Now one of the ways that local government likes to congratulate themselves is through the giving and receiving of awards. Indeed, one such award has just been given to Surrey County Council who are now proudly declaring themselves as “Council of the Year” just in time for the county elections.
Although I am an opposition councillor, it has always been my belief to praise when it is due regardless of politics. Indeed, I have regularly and publicly praised the work of Surrey Heath Borough Council in terms of their recycling rates which are the highest in the country. It is quite right that officers and politicians of any party are appropriately recognised when they do things well like recycling and this should include awards.
However, the key is to recognise when praise is rightly due and not to confuse this with exaggeration, spin and a myriad of “awards” in the name of local government. I have been in local government a long time in various guises and there is a thriving business in awards and general backslapping. For example, here is a list of awarding bodies just for local government:-
Local Government Chronicle Awards; MJ Local Government Achievement Awards; Government Business Awards; Local Innovation Awards Scheme; National Awards for Local Government; LGN Awards; APSEs; Guardian Public Service Award; Local Government IT Excellence Awards…etc..etc
In addition to all of these, there are also a very large number of sector specific awards and a variety of other external assessments. If you take all of them, I would be surprised if there is a Council in the country that has not got an award in at least one area. Surrey Heath alone has got the following on their website:-
Now I have a confession to make…I have been involved in local government award ceremonies myself both as an assessor and as a proud recipient. Senior officers and councillors love them because it means they can proudly boast about some external recognition and staff like them too as it is good for a CV!
But there is another side to these awards. If you are not careful, they take up quite a bit of officer time away from the public, the awards ceremonies themselves can be very expensive to attend (often at plush hotels) using the public purse and most importantly, the quality and quantity of applications in some of these awards can be varied. The Taxpayers Alliance and some others have begun to cotton on to this and are rightly submitting Freedom of Information requests asking about the wider public cost and value.
So let’s have a look at the recent “Council of the Year” award given to Surrey County Council. This was courtesy of the “Improvement and Efficiency Awards”, given annually by a social enterprise and was in recognition of their work doing Public Value Reviews. More details are contained here:-
Now SCC can rightly claim that they have made large efficiencies which deserves some credit although this has not been without controversy (such as libraries – I wonder if this was mentioned in the nomination?). However, whether Mr Eric Pickles agrees with this award for efficiency as the Secretary of State seems somewhat extremely doubtful bearing in mind that Surrey was one of those authorities that put up Council Tax this year by 1.99% much to his public anger.
Now in this case, it turns out that Surrey did not actually enter this award at all but instead made a submission in another category. As an ex-assessor, this tells me that the standard of original entry for “Council of the Year” was likely to be somewhat lacking either in numbers or quality. It would be interesting to know how many other entries there were and if anyone knows the answer, I will happily blog this.
Secondly, many of these awards rely on self-nomination from the Councils themselves with little of the way of external back-up. This is not necessarily a problem but does mean that some Councils end up being better than others at writing award nominations or dedicate people to doing it.
So are Surrey really the “Council of the Year?” If you think yes then you need to accept that there are a large number of councils who can equally make the same claim to their local residents….