Is transparency worth it?

Since coming into my post as Head of Education in 2005 and subsequently as Director of Education and Children’s Services I’ve tried to uphold my commitment to conduct our business in an open, honest and transparent manner.  And so it was in that spirit that I met a group of parents in early December 2009 who represented the East Lothian Parents’ Councils Association to update them on the budget consultation process and how it directly related to Education and Children’s Services. 

I shared with them all the information which I had given to teachers and other employees during a series of “roadshows” explaining the budget challenges we face for this and future years.  I gave details of the likelihood that all public services may have to make budget reductions in the region of 12-15% over the next three years.  I also explained that we wanted to take a proactive approach towards achieving these  savings – should they be required – rather than simply shaving off budgets to the point where services are unsustainable. To that end we had been working on a draft Remodelling Strategy which would take us through to 2013.  I also explained that given the scale of the task that we were considering bringing in some external support in the form of an accountancy and consultancy company to help us translate our draft strategy into a more robust approach – underpinned by a financial rigour which such a company could provide.  I was asked at the meeting with parents where such funding would come from and I explained that the Council had established in October 2009 a “Change Fund” of £1 million which Services could apply to support any initiative to reduce costs. Comprehensive minutes of the meeting were taken by a parent at that meeting and subsequently shared with all Parent Councils.

In the intervening weeks we have been negotiating with the said company and have come to a formal agreement to procure their services to support an internal team of managers to develop our Remodelling Strategy 2010-2013.  The formal terms of engagement were signed last week and we will be investing £60,000 from the “Change Fund” to support a strategy which may have to possibly generate savings in the region of £11-£14 million in the worst case scenario out of a budget which currently stands at £96 million.

So you can imagine my disappointment – but not surprise – when last week one of our local papers published a letter from a member of a public who  referred to the minute of my meeting with Parents and claimed that the Education Department were going to spend £1 million on bringing in an external consultancy.  The writer of the letter called for more transparency and questioned how such a level of investment could possibly be justified.  Obviously the writer hadn’t taken the time to read the minute of the meeting but I don’t suppose that should get in the way of a good “story”.  The writer made the leap from the minute that we were bringing in a consultancy (at the time of my meeting with parents that was not definite) and secondly the writer mistakenly associated the money in the Change Fund with the fee for an external consultant for Education. 

Which leads me to the question of this post – “Is transparency worth it?”  I suppose I could take this as a lesson and keep my own counsel on anything we are thinking about doing until it is all signed, sealed and delivered.  However, this is not my intention and I will continue to operate in the manner which I believe should characterise all of us in public service – regardless of how careless others might wish to be with the truth.

Postcript: another letter appeared in the paper this week congratulating the writer of the previous week’s letter for “exposing” the authority and proposing that there needs to be an investigation into the spending of £1 million on consultants for education to conduct a “management musical chairs exercise” – (oh if only it was that easy!)

3 thoughts on “Is transparency worth it?

  1. Yes, transparency is worth the effort but one of the first lessons we all learn is that we will be misrepresented and misinterpreted. The danger is that we fear that misrepresentation to such an extent that we shut the doors, lock all the windows and tell no-one anything. That way the stories will just get made up anyway. That is not meant to sound cynical but rather a plea that we recognise the world we are part of but seek to continue to be open and honest in all we do so that we can reach the best outcomes for all those we seek to serve.

  2. Leadership requires courage, Don, not consensus. You are bound to run into a little flak on occasion, caused by political motive or ignorance. There’s no shortage of either in Scotland.

    It’s hard in the face of condemnation to remember that the facts stand as silent witness to your integrity. The public record of these should reflect brightly in the face of the flicker of discontent and incompetent editorial handling of it.

    Time to re-read Sun Tzu, maybe.

  3. I saw those letters in the paper; I always just groan when I read those sort of comments about consultants. I work as a self-employed consultant (although not in the financial sector!) because organisations such as councils can’t afford to employ the number of specialist permanent employees they would need to do these sort of jobs. Perhaps you should sell it not as spending £60,000 but as saving the several hundred thousand it would cost to have another permanent member of staff.

    I always think there are analogies with gritting the roads in winter – would we prefer that the council spent a lot of money on vehicles which sat there idle for most of the year for those few days when we get bad weather conditions? Or can we all put on decent shoes and extra sweaters for a few days and see the money spent more profitably elsewhere – on education, for instance.

    Stick with it Don!

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