Tag Archives: Government

Winning Hearts and Minds

It’s a new year but the same old battle continues. The battle that started five years ago and the coalition government’s introduction of the austerity agenda. Less public services and less libraries. However, the initial rush to closure quickly ran into trouble and the government was genuinely surprised at the strength of opposition, particularly those politicians who couldn’t see out of their rose tinted digital glasses: everything was available online and digital was the future. Whereas libraries were an anachronism, old fashioned, had had their day? Except they hadn’t and plenty of people were on hand to point that out. With placards, demonstrations and judicial reviews if necessary.

The Government and councils were quick to get the message and unfortunately closures quickly morphed into two more insidious strands that hid the true picture from the wider public: hollowing out and volunteer led. Both approaches causing just as much damage to the national public library sector but far more difficult to challenge and fight. Libraries, more than any other service, became the poster child for the Big Society.

In the early days many within the profession saw a opportunity to modernise the service, make it more flexible, more entrepreneurial, with more public engagement. After all weren’t we here to serve our communities? So greater involvement could only be a good thing. Public services, including libraries, had become too directive: doing onto communities rather than working with them. Thus, the inclination to change and involve communities was genuine.

Unfortunately, very few could imagine the scale of change to come, could envisage that by 2020 the core grant from government would no longer exist. This is all part of the governments push to greater regional devolution, with alleged spending powers to match. Some bodies, such as CIPFA and LGA, have welcomed greater financial autonomy for regions seeing it as a way of decentralising control from Westminster. This is to be a brave new world of local self-determination.

Despite the claim that retention of local taxes and business rates will support local services, in practice there are still huge gaps in funding. This has led to many councils becoming commissioning bodies, rather than directly delivering services, in order to survive financially. Nevertheless, this is raising some serious questions regarding the lack of legal protection contracting out gives to service users. It also means that universal and some statutory services, such as libraries, losing out badly.

The professional bodies were slow to act to the rate of change. Both Cilip and the SCL have to accept responsibility for wanting to continue with a more conciliatory and collaborative approach in the hope of retaining influence despite the very obvious negative impact on the profession.

The abolition of the MLA with oversight being transferred to ACE made matters worse, with libraries being shoehorned into an arts-centric model they were ill-equipped to deliver. Equally, ACE were determined to deliver a prototype of libraries that fitted the government agenda, frequently commissioning Locality to inflate the voluntary sector’s ability to run them.

Both Cilip and SCL continued to drive forward valuable initiatives such as the Universal Offers, growing the Summer Reading Challenge, copyright, digital, and e-lending. These are all important areas that require professional input and partnership working but by ignoring the political consequences of austerity and the impact on the profession such  initiatives were merely papering over the schisms and strains appearing in the sector. Between 2009 – 2014 Cilip lost over 4,000 members through job losses and those leaving the body out of sheer frustration with perceived political inactivity.

Something had to give and fortunately with both the appointment of a new CEO and pressure from members Cilip has now taken a more oppositional stance to the government agenda. This has included taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State responsibilities to libraries and the launch of the My Library By Right Campaign. I shall return to the campaign in a future post but encourage every library campaigner, user, paid staff, and Cilip member to get behind the campaign regardless of the slight misgivings some have raised (and for goodness sake sign the bloody petition!).

The SCL continue with a more conservative and conciliatory stance, preferring to work in tandem with the LGA and the  Libraries Task Force. This has led to accusations of merely helping to bring about government policy rather than standing up for the best interests of the sector.

The difficulty when discussing the SCL is the sheer opaqueness of how it operates and the lack of any clear decision making mechanisms such as how it seeks feedback and consensus from members over controversial decisions. In fact do members get to actually vote on issues at all? While it appears to derive authority from high level partnership working with the LGA, the Reading Agency, etc. it also appears to lack any democratic processes, and thus lack a mandate, to genuinely claim to speak on behalf of the wider profession.

Campaigners have led the fight against library closures. However, campaigns have been piecemeal and lacking genuine national focus. So the biggest challenge for campaigners is to articulate an alternative narrative but accepting that, while major differences exist, it needs to include an element of compromise with vested groups such as the LGA and taskforce.

If the sector has failed to produce the national strategic leadership required then campaigning groups have also failed to fill the void sufficiently.  This is not a criticism but a recognition that opposition in itself is not enough.

What is needed is one body, or campaign group, speaking with one voice, with a vision for libraries and a realistic roadmap of how to achieve it. The individual elements already exist but bringing it together into a unified narrative to challenge the government’s account is for me the single most important issue for 2016.

I started the post by referring to the fight for libraries as a battle but rather than rely on a coercive approach, through funding and ideology, as the government is doing we must instead concentrate on winning hearts and minds across the political spectrum as well as amongst the general public. To do this we need a very clear, positive, and realistic vision for libraries.

 

 

 

Shape of things to come

I’ve been rather preoccupied recently with proposed changes in my own local authority, about which, obviously, I cannot comment. But needless to say has kept me busy, with little time or energy to write a new post.

I did have every intention of following the last post with a rather downbeat synopsis of what public libraries can expect to face over the next four years in relation to government policy and funding, or lack thereof. Much of which might  still happen. However, the one glimmer of hope recently is that Cilip, at long last, has decided to take the government to task and insist they fulfil their legal duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, as well as provide statutory guidance for local authorities.

The My Library By Right campaign has been launched on legal advice received by Cilip that the Secretary of State, John Whittingdale, is failing in his legal duty  to provide clear statutory guidance on the definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service.

For many campaigners this more muscular opposition is entirely welcome. For others it smacks of ‘too little, too late.’ Personally, I think it’s a campaign that has the potential to unite together campaigners, library staff, Cilip and others concerned about the parlous state of library provision. It provides a very clear campaign focus and is a marked change in direction from the last Cilip administration. For this Nick Poole, Cilip Board and Cilip staff should be congratulated.

The campaign would also benefit from a statement of support from the SCL, who as individual Heads of Service, suffer under the same cuts as all library staff do. However, given SCL’s rather conservative stance over such matters, this might not be forthcoming. Perhaps SCL needs to consider that what the LGA wants is not actually in the best interest of the sector or their members.

One positive step that all library staff can take is to sign the online petition and encourage family and friends to do the same. I cannot urge colleagues enough to do this one little thing in defence of a profession we all care so much about.

However, before I get too congratulatory, it’s still early days and realistically it is likely to be a long, hard battle as the campaign proposes an approach that is directly at odds with the government’s vision for libraries, and runs counter to localism and devolution agendas.

In tandem with this news Ian Anstice has highlighted a number of trends influencing public library provision. Out of the 10 trends (and an eleventh in a subsequent post), the two that I think will have the most impact are the reduction in funding to local authorities and conversely the additional funding for the continuation of the Libraries Taskforce over the next four years.

The Government aims to totally remove the central grant, which has always been the mainstay of local government funding, by 2020. Instead the shortfall will have to be made up by new funding streams such as business rates. Unfortunately, this will not plug the very real financial gap. Many councils will still face significant shortages and struggle to deliver anything other than adult social care and children’s services. Also, the expectation is that extra revenue raised from the business rates will be used for infrastructure projects rather than maintaining services.

Thus, the trend towards commissioning services out and expecting a greater entrepreneurial approach – even from services ill-suited to such – to generate income will continue. For libraries this means more of the same: closures, volunteers, community groups, hollowing out, and trusts. Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is transferring responsibility for local services to parish and town councils, funded through the parish precept.

The next area is the scope and work of the Taskforce. Its impact has been rather limited until now with the emphasis on facilitating the government’s and LGA perspective of libraries. So far it has failed to display any genuine leadership of the sector or reach a consensus with those who view it as little more than a vehicle for delivering government policy. But that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s funded by the government and therefore the old adage of not biting the hand that feeds you holds true.

The likelihood is that the Taskforce will continue to support changes that make libraries more financially independent of council funding, delivered through a variety of models and governance such as community groups and parishes. Aligned with this will be the drive to generate higher levels of income and attract funding and grants from the private and charity sectors. The creation of trusts, mutuals and perhaps even library authority mergers will almost certainly play a part also.

This all complements the current political view and move to greater localism and regional devolution. Whether the Taskforce will wish to deviate from this approach, or more importantly whether it will be allowed to, and move closer to a position advocated by campaigners and Cilip remains to be seen.

That said, if a week in politics is a long time, then four years is a lifetime and we could all yet be surprised.

It only remains for me to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I’ll see you once more on the ramparts in 2016!

 

 

 

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

Keep library staff to keep changing lives

For anyone who has missed it there is an excellent interview with Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, talking about library priorities particularly in relation to the Government Spending Review in November.

You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said but there are some very important points for library staff and campaigners alike to reflect on. Amongst the many comments the following from Nick Poole really stood out for me:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

I doubt there is anyone within the sector that would disagree with these sentiments and all credit to Nick for making such assertions so publicly. This acknowledgement of the importance of paid staff is further evidenced by Cilip Board members support for the resolution on the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries proposed by Andy Richardson. The reason for the proposal is explained by Andy here.

The importance of skilled and qualified staff delivering a meaningful service to communities is highlighted through the Libraries Change Lives Award. Every year this provides a showcase for wonderfully innovative projects that have a real social impact within communities. It’s worth reading through the list of past winners and this year’s shortlisted finalists to get a flavour of how important libraries are and can be to their communities.

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The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives.

And let’s not forget that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that happen everyday within libraries. The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives. Without them none of this innovation would be possible.

Unfortunately, the steady encroachment of volunteer run libraries threatens to undermine all of this. As Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Board states:

“Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”

Even innovation that is now taken for granted and considered standard service e.g. reading groups and film nights were first and foremost instigated by library staff or developed in partnership with individuals and organisations. Other initiatives developed with bodies like the Reading Agency have become mainstays of library provision such as the Summer Reading Challenge or Reading Ahead (previously the Six Book Challenge).

Staff continue to provide innovation from the library based Fab Lab in Exeter to the Get it loud in libraries project. Despite the challenging financial reductions and the fragmentation of services innovation is in the blood of librarians.

However, for this to continue skilled and qualified staff need to play a central part in all libraries; not just as managers and supervisors of volunteer run libraries, the overseers of the charity shop or hub and spoke model run by unpaid amateurs but as innovators embedded in their communities delivering core services.

For an overwhelming argument in support of paid staff look no further than the Libraries Change Lives Awards. Good luck to all those shortlisted.

We’ve got five years..!

save our library

It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were  disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:

  • Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
  • Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
  • The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
  • Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
  • Continuing reduction of mobile services

This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.

Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.

For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.

Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.

What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.

After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.

But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.

Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have five more years of Tory government, the upside is we have five years to fight for real and lasting change.

What sort of library service will remain in five years is of real concern but sadly only time will tell.