing sense of unity and purpose at senior leadership levels".

(NCCLOLs translation service; nobody else wants to get forced out after a row with Jon Collins)

"a healthy desire amongst many leaders to want to recognise any issues and difficulties that exist – and deal with them".

(NCCLOLs translation service has developed a fault; it has become jammed up with bullshit)

The spokesdroid apparently witters on further;

"The initial findings identified that some previously identified issues remain to be fully resolved."

Nooooooo. You don't say? And we all thought it was going so well.

"But Invigor8 issued a clear 'health warning' with these findings acknowledging that change was evident even during their research period, that much had clearly changed already and that change has continued since they conducted their interviews."

Hmmm, thats a lot of 'change'. I think somebody's been reading too many Obama speeches.

So lets sum up the performance of the two sets of consultants then shall we and see what we've learnt today.

Hardmoor Associates; example quote;

"Put simply, this council is dysfunctional."

Anything nice to say? No

Result? Report binned at draft stage, only trousered £30k, sent packing.

Invigor8; example quote;

"a lack of clarity about purpose, vision, and relationship boundaries"

Anything nice to say? Quite a bit actually. See above and also;

"passion, commitment and hard work" of a "willing workforce with high quality individuals".

Result; £69k trousered so far and we're still on board. Trebles and parties on exotic yachts all round!

I think the message to consultants is clear. Slag us off and you get the boot pronto and you'll never work in this town again. Tell us what we want to hear and the gravy train floweth.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Can I have something of yours for nothing?

Nottingham City Council has joined flickr, the photo sharing website, for the express purpose of scrounging photo content for their promotional campaigns without having to pay for it. Here's their profile.

What happens is you get a message on one of your photos asking the following;


Nottingham City Council would like to use your photograph on the back of city bus shelters - can you please confirm that you are happy for us to do so free of charge? We will credit all photographs used and therefore can please let us know what credit you would like to appear on the photograph?

Many Thanks"

Sadly, a few people appear to have fallen for it.

This hasn't gone down particularly well with Nottingham flickr members with a long discussion thread on the matter appearing. The general consensus seems to be that its a bit of a cheek not offering payment and that people should respond to requests in the positive only on the condition that a payment will be forthcoming.

NCC on the other hand thing they are doing the togs a favour;

"Nottingham City Council does have a photo library and images from this library were considered for the purpose of the bus shelter poster locations. However after some team discussions and given we are aware there are many photographers in the city, we felt it would be a great opportunity for you to show your work and for us to recognise your creative approach to photography."

However one of the contributors described his experience of applying for a job for NCC as a photographer for the 'Arrow';

"In March 2008, I applied for a job with the NCC (namely, The Arrow) as a photographer. They were interested after seeing my work, and asked me if I was a published photographer, to which I said yes. They wanted to see my portfolio, and what works I'd had published. I showed them copies of the NEP which had used my pics for stories several times. When they asked how much I'd been paid/charge for usage, I said "Oh, I let them use them for free", they suddenly lost interest."

So, it seems that letting NCC use your photographs for free isn't that much of a 'great opportunity' after all.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Executive Assistants - Who They?

Nope, I hadn't heard of them either but I stumbled across them when reading the minutes of the last full City Council meeting.

You might remember from reading the 'Post' or maybe seeing my previous post on this meeting that it was more famous for the friendly discussions over the highly complementary Audit Commission report about Nottingham City Homes and the light hearted joshing between JoCo and Cllr Sutton, who was accused of being a 'prat' by the Great Leader. All good stuff. Of course the latter quotette didn't make it into the minutes, merely being summarised as

"After discussion..."

Come on NCC minute takers, sort it out. We want everything warts and all, times of toilet breaks, the lot. After all we pay for them.

Sorry, went a bit 'Daily Mail' there, lets get back on track. It seems the 'prat' jibe wasn't the only excruciating attempt at informality at that meeting, more on that in a bit.

So what is an 'Executive Assistant' then? Its another office of the Council Executive and as such is filled by a councillor of the ruling group normally. All is revealed in the 'Roles and Responsibilities' appendix of NCC's constitution. Para 26 lists their duties as the following;

"1 Executive Assistants will provide general political support to the Executive and will, mainly, achieve this by supporting particular Executive Members’ portfolios and areas of executive work. Their roles will include the following:-

(1) development of policy in areas allocated by the Executive;

(2) assisting Executive Members in all elements of work within their portfolios, including:-

(a) carrying out research and providing advice on executive functions, including briefings to support portfolio decisions;
(b) supporting liaison between the Executive Members and other Councillors, Corporate Directors and Overview and Scrutiny function, and external organisations;
(c) representing the Executive Members at internal and external meetings and events;

(3) development of knowledge, experience and expertise in the portfolio of the Executive Member;

2 Executive Assistants do not have delegated authority to take executive decisions in relation to any executive functions."

In effect a kind of Portfolio Holder's 'supersub' if you will.

Anyway, it seems that at this same Council meeting some of the opposition councillors decided to ask what they had ACTUALLY been doing in recent months. The resultant responses were obviously meant to be seen as high handed cutting sarcasm, Swiftian bons mots sure to belittle the questioners and make them slink away with tails between legs. Unfortunately this didn't work out because the responses appear to have been drafted by the same wag who crafted Jane Todd's jibe about the Evening Post's ipod being stuck on shuffle. What I'm saying here is that they weren't very funny.

Take it away then Councillor Mellen.

"It is great to see the Liberal Democrats are fully behind our desire to increase our recycling rate in the City. Indeed they have managed a 100 per cent recycling rate in the questions that have been brought before Council today."

Rrrrrrrrrip. Oh dear, there go my sides. Councillor Mellen is available for children's birthday parties (as Nobby the Clown), weddings and bahmitzvahs. Book early.

And now, Councillooooorrrrrr Liversidge!

"I thank Councillor Oldham for his question two days after the most momentous event in almost a century."

Er wtf you on about man? Has anybody got any idea? Is this some sort of councillor in-joke? If anyone can explain this please do so in the comments. I must have missed something.

Finally, Councillor Chapman's answer.

"I rather welcome this question because it gives me an opportunity to find out, well it stimulates me talking to Hassan about what the hell he has been up to..."

LOLZ!!!11!! Yeah, what 'the hell' have you been up to Hassan? Its so wild and zany round here that I've got no idea whats going on!!!! You get the feeling that Councillor Chapman has one of those signs in his office saying 'you don't have to be mad to work here but it helps' and what's more, points it out to people when they visit.

Jesus fucking H Christ. Is this the best they can do? Is this what we pay our elected representatives to do all day, making cringe-worthily unsuccessful attempts at dissing the opposition? Somebody had to type all that shit out you know and they don't do it for free.

Anyway, once you've got your breath back we can have a little wonder as to what has caused this outbreak of wackiness and put-downy behaviour. Not surprisingly, it seems to come down to money.

You see Executive Assistants qualify for a special responsibility allowance of £5579.89 per year. This is the same as, say the Chairs of Regulatory Committees or the Chief Whip but more than the Chair of the Appointments and Conditions of Service Committee. Its not entirely a consensus that they're worth that much, hence the spate of questions about what they do with their time from the opposition and the rather snide responses from portfolio holders.

Now the next full Council meeting is due on 9 March and the agenda has an item to discuss the latest report from the Independent Remuneration Committee. This is the bunch charged with the task of making recommendations about the level of the various Councillors' and special responsibilities allowances that are available.

Anyway, it seems that the IRC initially recommended that Executive Assistants should receive an allowance of £2710 initially whereas JoCo wanted them to get the full fat £5579. In the interests of democracy and accountability JoCo ignored the IRC's recommendation and went with the higher amount.

Anyway its review time and the IRC appears to have been bombarded with evidence about the Executive Assistants' worth but have yet to be convinced and still recommend the lower amount. Clearly the opposition smell a rat/opportunity to take the piss.

Of course all this will be swallowed up in the discussions of the budget which is being discussed at the same meeting and the 350 odd redundancies this involves is currently being spun into a £16m in vestment into children and the disabled.

There are currently 4 executive assistants so the total expenditure at issue is about £11.5k pa which would barely get you a half time admin assistant at today's prices. So there's not a lot of political capital for the opposition here. Mind you, if you're the part time admin assistant being made redundant its probably pretty significant.

Comprehensive Performance Assessment 2008

The Local Authority 'league tables' for 2008 are out and Nottingham City Council has been judged as a 2 star authority (the max is 4) but is 'improving well'.

As predicted benefits got a 4 despite its accuracy still being utterly shite. But points for accuracy don't make prizes so no point putting any effort into that, as I've written before.

But what I can't work out is how NCC has been judged as 'improving well'. Have a look at the scores via the first link and there's only one individual score for services that has improved, the one for housing and thats only cos they've managed to get rid of a bunch of crooks. We'll leave aside the technicality that housing services aren't actually managed by NCC anymore...

However, the score for use of resources which as far as I can see is a global score for VFM and financial management i.e. pretty important, has actually dropped from 3 last year to 2. So how does 'one service improved, the rest the same but worse use of resources' count as 'improving well'? Especially when the overall score has remained at 2.

Clearly, auditing is a complex black art and is beyond the likes of me...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Nottingham City Council Internal Audit; Please Do Try and Keep Up

A little while ago I wrote about how NCC's Housing Benefits managers manipulated the assessment by the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate to give a somewhat optimistic impression of how good their service was. Well, belatedly, NCC's internal audit seems to have picked up on some of this.

An internal audit report which was considered by the Audit committee recently made the following comments;

"Quality performance and management is neither stringent nor robust and processing accuracy cannot be considered adequate. " 

"The outcomes of the post payment check should be of great concern to the service management. DWP performance standard at level 1 (the worst) for the percentage of cases for which the calculation of the amount of benefit due is correct is less than 96%. As at 31st January 2008, the City’s performance was only 93.1% overall and as low as 90.4% in quarter 2." 

"...they were all basic errors which should be easily avoided by well trained and motivated staff." 

"Quality assessments prepared by the quality team which were available to us by 31st January 2008 suggest that serious problems exist with the accuracy of new claims processing by in house staff. The quality team found that financial errors in new claims are running above 25%..."

Hmmm, I think I said all that. Essentially NCC have dumped quality in favour of speed because its worth a higher weighting in external assessments.

Then there's this little gem which surprised me;

"During the year, processing of new claims was progressively taken back in house. City Audit Services has, in previous years, been critical of external contractor performance. "

Hello? Did anybody else know that Housing Benefits were using external processing for claims? They certainly kept that one quiet. I can feel another Freedom of Information Act request coming on...

Then there's this;

"The City has a policy to encourage the legitimate take-up of is not clear when, where and to whom the policy and strategy has been communicated."

The phrase 'it is not clear when..' is usually in my experience polite codespeak for 'it hasn't...' and I know I was never told about it when I worked there and I reckon I would have been within the target audience.

Unfortunately, it goes off the boil a bit here;

"Our testing indicates that decision notices contain a standard paragraph drawing the claimant’s attention to the right to request a revision/review or appeal..."

Not true I'm afraid although it depends what you're talking about. As I've written, the standard notification template did not include this info at least not between March and December last year. However, if you get a bespoke letter then it does include it. However, this isa very small minority of cases. It looks like Housing Benefit management misled their own auditors by providing copies of the bespoke letter template instead of the standard notification template.

A quick look at the minutes of the actual meeting will obviously reveal a forensic and robust examination of these problems. Oh, not really...;

"(i) under ‘post payment checks’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for basic errors should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;

(ii) under ‘processing of new claims’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for poor performance should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;

In response to (i) and (ii) above, it was reported that both actions had been completed and all staff were now fully trained"

I bet they even said 'Lets move on...' Dumb ass mistakes continue to be made in my experience though, when I put my claim for Council Tax Benefit they got completely the wrong start date, the sort of error thats typical of somebody in a bit of a rush...

And there was this;

"...consideration should be given to ways of informing the public of what benefits they were eligible to claim"

Duh, thats a good idea, wonder how long it took for councillors to come up with that one. Will that include Discretionary Housing Payments?

Because again, there was absolutely no mention of these either in the audit report nor in the subsequent discussion. But then Nobody at NCC seems to be aware that they exist so thats par for the course.