I THOUGHT the buck stopped at PricewaterhouseCoopers who were brought in to decide what cuts were to be made within Blackpool council, but according to an article in the Gasjet today, I was clearly wrong. But it’s not the end of the world, because a new Government simulation tool called YouChoose is to be deployed across council websites so that the public can submit their ideal budget distribution.
YouChoose is a free data-mining tool developed by YouGov, The Local Government Group and London Borough of Redbridge designed to profile the demands of residents in terms of services and identify ‘popular’ cuts.
It is an anonymous tool, with only a portion of your postcode, your sex, your ethnic origin, your age and whether you are disabled used to identify you. Okay, it’s about as anonymous as putting unshredded bank statements in your new ‘bin bag 4 life’, but hey, at least you don’t have to put your name.
The council pre-loads YouChoose with how much money it would require to maintain services at a current level, and also inputs the distribution of this money throughout services. YouChoose then balances this cost with the amount of money given to the council by the government, displays the deficit if they maintained this level of spending and works out what the council tax increase would be (as a percentage) in order to maintain current levels of service.
Inevitably, it starts out with a required council tax increase of around 25% but reminds us that the maximum it can go up is 5%. The council also set what they deem to be a reasonable level of council tax, and it is the user’s job to reduce service levels so that the council tax required drops to meet this reasonable level.
Users of the tool can also identify cuts in staff pay, identify where (from a list provided by the council) possible efficiency savings could be made and where income generation could be made. As you move the sliders around, the software starts popping up with some positive and negative consequences depending on which way you’ve gone. For example, if you cut police by a million quid, it says Bambi will die. Well, you aren’t going to do that are you?
It is almost the Holy Grail, what we have all been crying out for in order to tell the council what we really think. But not quite.
All of the questions and answers in this tool are predetermined by the council which is understandable but a bit disappointing. You cannot submit your own suggestions, you can only agree or disagree with suggestions put forward by the council.
You cannot, for example, put “sack Steve Weaver” as a means of generating savings of £157,000 per year plus whatever his pension contributions are. They want to be able to produce nice graphical reports (which this software will do) to see which areas are prioritised by the public, and if they allowed people to specify their own efficiencies or pay cuts then nothing would be comparable and you’d have a pie chart with a billion different slices that didn’t mean anything.
The levels of permissible cuts or increases are determined by the council. You wont be able to cut spending on services to zero, for example, and you wont be able to apply a 75% cut in management salary. I suppose this keeps things in the realms of the sensible but it isolates the analyst from the real response to this survey.
On the example site, the most you can cut management pay by is 5% and the consequence is the cliché that it will prevent recruitment of the best staff and ‘likely’ affect service performance. Bleh. I think we should be able to cut management salary by at least 20% because these kind of cuts are realistic and have happened in the private sector. I would also like the ability to delve deeper and cut pension contributions, car perks and other benefits in kind. This might seem vengeful and out of spite or jealousy, but nobody can deny that it all adds up and people on £100,000 or more can certainly afford to pay for their own car.
We all have ideas on how Blackpool council could generate an income for itself – indeed it’s now the proud owner of £40million of prime-location tourism business in the town centre and £13million of land around Rigby Road just waiting for a big hitter to develop it – but on the example YouChoose website the choices fail to inspire. We’ve got more traffic wardens in conjunction with a further cut in free on-street parking, higher car park charges, higher fines for parking, higher fines for putting the wrong type of waste in your wheelie bin, higher charges for council leisure facilities, higher charges for libraries, higher charges for youth clubs to rent public halls and so on.
The options for how the council can save money include outsourcing, procurement reviews, selling off council assets such as land and delivering more service online. My thought about this section was that if a council has identified these ways to save millions of pounds, why aren’t they doing all of them? I look forward to seeing what Blackpool council put on here.
In fact, I look forward to what it puts on this site in its entirety and I do so with a fairly open mind. The last section of the YouChoose tool is a comments box in which you can write whatever you want and make the day of the council desk jockey that paws through them all. I suspect many people will use this box to rant about various things, but if I were you I wouldn’t bother. If it does not conform, you will be assimilated.