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.

 

Parish Councils, Localism & Libraries

I’ve previously written about the trend of moving services over to Parish and Town Councils, which at the time appeared not to have gained much notice in library campaigning circles.

This development has gained traction with more and more authorities looking to second tier councils to take responsibility for services, including libraries (single tier Unitary or Metropolitan Authorities operate slightly differently).

The rationale being that first tier authorities e.g. County, District or Borough Councils are capped by central government in terms of raising council tax but parish councils are not. Previously this stood at 2% but the 2016-17 financial year saw the Government propose a threshold of 4% for local authorities with social care responsibilities and 2% for district councils.

Any proposed rise above this limit would require a local referendum, which few councils have the appetite for. Currently, parish and town councils are not subject to such limitations and can raise precepts above the 2% threshold. Thus, cash-strapped local authorities have sought to exploit this loop-hole to pass services downwards.

The transfer of responsibility has been window-dressed in the terminology of Localism: the desire to  encourage decision making at the lowest practical level of local government in order to decide what level of services should continue e.g. street cleaning and grounds maintenance.

However, regardless of the jargon used it is not the desire to empower communities that is the driving force but the harsh financial settlement imposed by central government year on year on councils. Unfortunately, with no lessening of the overall council tax, plus a rise in the local precept, many people regard this as paying twice for the same service.

It also puts greater pressure on parish councils not only to provide additional services but to raise income and resources within a small locality. This is coupled with a fear that continuing excessive rises in the precept will lead to the introduction of a cap similar to the limit on first tier authorities. There are also technical issues around ‘General Powers of Competence’ and the need to employ a qualified Clerk in order to deliver such services.

The counter-argument runs that if local people do not see the value in a particular service then it will discontinue, with the principle that communities will only get those amenities they are willing to pay for.

In practice this leads to another two-tier model of winners and losers. The winners are those lucky enough to live in an affluent parish, with an articulate community willing to save their local library. The losers are those communities without the social structure to mount a robust defence, which will see library provision disappear.

This is the downside of localism. Relocating services not to empower communities but to divest financial responsibility and place libraries in a more precarious position so that if they fail the blame lies with the local community and not the local authority.

Pragmatic, a cynical ploy, or just a matter of financial survival for the local authority? Sadly, in the current political and financial climate, it’s likely to be all three.

 

The Price of Everything…

Regardless of any other reservations campaigners might have about the Libraries Taskforce there should be no argument about the quality of the recent series of posts around the theme of how libraries deliver.

The seven posts highlight a core set of nationally important outcomes around literacy, culture, communities, prosperity, digital, wellbeing and lifelong learning. As a valuable promotional tool for campaigners and library staff alike the series evidence how vital the work of libraries are, not just nationally, but to local communities.

I would encourage all librarians to ensure that their lead members and senior corporate officers are aware of the posts.  

For me, the series shows that even amongst continuing bad news around library cuts it’s still not difficult to find exemplars of innovative library developments and the positive and demonstrable impact such services have on users. The mounting evidence reveals what those involved in libraries have known for a long time; that is, the essential societal, educational, and economic benefits that libraries bring.

Another project that will hopefully provide further evidence is the Arts Council funding to Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University’s Business School to run a two year research project around the social value of libraries. 

In practice this is what I believe R. David Lankes meant when he challenged UK libraries to follow their US counterparts and take control of the narrative around libraries and to demonstrate their worth to the wider public and politicians alike.

The rationale being that a positive message around the beneficial effects of libraries to decision makers would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation, resulting ultimately in a lessening of closures and cuts.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and it’s not for want of understanding by decision makers or profile-raising activity within the sector.

There are many eloquent advocates for libraries both within and outwith the profession, from big name authors, actors, and politicians, to high profile public organisations such as the BBC, to a host of ordinary people campaigning to save their libraries at a local level. Libraries are rarely out of the local and national newspapers.

A recent example of support for libraries is from the Big Issue founder, Lord Bird. In an excellent and well informed speech to the House of Lords around the difficulties facing libraries and small booksellers he highlighted the many positives that libraries bring and the consequences of closing them.

So the message for libraries is clearly out there, the narrative is changing, despite the still occasional uninformed comment from individual politicians and councillors.

Unfortunately, the underlying challenge is not one of narrative but funding; not messaging but money.

As Baroness Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House publishing group stated during the Lord’s debate:

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.”

And this is the single biggest challenge for those parties involved at the strategic level nationally; the DCMS, Taskforce, Arts Council, Cilip, LGA, SCL etc. The solution needed is sourcing funding streams that provide ongoing revenue rather than just project based funds.

 The Taskforce has also set out to collect and publish a model data set for libraries with the aim that:

“…access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality. This includes everything from the information librarians need to manage their service day-to-day and that decision makers need to consider the strategic direction on library service provision, to the facts that will inform anyone who wants to know how their local service fits into the national picture.”

This will help provide a regular insight into the state of public libraries in England. It will be interesting to note as the data is released if continuing advocacy has any real impact on slowing down or reversing the rate of attrition amongst services and staff.

One aspect of the library story, unpalatable as it might be, is that libraries will continue to decline, not for want of being valued, but due to simple, unforgiving economics.

To use a common idiom ‘money talks’ and that is the real narrative that needs addressing. Especially against a government economic agenda that knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing.”

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Addendum: reply from Nick Poole:

Leon, as ever, you raise arguably the central point in terms of where we go next with the library lobby. I would argue that we have always had ‘hearts and minds’, but have lacked influence and evidence. Now, thanks to the coordinated efforts of individuals and organisations across the sector, we are securing both. But these things are only useful if we are crystal clear about the tactics we are deploying and the end-game we are looking to achieve.

We have to assume that our objective is to secure the outcomes which only a great library service can deliver for our society. It follows that we should not be closed to the idea of progress – we’re not looking to prevent any library from closing ever, but to replace the current chaotic culture of financially-motivated closure, hollowing-out and volunteerism with an ongoing, effective mechanism for the management of our capacity according to clear evidence of need, supported by professionals who know what they are doing and are committed to delivering the best possible service for the people who depend on them.

This needs money, as you rightly say, but I think we need to be clear about what – precisely – we mean. Which means being absolutely clear about some key principles:

– Whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, the British electorate voted for a Government in 2015 which clearly signalled an agenda based on austerity, cuts to public services and diminishing Local Authority budgets. We may see a reversal of this policy under the new Government or following a General Election, but for the time being we are not going to reverse the dominant economic policy of low taxes and diminishing investment in public services.

– This means that public library services are intrinsically linked to a host (Local Government) that will continue to see significant real-terms losses in cash income (mostly likely in the aftermath of the Autumn Statement on the 23rd November). This leaves us with four options:

i) Seek Government intervention to ring-fence Local Authority funding for libraries, which would fly in the face of Treasury policy and the Government’s preference for localism. I have looked into the eyes of the people that would be responsible for trying to implement this and see no appetite for doing so at all;

ii) Encourage the ‘good’ Authorities (the ones that are managing to sustain investment in public libraries despite budget cuts) to continue their support by celebrating their actions in defence of libraries and providing real, credible evidence of the positive impact of their support for their local communities and economy;

iii) Discourage the ‘bad’ Authorities (the ones that are closing libraries, transitioning too rapidly into unsustainable governance models, cashing in on estate and building stock with scant regard for their statutory duties) through public intervention, the intervention of DCMS and – where necessary – direct action, local campaigning and local media activity;

iv) Support the ‘struggling’ Authorities (the ones where there genuinely isn’t the money to deliver a full statutory service, nor is there likely to be from business rates, Council Tax and other local revenues) to make informed decisions which focus on medium to long-term user need and outcomes over in-year cash savings.

– If we can stabilise the ‘core’ investment in library services through Local Authorities, then as you say it follows that we need to look to where new and additional sources of development investment may come from (in other words, if we can stop the rot – financially – we need money to invest in improvements). There are really 3 possibilities here:

i) That we address the question of how lottery funding is made available to libraries through the Arts Council England, and whether this supports the kind of core development (as opposed to a cycle of projects) which public libraries need. We have argued many times that libraries need the same kind of development support from the Arts Council that museums currently receive – a dedicated team, a UK-wide funded Museum Development Network, a clear Accreditation Scheme (and associated quality expectations) and dedicated ‘Resilience Funding’ to help strengthen the core delivery of services;

ii) That we petition the Government (as was included in our briefing to the Lords debate) for an Emergency Relief Fund to help libraries escape the short-term cycle of in-year cuts to staffing and buy time to transition to a more sustainable footing (emergency relief funding was made available by the Arts Council in 2013-14 to help struggling arts organisations transition into new, more sustainable operations);

iii) That we seek to create an alternate stream of Improvement, Development and Transitional funding for public libraries which is targeted specifically at strengthening the resilience of the public library sector.

– Finally, we are currently prone to the accusation that public libraries already receive a significant amount of taxpayer investment every year. Depending on which source (and which Nation) you take as your focus, the UK taxpayer spends between £640m and £715m on public libraries each year. It is too easy to dismiss or claims for support on the basis that this is already a significant amount of public money. With this in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we are doing everything in our power to minimise duplication, reduce complexity, negotiate better prices for products, services and content – which also means looking at issues like shared data platforms, consortium procurement, bringing Authorities together and encouraging region-level planning and collaboration.

So, effectively from this our tactics to address your point about money would be:

1) Slow and eventually stem the rot of ‘core’ investment in libraries by Local Authorities

2) Improve the availability of development funding to help public libraries develop, improve and promote their services

3) Review the way we currently spend money either locally, nationally or (most likely) as natural clusters of library services

Unless we drive these 3 priorities collectively as a sector with focus and tactical impact, the best-intentioned ambition for public libraries won’t have a material impact on the financial realities so long as the dominant political and economic agenda remains a combination of localism, devolution and austerity.

 

Reply from Owen Smith

I was intriqued, like many library observers and campaigners, by the recent comments from Owen Smith, the Labour MP making a challenge for the party leadership against Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Smith has pledged that he will spend more on public libraries and re-open them if closed.

But as always the devil is in the detail so I wrote to Mr Smith asking him to clarify his comments and for his views on the following areas:

  • Library closures
  • Hollowing out of services
  • Replacement of staff with volunteers
  • Labour’s lack of policy on libraries

Labour has a very poor record on providing any meaningful answers to previous queries or for having any policy on libraries whatsoever. This latter point wasn’t addressed unfortunately or even acknowledged that one is needed. And while I fully agree that austerity is the driving force behind the cuts there was no recognition that Labour councils could be at the forefront of redesigning library services to mitigate against the cuts instead of emulating Tory practices.

Whether or not the reply below will give campaigners hope that a future Labour government would take the dismantling of the public library network seriously will depend on how it’s interpreted. Obviously, this would also depend on Owen Smith being the leader of that future government.

Dear Leon

Please find a reply from Owen below;
Thank you for taking the time to get in touch and for sharing your work on the important issue of libraries.
 
Public libraries offer each and every one of us a portal to the cumulative wisdom of the ages and the vast expanse of the human imagination. They do so for free and on the simple principle that, by sharing resources and building common institutions, we can all learn more and take greater pleasure than is possible when we act alone. There is nothing more democratic, nothing more socialist and nothing more Labour than a public library.
 
The vandalism inflicted upon our libraries by this rotten Tory Government is a national scandal. 343 libraries have closed, but that is only the thin end of the wedge. Opening hours and book funds have been slashed across the country.  8,000 jobs have disappeared and our libraries now rely upon volunteers, who do great work and deserve better than being used as a fig leaf for unsustainable cuts.  The sad truth is that the libraries that remain are offering a diminished service.
 
Labour Councils have been put in an impossible position by a Tory Government tying both hands behind their backs.  The only way that services will be restored and libraries re-opened is if austerity is ended and local governments are properly funded.
 
Not just do we need to end austerity, we also need to learn from the past 6 years if we are to safeguard our libraries in the future. Despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership. I would work with councils to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead and meet local needs. 
Under my leadership we would rebuild a democratic, socialist and Labour public library system fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
 
Yours Sincerely
Owen Smith

 

 

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

Labouring the point

Well, after 53 days, 1 letter, 3 emails, and several or more tweets I finally received a reply from Maria Eagle, Shadow Culture Minister. The lesson being I suppose is that social media is not the preferred method of communication for MPs but rather good old fashioned letter writing.

I won’t say that the letter was disappointing because my expectations of Labour are pretty low nowadays. The letter is full of the well worn platitudes and unimaginative thinking that has characterised Labour’s stance on libraries for a number of years (see my previous post) and hardly differs from the current administration’s view.

This was illustrated by two incidents recently. The first is Barclays apparent bid to supplant libraries as the digital trainer of choice through the Eagle Labs programme. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, commended Barclays for having such an initiative and stated “If we don’t have everyone involved in a digital age, with the skills they need, we will lose out as a region, so the Digital Eagles programme is fantastic.” followed by the wonderfully ironic “Some people might argue Barclays has a self-interest…”

Actually, there’s no ‘might’ about it. Barclays definitely has a self-interest and it’s naive to think otherwise. A factor the SCL and Libraries Taskforce might want to consider before committing the sector to more partnership working with  financial organisations mired in scandal and allegations of ‘systematic fraud’.

She concluded “…the important part I would say is we need to invest in libraries and other public spaces, but given the cuts I do think it’s great that they are taking the time and investment to support getting people online.”

So here’s one Labour MP who’s happy to support the commercial sector taking over aspects of library work.

Sending a more traditional Labour message John McDonnel pledged support for striking Library staff in Barnet in the continuing dispute over the council’s plans to outsource library services across the borough. In a rousing statement Mr McDonnell said:

“I want to pay tribute and send solidarity greetings to Barnet Unison library workers. They have been fighting an inspirational workplace and community campaign and I would like to thank them for their sterling efforts to expose and prevent the proposed widespread decimation of their library service…Barnet Unison has been a fine example of how trade unions and their community can work together in fighting austerity policies which are destroying local public services up and down the country, they have my 100 per cent support.”

All well and good until you consider the same sort of decimation taking place in Lambeth, which Labour MPs, and the new London Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, have been notoriously silent about. If John McDonnel really wanted to offer his ‘100% support’ to library campaigns he would encourage the Labour Party to adopt a substantially different policy and approach to the one it has now.

Which brings us back to the reply from the Shadow Culture Minister, which can be summed as:

  • Labour councils are hit harder than tory ones
  • The tory government is to blame
  • Labour councils are delivering innovative models of library provision and offering positive solutions
  • She will continue to listen to campaign groups and local authorities to try to develop a set of policies for libraries for the next election

And that was it! It would be interesting to know which campaign groups she has been talking to and the advice given. If you are one of those groups please do get in touch. Also, why it is going to take four years to ‘try’ and develop a policy for libraries? A working group of interested parties could easily formulate a policy in a fraction of that time as can be seen by the Ambition consultation, especially as Unison has done so much work on libraries, which could readily feed into a policy document.

It would also appear that unlike her shadow cabinet colleague, Maria Eagle would consider the solution on offer in Barnet as being both innovative and positive. It’s certainly no worse than the ones delivered in Sheffield or suggested for Lambeth and, in the main, Tory councils are under as much financial pressure as Labour one’s.

So, to labour the point, there really does appear to be no difference between the two main parties regarding libraries. Any campaigner who thinks that Labour will ride to the rescue of libraries is likely to be disappointed, as it is patently clear they are bereft of both ideas and inclination.

 

Every Little Helps..!

publiclibrary.jpg2There has been disquiet for a long time in the library field over commercial sponsorship such as Tesco with the Summer Reading Challenge in Scotland or Barclays Bank sponsoring wifi in public libraries in England. However, this brave new world of commercialisation and entrepreneurial one-upmanship chimes perfectly with the government’s neo-liberal economics, plans for a smaller state, and self-funding – or at the very least income generating – public services.

This is an approached accepted by both the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. For some it is seen as a pragmatic solution to fund projects and services that might otherwise not happen and there is no denying there is validity to this argument.

But equally commercial sponsorship is fraught with difficulties and ethical dilemmas for libraries and it’s wrong to consider those who raise such concerns as naive or un-realistic. The fundamental nature of public library provision and who funds it is at issue.

This is because much is made of libraries as safe, trusted, and neutral places. But in this context what does ‘neutral’ actually mean? Does it mean neutrality in terms of the endorsement of a product ? Do users ‘trust’ us not to promote the interest of one commercial company over another or indeed promote them at all?

An interesting and informative blog by Ian Clark, Barclays and the library marketing opportunity, highlights the difficulty regarding the use of Barclays Digital Eagles within libraries:

“BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services).”

The post ends on a very telling point about the future of library services if we hand over the responsibility for digital literacy:

“The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.”

So, by encouraging and accepting commercial sponsorship and external help does the profession relinquish the right to claim libraries as safe and trusted spaces? Even more so, are we inadvertently allowing our users to be targeted for specific commercial interests? In which case, the claim for trustworthiness rings hollow.

Advocates for sponsorship would argue that this is a small price to pay for the continuation or development of library services.

However, the potential for reputational damage to such a trusted brand is high. Certainly, if we are to learn from the commercial sector then this is a valuable lesson to consider. After all, companies are quick to react over scandals that might impact on brand reputation, cases in point being the withdrawal of sponsorship over scandals affecting Fifa and the IAAF.

Barclays is a bank that has been beset by financial scandal resulting in a staggering £20 billion in fines and taxes imposed in recent years (imagine how little of that money could fund a well resourced and genuinely national library service). This includes Barclays being handed the biggest bank fine in UK history over manipulating the foreign exchange markets.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and HSBC have all faced fines for similar misdemeanours. In fact Britain’s biggest four banks have racked up almost £50billion in charges to cover fines and lawsuits since the financial crisis, with HSBC admitting to money laundering and then last year paying a huge fine over allegations its Swiss private bank helped rich clients avoid taxes.

And it’s not just banks. Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK, third largest in the world, and through its banking arm sponsors the Tesco Bank Summer Reading Challenge Scotland.

All fairly innocuous and philanthropic it might be assumed. However, Tesco itself is not free from scandal. It has been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and faces a £500 million fine for accounting irregularities. This is in relation to a shortfall in the retailers 2014 accounts and rigging its financial results to cover falling sales.

In addition, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, stated that Tesco “knowingly delayed paying money to suppliers in order to improve its own financial position”, and said the supermarket had seriously breached the industry’s code of conduct. She found extensive evidence that Tesco had acted unreasonably when delaying payments to suppliers.

Recently Tesco was also accused of inventing fictional farm brands that misled customers into thinking they were buying British produce, when in fact the produce was often sourced abroad.

So the question becomes, does the profession’s alliance with scandal riven banks and retailers undermine the very trust and neutrality we so often boast of?

But then again perhaps such ethical considerations are secondary to attracting funding, not just to conform with government expectations, but in order to ensure libraries continue to operate and offer much needed services. Perhaps, even, the public don’t actually care who funds wifi or literacy in libraries.

After all, every little helps..!