The Something for Nothing culture

Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.

There was an interesting piece tucked away in the Herald yesterday.  It involved an exceedingly rare political occurrence:  two local politicians of differing hues occupying a joint platform to promote an issue of mutual concern.

The local Labour and SNP leaders in North Ayrshire have done something so extraordinary, it warranted coverage in a national broadsheet.  *MINISTERS have been warned they run the risk of much-needed cash-saving plans across local government being strangled at birth unless they take the lead and fund the moves*: where’s a sub editor when you need one?

Effectively, David O’Neill (Labour) and Matt Brown (SNP) got thegither to warn that any efforts to reform public services are doomed unless and until the Scottish Government makes councils do it or rewards them for doing so.

They have a point: turkeys, as we all know, do not tend to vote for Christmas.  Despite lots of wise men and the occasional wumman being commissioned to produce a route map for the future of public service delivery, very little has happened.  There has been a lot of hot air, far too many warm words and very few cool heads.  Everyone has decided the reports and laws produced to date make far more effective doorstops and bookends than manuals for action.

Thus, the Clyde Valley councils have blathered for several years about the possibility of sharing a range of services but decided not to.  There’s East and Midlothian councils sort of making progress on the idea of merging the management of children’s services.  And in Ayrshire, the three local authorities have been discussing moving to a joint waste disposal system for ten years. Inevitably, a cottage industry has been invented to keep us all in conferences, frameworks and initiatives, thinking the thoughts and nodding sagely.

But very little to show for it.  The current Local Government Minister, Derek Mackay has warned that reform will accelerate after the local government elections in May.  But the Cabinet Secretary was warning of the need to accelerate reform in 2009.

According to Messrs Brown and O’Neill, there is neither incentive nor consequence compelling folk in local government to embrace the reform agenda.  Make us do it, is their message to the Scottish Government, or reward us for doing so.

Matt Brown prefers the latter approach: “But there needs to be incentives. Shared services cost money and the Government should be frontloading some of that. But what do we offer citizens when there’s no money, and there is no money and won’t be any money. Post-election there needs to be a strong view that things need to happen. But there also needs to be rewards”.

It reminded me of the ongoing stushie over bankers and boardrooms’ bonuses and suggests that the culture at the top of the pile in the public sector is not so far removed from that in the private.

Since when did it become commonplace for those in the upper echelons of the public and private sectors to be paid simply to turn up, rather than fulfil the requirements in their job descriptions? According to the defenders of this something for nothing culture, to get people to do the job they were paid to do requires additional financial incentive.  Eh?

It is nice to be rewarded when you do something well, when something you have invested time and effort in making happen, does.  But most employees are content to know that they earned their dosh. A thank you and some praise from the boss can also go a long way.  Or at least so I thought.

Now, in a bizarre turn on the Oliver Twist conceit, we have those with the most in terms of pay packages demanding more.  Just to get on and do what they are supposed to do.  Yes, change is hard and the public is going to need reassurance but most local voters will gladly pinpoint where change needs to happen.  Senior officials and political leaders might be struggling to see what needs to be done: the public is under no such illusions.

One of the problems identified has been a lack of courage.  To some extent, these boys are right. There are lots of very competent councillors, who are very good at doing the ward stuff, of advocating for individuals, businesses and organisations in their patches.  There are far fewer capable of or indeed, interested in the strategic policy stuff.  It’s part of the problem and one of the blockages: not enough bravehearts willing to drive forward change.  Of course, this is where the likes of Mr O’Neill and Mr Brown come in – or is the idea of leaders leading too obvious?

The sand in the timer is fast running out, yet public sector officials and political leaders are trying to find sufficient grains in which to bury their heads.  The attitude is you either make us do this or reward us for doing so.  Give us something or else get nothing is the threat.  How did we find ourselves mired in such a culture?

Ministers should get them telt: *This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in*.  Not for the first time, Charles Dickens captures it perfectly.

10 thoughts on “The Something for Nothing culture

  1. I’ve never written these words before, but let’s be fair to local councillors. I agree with all you say and as ever you say it very eloquently, but I think there’s a misinterpretation here. I don’t think O’Neill and Brown were asking for councillors to be given bonuses or another personal reward for reshaping services. I think they meant that the councils should be “rewarded”, in the sense of given an incentive to do it: for example, they could keep a percentage of savings and carry it over to the next financial year, rather than having to return it to the Scottish Government. I do think it’s fair to ask why they can’t just do what’s right without being incentivised, but I don’t think it’s just to put them in the same (hopefully leaky) boat as ludicrously greedy investment bankers, squawking for their bonuses while their colleagues are being laid off.

    • I never read what they said as suggesting councillors get the bonuses but rather that councils do or top officials do. And agree re the right to roll over budget but they have had an equivalent right in relation to efficiency savings. Directors in councils earn £80k a year plus; CEOs much higher. There are a lot of people earning lots of money in councils who seem incapable of doing what they are asked to do and paid to do. Which is reform. The idea that folk paid £80k a year have to be told what to do and when to do it is ludicrous. As is the suggestion that they should be rewarded for doing what they are asked beyond their remuneration. Twas officials really rather than councillors. Councillors fail to lead on the change agenda for the reasons (and more) I set out.

  2. There are also quite a few incompetent councillors, and where I live we seem to have more than our share.

    Councillors are there to serve the public, not themselves. Perhaps they should look at who may benefit more from the changes.

  3. I’ve a solution for them – it involves removing their forks from the pork barrel and Government sticking them in their arses until they’re done – then turn them over if you wish at the ballot box.

    The SNP put the word “govern” into Scottish Government – do it.

  4. Couldn’t agree more with yourself and doug Kate.
    Throughout all the profligate madness of the banking boom, was there a more insulting oxymoron than the phrase ‘guaranteed bonus’

  5. Absolutely Kate. As my dad says whenever bonuses are mentioned on the news, it used to be that your reward for doing your job was getting kept on. I’ve had bonuses at work before, and quite frankly I couldn’t see why, the expectation of getting a bonus for just doing your job seems totally alien to me.

    As much as I hate religion, it’s a shame we seem to have lost that protestant work ethic that used to define Scots. Entitlement is such an ugly trait.

    • I just don’t get it at all frankly. And I don’t want to, which is the point. You don’t hear folk at the bottom shouting for their bonuses, it is all at the top. Greed is definitely not good.

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