Is the law always the law or should frontline staff be free to use discretion in its application?

Last night I went out on a ‘test purchase’ Operation, where two youngsters, both under 16, attempted to buy alcohol from off licences, restaurants and bars. I enjoyed being out and about with those people trying to make things safer for other young people – the two cadets, officers from trading standards, some uniformed Police, and volunteer ‘specials’ reponsible for cadets safety.

Out of 15 tests, 5 venues in a Lambeth town centre sold booze to the youngsters which was quite astounding. Many venues had good door staff who immediately queried ages at the door, others were asked I.D. at the bar, but off licences, a popular cinema and a tapas restaurant all failed which made it even more interesting, because they didn’t necessarily fit my expectations of the stereotype irresponsible back street shop or anonymous vertical drinking establishment.

NB: if you are a club or a pub owner get some door staff and make sure they are paying attention to the door, not to the tennis on TV or to the scantily clad women smoking outside.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

You would have thought that selling alcohol or cigarettes is just one of those cut and dry things. You do it and you are done for. In Lambeth we operate a three strikes and you’re out policy (i.e. get caught three times and you get shut down)

Before last night I was set on making it one strike. Now I’m not so sure.

Working directly with front line officers you get a practical perspective on how things actually work and how a similar case on paper can be wildly different in reality. That there is nuance in how real life works, and that the experience of front line staff is vital in determining those who have no intention of paying regard to the rules to those who are good businesses but where there is a small lapse.

You cannot mitigate or risk manage everything, but should the safety of children be of such importance that a breech is a breech. Would it be disproportionate for a responsible business to go under because a manager supervising a new staff member was distracted for 10 minutes?

We should absolutely be coming down like a tonne of bricks on a venue or premises which flouts the law or demonstrates little or no attempt to abide by the rules and more importantly what the intention of the rules are but is there a halfway house which allows discretion to well trained and experienced front line staff to make those judgements?

It’s very difficult to publicly argue that the law is not always the law, but isn’t that the way the world works and if we do not accept that, are we at risk of using a legislative sledgehammer to crack a nut?


Policing and Crime Commissioners – might vital services lose out to populism?

Policing and Crime Commissioners (PCC’s) was a hot topic at #lgaconf12 given that they are less than 4 months away from being in post.

Now I’m all up for new ways of working and initiatives, even learning on the job and improving as you go, but I am slightly concerned by how this could potentially go in terms of what’s going to get funded and the extent to which populist priorities may crowd out sensible and necessary community safety areas or hidden crimes.

Ben Page always rolls out the line that the British people “want Swedish levels of welfare on US tax” to highlight the difficulties for politicians of pleasing the public. In reducing crime there is undoubtedly a need to make sure that we are addressing the issues which make people feel unsafe, as well as making sure they are not victims of crime.

All the evidence on reducing reoffenders points to the need to support those going straight on issues around housing, skills, jobs, mental health support, etc…. yet it’s going to take a brave politician to decide that with a budget 2/3 the size of what it was, that front line bobbies will have to go in order to get housing, jobs and support to people who’ve committed crime. This is especially difficult given austerity measures hurting people generally.

On issues which are not generally going to be priorities for the public at large but absolutely vital for those that need them, like domestic violence services, will these areas slip down the funding priority list. I’ve never knocked on a door and had someone talk to me about domestic violence issues but we know it happens.

Now politicians make political choices all the time and some do indeed choose to go populist, to ignore evidence for short term political gain or to support certain communities or groups for ideological reasons.

But a lot of PCC candidates have been talking about setting their budgets according to the public’s priorities, participatory budgets and the like, it makes me nervous about the potential daily mail tendency dominating an agenda because it’s easy, with those less able to represent themselves whether they are vulnerable, victims or those looking to go straight being shut out and finding their services gone?

LGA Conference 2012 – learning or listening, peer to peer coaching the key

My first LGA conference was great and I will be back next year. I learnt a lot, I made some great contacts who I will follow up with and political friendships which no doubt will last as long as we all remain in office.

I leave Birmingham with some fresh ideas and approaches, some existing thoughts better developed and some dots joined up in my head. But 2 thoughts dominate for me and they are essentially about how we operate and whether we are making best use of our human resources.

What sticks out first is the difference between constructive dialogue and just being talked at. When people share experiences, work through problems with peers and colleagues from a practical perspective you get better learning which means something and a deeper understanding of problems and solutions in the context they come from.

Unfortunately many of the sessions I attended were old skool set pieces with ‘expert’ speakers making presentations or giving speeches to an audience, followed by short time for Q&A (which invariably never get answered) It struck me as strange that with so much experience in one place, there were not more opportunities to sit down and discuss some of the challenges that we are practically dealing with – to share learning and experiences honestly and openly?

Secondly we have not bridged the Councillor / Officer divide but there are bright spots. LGA peer reviews are done by joint officer and Councillor teams, but also ensures it happens in the host authority. Many Councils are piloting joint problem solving approaches, or changing structures to bring Councillors and officers together but it’s a little hit and miss and people I spoke to acknowledged that where these did happen, good working relationships were generally already in place.

When the @lgchallenge finalists were asked to outline the content of their 1st briefing to the leader when they become Chief Executive, not one of them mentioned manifesto’s, political priorities or values. In an era of austerity, political choices are absolutely key. I didn’t get the sense talking to officers or other Councillors that we are making sure officers understand that they work in a political organisation and equally whether Councillors understand how their own organisation works to get better outcomes for their residents.

In saying all that I feel that the sector is in a healthy place, with bright young things and wise heads, innovation as well as ambition to face the most challenging circumstances ever. Sharing across the sector better in a meaningful way so necessary culture change is realised and contextual is vital going forward with innovation happening in so many places and at a pace that has been set so crushingly fast.

I’m interested by anyone who is doing anything new or old that brings together officers, partners and Councillors (maybe even residents!!!!) in a meaningful way, so please pass on anything you know or want to shout about.