Geoff Ettridge on local authority cuts via the back door

Geoff Ettridge pinpoints practices used by councils to cut costs by hidden means, practices which can cross the border into dishonesty and run counter to principles of local democracy

As local authorities go through the final stages of setting their 2010-2011 budgets they are remarkably silent about how they plan to reduce expenditure.

Unless there are clear proposals as to what is to be cut or what services are to be reduced, there is a distinct possibility that savings will be delivered by a range of hidden measures. It is not unusual to see terms such as “unspecified savings of x” or “efficiency savings of x%” being used in the process of setting a budget. But what do these mean operationally, and for staff and service users? The main issue though is that without being specific there is reduced democratic oversight of the savings being made, how they are being made, and the impact they may be having.

The following illustrate some of the practices that have been used to control expenditure. It is reasonable to assume that they may be increasingly relied upon when the resources get tight.

1 Limiting information on services:

One only has to reflect on the success of campaigns, say related to benefit take-up or carers’ support, to realise that the usual methods of communicating the availability of services are not as effective as they could be. Cutting back on publicity material and campaigns will ensure that demand is not stimulated – but will also lead to some people not receiving their full entitlements.

2 Limiting access

A practice of only accepting someone for residential care when funding has been released by the death of other clients has been adopted by some councils. This policy is seldom, if ever, publically approved as it is probably illegal, but is effective in controlling or reducing expenditure.

3 Waiting lists

These can be used to buy time during a crisis and can help ensure that the response is made to the “need” rather than the “crisis”. However, many people waiting for a particular service are doing so following a period of gradual deterioration or because they are making the transition from one service to another. In these circumstances being placed on a waiting list is probably happening because of a lack of resources. If waiting lists are to be used their existence needs to be acknowledged and their impact needs to be publically monitored.

4 Bureacratic processes:

These may include frontline staff needing to seek management approval for their decision or being required to present clients to a service panel, or certain operational decisions being reserved for political approval. These systems sometimes override an expenditure decision but they always generate some saving as a consequence of delaying expenditure. However, misuse of the processes can undermine the public’s confidence in services and erode the morale of staff who may have to unfairly carry the criticism.

5 Excluding high-needs clients:

This usually happens for people with complex needs who could be the responsibility of more than one equally pressured public body. But it is not unknown for provider-services to cherry-pick clients by selecting those who are most likely to be compliant or by discharging those who prove to be to demanding.

This is appropriate when the service is no longer suitable but unacceptable if the rationale is linked to costs or the need to hit specific outcome targets.

For example, it is not unknown for councils to cap how much they will spend on supporting someone in the community before requiring them to move into residential care.

Managers need to have the freedom to do what may be necessary to manage expenditure. But when these practices are relied upon to deliver savings in order to set a budget, the process is at best non-democratic and at worst dishonest.

Geoff Ettridge is an independent adviser on care services

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