“…giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock”.
Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, talk has grown of so-called ‘community libraries’ or ‘unfunded libraries’ if you prefer. It is fairly clear that the report has been wholeheartedly embraced by the current government. In fact, it is hard to see the difference between the policies being adopted in authorities across the country and the paragraph above from their report. It is certainly not difficult to imagine that central government is advising local authorities to take heed of this report and implement its recommendations. Particularly given the links between this government and KPMG.
A report back in July 2009 in The Independent claimed that:
KPMG, which also holds many public sector contracts, gave the [Conservatives] donations-in-kind worth more than £100,000 since the start of last year. A single KPMG consultant working in the Department for Children, Schools and Families costs the taxpayer £1.35m over three years, a parliamentary inquiry found. The company said it donated to all three main parties and had done so for many years. However, its gifts to the Tories were up in value from £17,200 in 2007 to £74,500 last year.
Furthermore, The Times reported that:
The Conservatives have received hundreds of thousands of pounds of free accounting advice as they prepare for government, raising accusations that they are too close to contacts in the City of London.
Britain’s biggest consultancy firms — which include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG — have seconded some of their staff to Tory MPs as the Conservatives attempt to work out how to cut Britain’s £178 billion budget deficit and decide on a new tax framework.
They certainly appear to be quite close (although it is worth pointing out that KPMG had close ties with the previous government too). Indeed a recent meeting at the Houses of Parliament suggest that KPMG’s recommendations are being taken very seriously by this government.
On January 25th this year, a round-table discussion was held in a private room hosted by Ed Vaizey. The discussion (entitled “Libraries and the Big Society”) had the following items on the agenda:
- Models for community libraries
- Asset transfer
- Libraries role in empowering communities
- Alternative suppliers for delivery including Mutuals and Outsourcing
- Future Libraries Programme
You can actually read the full agenda here. I recently submitted a Freedom of Information request for the minutes for this meeting which was rejected by the DCMS. They weighed up the pros and cons as follows:
Public interest considerations in favour of disclosure
- Public Libraries have potential impact on everyone and the greater the public interest may be in the decision-making process being transparent
- Greater transparency makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust
- As knowledge of the way government works increases, the public contribution to the policy making process could become more effective and broadly-based, particularly in this area where communities are being encourage to be involved in local services such as this
- The public interest in being able to assess the quality of advice being given to ministers and subsequent decision making
Public interest considerations in favour of non-disclosure
- The withheld information relates to the future guidance relating to libraries, which is not yet complete and subject to change. Releasing may misinform public debate because we have not finalized our proposals. The evolving nature of the information means that incorrect conclusions may be drawn, and undermine the policy formulation process.
- Ministers and officials need to be able to conduct rigorous and candid risk assessments of their policies, including considerations of the pros and cons without there being premature disclosure, particularly regarding contentious issues, which might close off better options
- Good government depends on good decision making and this needs to be based on the best advice available and a full consideration of all the options without fear of premature disclosure
- The impartiality of the civil service might be undermined if advice was routinely made public as there is a risk that officials could come under political pressure not to challenge ideas in the formulation of policy, thus leading to poorer decision-making
- Advice should be broad based and there may be a deterrent effect on external experts or stakeholders who might be reluctant to provide advice because it might be disclosed
- There needs to be a free space in which it is possible to ‘think the unthinkable’ and use imagination, without the fear that policy proposals will be held up to ridicule
- Disclosure of interdepartmental consideration and communications between ministers may undermine the collective responsibility of the government. Unless these considerations are protected there is likely to be a negative effect on the conduct of good government. If the public interests outlined above cannot be protected, there is a risk that decision making will become poorer and will be recorded inadequately.
Quite why public interest doesn’t trump the concerns of the DCMS in this case I am not really sure. I shall, of course, be appealing this decision.
It seems fairly evident where this policy of unfunded libraries originates. Whilst the government refuse to step in when local authorities engage in disproportionate cuts (unless it is in the Prime Minister’s backyard of course), it is also seemingly advising councils to make libraries a central part of the “Big Society” experiment. This certainly seems to be reinforced by the appointment of Paul Kirby as No. 10’s new head of policy development. According to The Guardian:
Kirby, who was appointed by Cameron on Friday, is one of the main minds behind a public service reform white paper due in the next fortnight, which the prime minister has hailed as the biggest revolution in the public sector since the 1940s.
He claims it will end a “state monopoly” of public sector services by opening contracts to outside providers.
Kirby set out his blueprint for reform in Payment for success, a paper written last year while he was at professional services company KPMG. He claims an aggressive programme of liberalisation is necessary and shares Cameron’s view that payment by results should be introduced right across the public sector “even if there is likely to be a bleeding edge in getting it right”.
Kirby proposes “the boundaries between public, private and third sector provision should melt away” and suggests “this empowerment agenda will have to be forced on to public sector organisations in the early stages to break the tendency to structural inertia”.
With one of the masterminds behind the ill-thought through KPMG report now directing policy development, it seems obvious that not only will the government not step in to halt authorities disproportionately cutting libraries, they will most likely be encouraging it and, even more worryingly, quite possibly seeking to overturn the Public Libraries Act. They should know that librarians, library staff and library users will not allow this to happen without a fight.