Review of Public Libraries 2017

Last year I looked at the possible trends in public libraries for 2017 and unfortunately the challenges I identified remain unabated. The situation has deteriorated even more so and the release of the recent Cipfa data details a sector in continuing crisis. What has remained a constant since the start of austerity is deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and hundreds of library closures. Conversely, there has been an increase volunteer led-libraries, co-location, and technology enabled access.

There is no evidence that this trajectory is likely to change under the current administration and all indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network in England over the coming year.

However, it would be unfair to imply that nothing good is happening within libraries. Library staff have managed to drive forward creative projects and service improvement despite the challenging circumstances. For the best examples of this see the Libraries Change Lives website. Equally, new library builds and improvements are still happening and welcomed by the communities they benefit. Public Library News provides the most comprehensive and regular updates from across the sector including a list of new or refurbished libraries. The Libraries Taskforce blog also highlights good work happening and best practice from other services. Unfortunately as a government funded body, the bias is for highlighting only positive stories rather than acknowledging the difficulties that beset the sector, and as such it lacks both impartiality or gives balanced coverage.

While not entirely doom and gloom the positives above need to be set in the overall context of ongoing funding cuts to local authorities and the continuing drivers of localism and devolution. All of which continue to provide a challenging environment for libraries. Not just public libraries but all those that rely on public funding either directly or indirectly such as schools, FE, HE, and health libraries.

Commercialism

Libraries are increasingly being challenged to adopt a more commercial approach in the way they market and charge for services. In principle this is nothing new and fees and charges have always played a role in raising income; from fines, room hire, photocopying, DVD rental etc.

What has changed is the emphasis placed on income generation as central to the core budget. That is, a failure to meet an income target can have a direct impact on service delivery with the need for further efficiency savings such as reducing the stock fund or even losing staff as a result. This is particularly true of library mutuals I would guess who no longer have the safety net of the local authority to soak up any overspends.

It also highlights the dichotomy as to why library services can attract large amounts of project funding from the Arts Council but still be subject to cuts and closures. Such funding is tied to a specific project work and does nothing to alleviate the underlying structural issues such as revenue funding.

While many in the profession object to libraries being treated as profit making organisations the approach is in keeping with government policy and ideology so is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

Recruitment

Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation of the sector have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’. The sad fact is public libraries are no longer an appealing long-term career prospect.

Speaking at a round table discussion with the APPG on libraries Nick Poole argued that despite the difficulties the sector needed to invest and encourage new talent. Looking at the information sector in the round I would agree. Many opportunities exist and will continue to expand, particularly in the areas of information and knowledge management, specialist libraries, and Higher Education.

However, it’s more difficult to argue a case for public libraries, when both national and local government, and all main political parties regard library staff, including qualified librarians, as replaceable by volunteers.

The recommendation by William Sieghart to encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates’ seems unachievable now. The ambition to develop a programme similar to the TeachFirst concept for librarians appears to have been dropped by the Taskforce in favour of the more achievable goal of encouraging apprenticeships, although this too is not without its difficulties.

Pay in the public sector will continue to be depressed with either a real term pay cut or wages struggling to keep pace with inflation, also make public libraries less attractive to those entering the profession.

Despite this some councillors seem to enjoy increases or pay outs far in excess of those they expect of their workforce. While no means an isolated case the leader of East Sussex Council is to get a 37% increase in his allowance and proudly states that he is “worth the money and more”. It appears you can volunteer and still be paid the equivalent of a full time wage for doing so!

This from a council leader who is threatening to close libraries unless they are funded wholly by communities or other organisations. Presumably, any volunteers taking over the threatened libraries cannot expect the same level of recompense as Councillor Glazier.

Not to be outdone Paul Blantern former CEO of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce enjoyed a pay out in excess of £100k when he quit his post this year. This at the same time 21 libraries were threatened with closure as the council can  apparently no longer afford to run them.

Performance

I won’t dwell too much on the recent Cipfa figures as a very good in-depth analysis has been provide by Tim Coates on UK Library News.

The figures sadly illustrate the continuing decline of the sector, with the Bookseller describing the results as showing the “catastrophic” scale of library closures in Great Britain. Overall the figures confirm huge drops in funding, increase in library closures – 449 since 2012 but other commentators have put this higher – a drop in expenditure by £66m for 2016-7 alone, and a decline in visitor numbers 14% over five years.

However, not all councils have returned their figures so the situation is likely to be much worse.

That the situation requires urgent strategic action on a national scale is obvious. What is not obvious is where this action will come from. All the major players, ACE, DCMS, Libraries Taskforce, have so far fundamentally failed to address or halt the decline.

Part of the issue is also the loss of focus on what public libraries are for and what they should deliver. Some of the underlying problems are due to technological and societal changes, but these effects have been exacerbated by political ideology around public finances and service delivery.

The SCL Universal Offers where partly meant to address this by formalising those areas that libraries where good at and how they could adapt to meet the changing information needs of the public. Despite being a continuing critic of the SCL as a organisation I have always been broadly supportive of the universal offers. However, after years of failing to alter the decline in usage we need now to start questioning the validity of the offers as an effective strategy.

While this might be heresy to some, and I certainly don’t advocate for immediately discontinuing them, I do believe the themes need revisiting to gauge if they continue to be fit for purpose in their current form. Equally, adding to the number of offers is both counter-productive and misguided.

Leadership

There still remains a lack of strategic leadership for the sector within England. Obviously, the government would not accept a body highly critical of it’s policies, which is why the make-up of the Taskforce is as it is. The majority of those round the table are beholden to the government either politically or financially.

That’s not to say that some of the organisations don’t carry out valuable work beneficial to the sector, such as the British Library. However, in 2016/17 79% (£93.9m) of the British Library funding came from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Equally, the SCL has benefited from closer engagement and have been successful in attracting additional money. This year it was awarded £2m over four years by the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’, allowing it to pay up to £65k for a new Chief ExecutiveEqually, six library services were also awarded National Portfolio Organisation status attracting just over £4m in funding between them. As Ian Anstice observed:

“It’s interesting to see that 3 out of the 6 library services to get the funding, by the way, are non-profit trusts. This is proportionately way higher than one would expect. The bids were also not public so it’s unclear, apart from what can be gained from press releases, as yet, as to what they will mean.”

So it’s no surprise that the SCL is heavily involved in promoting a cultural and arts agenda for libraries and advocating support for volunteer led libraries, both mainstays of government policy. As the latest minutes of the Taskforce noted:

“The Taskforce also undertook to provide support to community managed libraries to share good practice, and help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches. It is working in partnership with SCL and Locality to support a new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network…”

What was encouraging for those of us critical of the arts path being foisted on libraries with no debate was the Cilip interview with Gill Furniss, Chair of the APPG:

‘I am a bit disappointed. I did think public libraries fitted better in Civil Society. To me they are community assets and don’t go terribly well with arts, museums and culture. I see public libraries serving communities’ information needs and that they should be very much placed within a community and be valued by the community.’

She also believes the arts label comes at a cost. ‘It makes libraries seem very grand when you’re talking about arts and ­museums. We’ve got to get away from grand. We’ve got to be there with our sleeves rolled up in communities. I’d put it with housing and neighbourhoods.’

Whether Labour adopts this approach remains to be seen. Kevin Brennan, shadow library minister, is currently working on library policy but over the past seven years most Labour controlled authorities, including Gill Furniss’ home area of Sheffield, have followed their tory counter-parts in cuts, closures, and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.

Independent voice

As such there is no independent body, with perhaps the exception of Cilip, that is willing to be publicly critical of government policy. Although a recent APPG round-table discussion in Westminster produced some heart-felt warnings there appears little political appetite to change course from any of the parties.

The APPG has yet to publish it’s list of activities so it’s difficult to know yet what it’s priorities will be and how it will bring together different political opinion into a coherent strategy. The LibDems are as equally to blame as the tories for the current crisis and despite both the Chair and Vice-Chair being Labour, as noted above Labour have a poor record on differentiating their stance in any meaningful way from that of the Conservatives.

What is needed is a clear and meaningful strategy that addresses the structural and financial difficulties besetting the sector, and a strategy that is intent on building relationships with all  stakeholders rather than creating division.

Unfortunately, Sieghart’s recommendations deliberately set to exclude campaigners, unions, and library users from the Taskforce. Given the emphasis on communities having a say it’s rather ironic that the users voice was intentionally left out at national level.

Sadly, the perhaps unintended but very foreseeable consequence has been to create a toxic relationship of distrust, accusation and counter accusation between groups that should be united in fighting for libraries.

Besides being politically petty the decision has built walls rather than bridges and bodes ill for the future should a new administration establish a different body. It would be very difficult for those currently at the table to cry foul if they were to be excluded.

It also raises the question of legitimate engagement and how far library organisations should allow themselves to be part of policies that are so at odds with the good of the profession and sector. Within any situation there is always nuance and complexity. Very few issues are black and white. That said, it is difficult to pinpoint any advantages to public libraries that engagement with the government has brought.

The campaigns run by Cilip in support of public, school, and health libraries, the outspoken criticism from authors and celebrities, all highlight the damage being done. So the question becomes at what point does engagement become collusion or self-harm? At what point are organisations putting their own needs above the good of the wider profession?

As Nick Poole recently tweeted as part of a thread: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Round-up

For myself, I see another challenging year of quiet desperation for public libraries with no obvious solution in sight. The government is too caught up in Brexit to give domestic issues much consideration. That’s not to be overly pessimistic but the evidence leads only one way and as we have all affirmed in the past year #factsmatter. To pretend otherwise is a dis-service to the profession.

For other reviews of the year see Nick Poole’s 2017 Review and Ian Anstice English Public Libraries key trends 2017

 

Dodgy Dudley – Revisted

I followed-up my last post about Dudley by making a FOI request asking for details of how and why the decision had been made to award the contract to GLL despite all the evidence pointing to an agreement for a staff led mutual.

For those not familiar with local authority decision making and the somewhat byzantine complexity of council procedures, there are some, very critical committees through which the majority of decisions have to make their way. Two of the most important are Cabinet and Scrutiny so my request was to supply information and links to those committees that had decided or approved the awarding of the contract without any apparent further consultation.

Despite some obvious delaying tactics I finally received a reply claiming that disclosure of some of the information was not in the public interest. This relates to information under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and the related procurement exercise.

This was followed by rather unhelpful links to committee documents between April and September 2016. Unfortunately, rather than provide any clarity what the documents show is the progress of approval for a staff mutual. The outcome of the September meeting did nothing to alter the process or change the agreed method of procurement. Rather, the documents back-up the 3 month statutory consultation which clearly states a plan to create a staff led mutual. 

However, between September Cabinet and the subsequent announcement to award the contract to GLL in February 2017 there appears to have been a decision made to completely ignore the agreed plan. A decision so secret that Dudley Council is unwilling to share how it was made and by whom.

Now add to this is a reply from Councillor Harley to a local resident indicating that the decision was subject to the appropriate scrutiny procedures and that the process has ‘gone too far and cannot be reversed’.

Dear…

 The decision to use a company that has been set up as a mutual (not for profit) to operate the Borough’s libraries for the next 5 years is a good decision. They have a good track record on running libraries in other parts of the country.
 
The decision to award the contract has now gone too far and cannot be reversed having been through the relevant scrutiny processes. The tender by the successful company was far superior to that of the one put forward by employees and officers of the council.
 
They have given assurances that Libraries will not close and that staff will not be made redundant. In fact one of the determining factors of awarding them the contract was the proposal to review opening hours and where they can justify it extend opening hours.
 
Therefore based on this and the fact that under the control of the council the service would have diminished i fully support the decision to award them the contract. The library service will be protected and hopefully improved as a result of this measure.
 
If you require any more information please get in touch.
 
Regards
Cllr Harley

 

This is in contrast to the reply I received from the Council’s FOI Officer saying the process was still underway!

The main point being, if the usual scrutiny process has been followed, then the details of the particular committee should be publicly available.
Every public authority is required to publish certain information, in keeping with the Information Commissioner’s Model Publication Scheme and as a general rule, a council should publish the following on a routine basis:
  • minutes and agendas of public meetings;

  • documents it is required to make public by other legislation, such as the Local Government Act 1972; 

  • minutes of senior-level policy and strategy meetings, eg board meetings; and 

  • any background documents which are referred to in the agenda or minutes, or were circulated in preparation for the meeting. These are considered part of the agenda.

Therefore, the relevant agendas and minutes including briefing/decision notes should already be in the public sphere.

Looking at Dudley Council’s constitution, decisions that require the approval of Cabinet can be made by a Lead Member in consultation with the appropriate Director, which tends to be standard practice in local authorities. This leads to a ‘Decision Sheet’, which in the words of DBC is one mechanism of the Council’s formal process ensuring transparency and robustness in decision making.

Once the decision sheet has been approved it should be available on the Council’s Decision Database. There appears to be no such decision available on the database regarding the award to GLL.

The Freedom of Information Act makes clear clear that the public interest is served where access to the information sought will:

  • Further the understanding of, and participation in the debate of issues of the day
  • Facilitate the accountability and transparency of public authorities for decisions taken by them
  • Facilitate accountability and transparency in the spending of public money
  • Allow individuals to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives and, in some cases, assist individuals in challenging those decisions

Unfortunately, there appears only lip service being paid in Dudley to such principles and the dodgy decision making continues apace to dupe the public and renege on promises made to the hardworking, dedicated library staff.

Dodgy Dudley?

As a library campaigner and commentator I am particularly interested when libraries spin out of local authority control. It’s an issue I have written about many times and therefore tend to keep an eye on those proposing such a route.

Dudley is one such service. In October 2015 Public Library News highlighted the aim of Dudley Council to create an employee-led mutual with a planned launch date of April 2016. Given that such decisions require planning well in advance (or at least should do) I have no doubt that library staff, corporate officers, and councillors had been in discussions for a long time.

In the news story a spokesperson for the council made clear that the mutual would be “where council employees set up a new organisation separate to the local authority to continue to deliver public services.” A three-month public consultation was planned and for talks with staff, unions and other stakeholders.

Rachel Harris, the cabinet member responsible for libraries said:

“As a community council we are committed to delivering high quality services to our existing customers and at the same time providing opportunities to widen access to community services. An employee-led mutual creates opportunities to deliver professionally led services supported by the community in a way that local people can be proud of.”

In April 2016 it was announced that the library service would be run as a ‘not-for-profit mutual’. Councillor Harris is quoted as saying that this was a new era for the borough and described it as a ‘absolutely historic occasion for this council’.

It was reported that the new organisation would be run by staff but have community, employee and council involvement at board level.

So far, so good. Despite the cutbacks and financial challenges Dudley Council had made the decision to place the future of the library service firmly in the hands of the people who knew it best, the library staff themselves. This was certainly the position the council promoted to the public during the consultation exercise.

It was also the preferred option of the Council as the Cabinet Report made abundantly clear:

  • “Consultation with user groups about the Mutual model has been done by local staff in each setting.” (point4)
  • “There has been a specific comment about the mutual model from one of the Friends of Libraries groups who wanted to know more about the business case and how the Friends would work with the library if it was run from within a staff led mutual.” (point 5)
  • “There have been helpful and encouraging comments from one partner organisation where the library is co-located in their building about the Mutual model and how this could improve further joint working.” (point 6)
  • “Frequently Asked Questions continue to be compiled and a regular staff mutual newsletter began in January.  Staff are taking part in workstreams, including a workshop on branding for the Mutual.” (point 8)
  • ” A Mutual is an umbrella term for an organisation run for the benefit of its members, who have active and direct involvement whether as employees, suppliers or the community.  Meta-Value recommends an Employee-led Mutual with charitable status as the model for LAAL, which would enable greater income growth.  Membership would be open to employees and members of the community with a Board which includes a nominated Council representative.  York Explore has spun-out using this model.” (point 14)
  • “On 28th October 2015, Cabinet approved the following:  in principle, the setting up an employee-led Mutual for   LAAL, with a 5 year Business Plan, subject to consultation with staff and the public and the decision of full Council in February” (point 15)

In fact the whole report is in favour of the proposal to set-up a ‘staff led mutual’, so you would be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what would happen. Certainly both the public and staff were led to believe this. So positive was the proposal to establish a staff led mutual that Dudley Council even prepared a candidate’s pack for a Treasurer of the newly created model.

Dudley was also awarded £42,000 as part of the Mutuals Support Programme for support around ‘legal governance, business planning and financial modelling, stakeholder engagement support and transition.’

Therefore, it came as a great shock when it was announced that GLL was instead to step in and take on the running of Dudley’s Libraries.

Now there several puzzling areas here:

  • How can GLL take on the running of Dudley libraries, including TUPEing staff over, and yet the Council still claim that a staff-led working arrangement has been created? A ‘staff-led’ mutual is precisely that: a service owned and run by the staff, for the benefit of the community in which each member of staff has a vote to elect trustees and local residents are able to become members. This is a long way from how GLL operates.
  • Where, when, how and whom made the decision to appoint GLL? Like many Councils decision-making takes place in a labyrinth of different committees. However, such decisions should be clear via Cabinet or Scrutiny minutes etc. I’ve made a request to DMBC for details but have not yet received an answer.
  • Did the funding given to Dudley via the Mutuals Support Programme allow for the awarding of the contract to a different provider?

I am actively following through on these questions and will publish a further post when (if!) I get answers.

One thing that is clear though is that both staff and the public have been misled and misinformed over the proposals. Neither group have been consulted or engaged with over the process and the decision to award the contract appears shrouded in council bureaucratic fog.

I hope that residents and campaigners challenge this bit of rather dodgy decision making. That Dudley Council quickly comes to its sense and reverses the agreement with GLL and awards it to where it properly belongs; to the staff and residents of Dudley.

 

 

Changing Times, Changing Roles

My latest post can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Changing Times, Changing Roles

45ea7abe81a766e78aed8ed432fd280eIn the post I reflect on the skills needed to successfully manage a public library service in the current environment. Whether we agree with it or not, we face a new reality for libraries and operating in such a landscape requires a high degree of adaptation and flexibility from all library staff.

Equally, the importance of strong strategic leadership is paramount to provide vision and aspiration. Library leaders will need the mental flexibility and managerial adaptability to bring distributed elements into a coherent whole to ensure the continuing success of libraries into the future.