Tag Archives: democracy

KPMG – The driving force behind library closures? – Ian Clark

VftL team member Ian writes about KPMG and public policy. This originally appeared on Ian’s blog.

Last June, a report by the accountancy firm KPMG was published on public sector reform. That report caused uproar amongst librarians and library staff across the country as it claimed that:

“…giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock”.

Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, talk has grown of so-called ‘community libraries’ or ‘unfunded libraries’ if you prefer. It is fairly clear that the report has been wholeheartedly embraced by the current government. In fact, it is hard to see the difference between the policies being adopted in authorities across the country and the paragraph above from their report. It is certainly not difficult to imagine that central government is advising local authorities to take heed of this report and implement its recommendations. Particularly given the links between this government and KPMG.

A report back in July 2009 in The Independent claimed that:

KPMG, which also holds many public sector contracts, gave the [Conservatives] donations-in-kind worth more than £100,000 since the start of last year. A single KPMG consultant working in the Department for Children, Schools and Families costs the taxpayer £1.35m over three years, a parliamentary inquiry found. The company said it donated to all three main parties and had done so for many years. However, its gifts to the Tories were up in value from £17,200 in 2007 to £74,500 last year.

Furthermore, The Times reported that:

The Conservatives have received hundreds of thousands of pounds of free accounting advice as they prepare for government, raising accusations that they are too close to contacts in the City of London.

Britain’s biggest consultancy firms — which include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG — have seconded some of their staff to Tory MPs as the Conservatives attempt to work out how to cut Britain’s £178 billion budget deficit and decide on a new tax framework.

They certainly appear to be quite close (although it is worth pointing out that KPMG had close ties with the previous government too). Indeed a recent meeting at the Houses of Parliament suggest that KPMG’s recommendations are being taken very seriously by this government.

On January 25th this year, a round-table discussion was held in a private room hosted by Ed Vaizey. The discussion (entitled “Libraries and the Big Society”) had the following items on the agenda:

Models for community libraries
Volunteering
Asset transfer
Philanthropy
Libraries role in empowering communities
Alternative suppliers for delivery including Mutuals and Outsourcing
Future Libraries Programme

You can actually read the full agenda here. I recently submitted a Freedom of Information request for the minutes for this meeting which was rejected by the DCMS. They weighed up the pros and cons as follows:

Public interest considerations in favour of disclosure

  • Public Libraries have potential impact on everyone and the greater the public interest may be in the decision-making process being transparent
  • Greater transparency makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust
  • As knowledge of the way government works increases, the public contribution to the policy making process could become more effective and broadly-based, particularly in this area where communities are being encourage to be involved in local services such as this
  • The public interest in being able to assess the quality of advice being given to ministers and subsequent decision making

Public interest considerations in favour of non-disclosure

  • The withheld information relates to the future guidance relating to libraries, which is not yet complete and subject to change. Releasing may misinform public debate because we have not finalized our proposals. The evolving nature of the information means that incorrect conclusions may be drawn, and undermine the policy formulation process.
  • Ministers and officials need to be able to conduct rigorous and candid risk assessments of their policies, including considerations of the pros and cons without there being premature disclosure, particularly regarding contentious issues, which might close off better options
  • Good government depends on good decision making and this needs to be based on the best advice available and a full consideration of all the options without fear of premature disclosure
  • The impartiality of the civil service might be undermined if advice was routinely made public as there is a risk that officials could come under political pressure not to challenge ideas in the formulation of policy, thus leading to poorer decision-making
  • Advice should be broad based and there may be a deterrent effect on external experts or stakeholders who might be reluctant to provide advice because it might be disclosed
  • There needs to be a free space in which it is possible to ‘think the unthinkable’ and use imagination, without the fear that policy proposals will be held up to ridicule
  • Disclosure of interdepartmental consideration and communications between ministers may undermine the collective responsibility of the government. Unless these considerations are protected there is likely to be a negative effect on the conduct of good government. If the public interests outlined above cannot be protected, there is a risk that decision making will become poorer and will be recorded inadequately.

Quite why public interest doesn’t trump the concerns of the DCMS in this case I am not really sure. I shall, of course, be appealing this decision.

It seems fairly evident where this policy of unfunded libraries originates. Whilst the government refuse to step in when local authorities engage in disproportionate cuts (unless it is in the Prime Minister’s backyard of course), it is also seemingly advising councils to make libraries a central part of the “Big Society” experiment. This certainly seems to be reinforced by the appointment of Paul Kirby as No. 10’s new head of policy development. According to The Guardian:

Kirby, who was appointed by Cameron on Friday, is one of the main minds behind a public service reform white paper due in the next fortnight, which the prime minister has hailed as the biggest revolution in the public sector since the 1940s.

He claims it will end a “state monopoly” of public sector services by opening contracts to outside providers.

Kirby set out his blueprint for reform in Payment for success, a paper written last year while he was at professional services company KPMG. He claims an aggressive programme of liberalisation is necessary and shares Cameron’s view that payment by results should be introduced right across the public sector “even if there is likely to be a bleeding edge in getting it right”.

Kirby proposes “the boundaries between public, private and third sector provision should melt away” and suggests “this empowerment agenda will have to be forced on to public sector organisations in the early stages to break the tendency to structural inertia”.

With one of the masterminds behind the ill-thought through KPMG report now directing policy development, it seems obvious that not only will the government not step in to halt authorities disproportionately cutting libraries, they will most likely be encouraging it and, even more worryingly, quite possibly seeking to overturn the Public Libraries Act. They should know that librarians, library staff and library users will not allow this to happen without a fight.

‘Unassuming treasure troves..’ Guest blog from Rachel Rose Reid

 

Thanks to storyteller Rachel Rose Reid for permission to publish this post, which originally appeared in her newsletter.
Rachel Rose Reid
This week is National Storytelling Week.Across the country people are celebrating by listening to tales of all kinds, and letting them live and breathe by retelling them.So, here’s a little story I would like to re-tell to you this week, and I hope you will pass it on too, though sadly it doesn’t start with ‘Once upon a time in a far away land’!:

Once upon a time in…well…in this land here…certain kinds of storytellers were threatened with execution, such was the power of their words.  In translating the Bible into English they made it possible for all people to hear and re-interpret stories such as the one where God creates one man and one woman, instead of, say,  a feudal system of lifelong servitude.  That’s the sort of story that struck fear into the hearts of lords and land-owners.

Once upon a time in…well…in the 1840s, three men from radically different backgrounds – an Oxford graduate MP, a textile-manufacturing church-leader, and a self-educated brick-layer – joined forces to campaign for a system of free public libraries.  They understood the importance of enabling all people equal access to the knowledge and stories of the world, regardless of background or financial means.  They were faced with vehement descent, especially from the Conservative Party.  One opponent said “people have too much knowledge already… the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” This statement makes all the more clear why we must retain every single one of our libraries.

In 1850, the an act was at last passed to pave the way for our current incredible network of libraries, many of which are now in grave danger of eradication.

Once upon a time…well..just this week actually, poet Ian MacMillan was banned by Sheffield City Council from participating in a children’s workshop in Upperthorpe Library for fear he might make “political comments” about impending library closures. In my borough they are planning to close 6 of the existing 12. How many in yours?  Even if you do not use your local library much, please consider the importance of these unassuming treasure troves on our High Streets.

Cuts may indeed need to be made, but if it’s thought that our economy may ever improve, then disposing of entire libraries is just foolish and wasteful.

The most important story is this one we are living in, and once more, those in power are threatening to cut off a resource that allows even the poorest of us to better know and participate in the living, breathing, continuous epic that is human society.

This is the story I am telling, which I ask you to re-tell.  This is a story in which we are all playing a part.  Active or passive. It’s that simple. It is up to us which role we choose in it, and up to us whether the tale told is one of tragedy or triumph.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

Libraries: The Foundation for a Democratic Society

Today’s blog post comes from VftL team member Ian Clark, who also blogs here.

I have long believed that librarians are vital to a fully functioning democracy. In fact, in the so-called ‘information age’ they are perhaps more important than ever. We live in an age where there is such a wealth of information it is very difficult for the average person to navigate around it. After all do we really all have the time to sift through the mass of information out there to keep up to speed with current affairs and world events? Not only does this information need to be ‘sifted’, it also needs to be evaluated and analysed to determine its accuracy.  How can anyone be expected to spare the time to analyse and evaluate the plethora of information that is out there?

This is why librarians are so important. Acting as a conduit between the library user and the wealth of information out there is a big responsibility. Libraries and librarians have an important role in ensuring that all sections of society are brought into the democratic process. Indeed, in 1990, the American Library Association adopted a policy entitled ‘Library Services for the Poor’ which stated:

…it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.

Former US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, also underlined the importance of public libraries in a democratic society, describing them as

the great symbols of the freedom of the mind….essential to the functioning of a democratic society.

Libraries ensure that everyone can gain access to information and thus partake fully in the democratic process. The role of a librarian is, therefore, absolutely crucial in a democracy. Without this access, constituents can become ignorant of the actions of their representatives and are consequently unable to partake in the democratic process. This is particularly a concern for the poorest in society who cannot afford books, let alone internet connections. Whilst the affluent are engaged with the democratic process, the poor are left isolated and disenfranchised.

And it is not just though lack of ownership of materials that leave the disadvantaged isolated from the democratic system.  Only last year, The Guardian revealed that:

…..75% of the working-age adult population had numeracy skills below the level of a good pass at GCSE and 56% had similar literacy skills. At that time, the OECD ranked the UK 14th in international literacy and numeracy league tables.

Such levels of illiteracy underline the importance of the need of professionals to act as the aforementioned conduit to information.  How can we realistically expect this section of society to be able to navigate the internet, even if they could afford a computer and an internet connection?  Closure of libraries and undermining of professionals will only isolate them further, cutting them adrift from democracy and the political process. And who knows where this may lead?

A while back I came across a journal article by John Abdul Kargbo [sub required], a librarian at the University of Sierra Leone. Coming from the perspective of a nation that, at the time of writing (1999), had only recently restored a democratic system and was at the centre of a bitter conflict, it was interesting to see how much importance was placed on the library service. Kargbo writes passionately about how simply installing a civilian government is not enough to create a democracy. As he states:

For democracy to succeed it is crucial that the institutions to support and invigorate the democratic process or ideals must exist.

These institutions, he reasons, include public libraries:

Libraries are powerful instruments of social and political change; they can help in the demands of democracy and the spread of literacy.

Given the current levels of literacy in the UK, the last point seems particularly pertinent.

Kargbo goes on to reflect on just how important equality of access to information is in the democratic decision making process and the importance of librarians in that process. It is very easy for people in the West to forget just what an important role libraries play in society. Politicians (and elements of the media) have become obsessed with targets and tangible outcomes. The number of books that are issued by a public library, or the number of visits to the physical building, have become the yardstick by which many measure the success or failure of the service. However, the contribution a library makes to local society goes way beyond how many books are issued over the course of the year. There are certain intangible elements that need to be considered that cannot just be assessed in terms of supposedly solid statistics.

Furthermore, not only do they provide an important function in democracies, they are also essential in times of economic hardship. During a recession, libraries can support the unemployed in gaining new skills and finding employment.  And with literacy rates as low as The Guardian’s report suggests, a great many people will struggle to adapt to the changing economic circumstances.  The library service is the best opportunity they have to escape the turmoil that appears to be around the corner.  We devastate these at our peril.

Public libraries do play an important role in our society. They help to bring people into the democratic process and keep them informed as citizens about the actions of their representatives. They also play a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable during a recession and provide them with the tools they need to develop their skills and gain employment. In times of affluence these facts are easily forgotten. In times of recession we are reminded of their value to the community. Public libraries have not lost their relevance, maybe some of us have just forgotten what made them relevant in the first place.