The phrase that ‘staff are an organisation’s most valuable asset’ was at one time so ubiquitous that it became accepted as a truism. Unfortunately, this belief was fundamentally undermined by globalisation as companies outsourced and focused on short-term gain and maximising profits, with employees seen as an expensive overhead and therefore expendable.
Despite this public services were to a certain extent protected. That was until five years ago and the introduction of the Government’s austerity programme and a political agenda that viewed centrally funded public services as a burden rather than an asset to the state.
That staff are a valuable resource is still accepted in principle, with plenty of lip service being paid, but in practice, particularly in local authorities, the reality is somewhat different. Over 500,000 workers having lost their jobs since 2010 and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility a further 500,000 more jobs are still to go, making the loss of a million jobs between 2010 – 2020.
Budgets have also decreased significantly with central funding to councils reduced by 40% and the spending review in November set to scale the grant back even further. The National Audit Office has warned that some councils may struggle to provide services they are legally obliged to and no doubt this will include libraries.
Nowhere is the perceived value of staff in principle and their replacement by untrained amateurs in practice more evident than in libraries, with views from some councils bordering on the absurd regarding the capacity and capability of volunteers. This approach is underpinned by the unevidenced belief that it is communities at the micro level that are best placed to determine the needs of that particular locality. Despite the fact that this very rarely applies to any other council or outsourced service in the area.
This is not to preclude the local community from having influence into the service via appropriate fora such as friends groups, but there is a fundamental difference between input and actual responsibility for delivering the service.
Despite the primacy afforded to communities I would argue it is the opposite; that it is staff and not the user that is most important. This has long been recognised in the commercial sector with many advocates of the approach of it’s staff who provide customer satisfaction so by keeping staff engaged a better customer experience is delivered. There are many books on the subject with perhaps Hal Rosenbluth The Customer Comes Second being one of the best known.
If this can be true in the commercial sector it is particularly true for the public sector delivering as it does vital public services. Many councils have a ‘vision’ and ‘brand’ that they expect staff to translate into practice. However, it is difficult to support any vision while at the same time being under constant threat of restructuring, increased workloads, reductions in conditions and pay, and redundancy. And in the case of library staff, replacement by volunteers.
What is perhaps surprising is that library staff actually do remain engaged despite such threats hanging over them, which is testimony to their resilience and belief in the social value of what they do. It is paid staff that deliver on services which include social equality, economic benefits, health & wellbeing, digital skills, learning, and literacy. It is not enough to have a passive service where the doors remain open, you need trained staff and qualified librarians to engage in outreach and activities that encourage people to come through the library doors in the first place. The work delivered around the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, and the Carnegie Library Lab are shining examples of this.
While volunteers do their best to keep services running they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and deliver such strategic and innovative programmes for the good of the wider community. Offering a passive service, with the expectation that users will come to the library without continuous innovation and maintaining high-quality services, is one reason why many volunteer libraries struggle to maintain visitor numbers.
Library staff and librarians offer a whole range of skills and knowledge that ensures a service is professionally managed and developed. Importantly, they offer a service for the benefit of the whole community and not just for a local ward or parish. For an extensive list of the type of work carried out see ‘What Librarians Do’ on the Voices for the Library website.
Many volunteers recognise this fact and even when forced to take on libraries regret the loss of paid staff as demonstrated in Lincolnshire.
Library users are incredibly important, as are their views on libraries, but it is paid staff and librarians that are essential to the running of an comprehensive and efficient service. To use business parlance libraries are not a start up scrabbling to place an untried product. Libraries are an established business with recognisable products, services, and a brand, and most importantly customer base. The challenge is to maintain and grow that customer base by offering products and services that customers want. Not that I agree with commercial terminology being applied to public services but for comparison purposes it’s useful in this particular context.
Thus, it is staff that are best placed to manage, develop, deliver, and innovate services that will keep the public coming through the doors and ensure that libraries have a long-term future.