Town Hall report ignores crime, Council Tax and roads

It is so often cited as to have become clichéd, but in George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future, the novel 1984, when the powers-that-be had bad news, it got its Ministry of Truth to erase it from the records and re-write the history to suit.

Steve O’Connell: his latest quarterly report is three months late and misses out key indicators

Welcome to Croydon in 2012.

The Croydon Council cabinet – the handful of Tory councillors who are supposed to be in charge of the borough – is to consider its latest half-term, performance report next week. But the report that is being put before them for approval conveniently makes no mention of key areas of the council’s performance, including Council Tax collection, crime, street cleaning and roads.

The executive summary to the report states that “based on feedback from Cabinet and the public, the look and feel of the report has changed”. New reports, it says, will offer a “sharper focus on priority issues and the impact that the Council is having” and “minimise reporting on inputs and processes and focus instead on outcomes delivered to residents”.

Of course, producing a “new” style report makes it virtually impossible to compare with previous performance reports. Impossible to judge whether the council is doing better or worse than before. And this is clearly deliberate.

In one respect, this latest performance report can be compared with previous versions: it is late.

The ever so busy Steve O’Connell, for a time Britain’s most overpaid local councillor, whose job it is to deliver these reports, has written the welcome note to the first quarterly report of 2012-2013, hoping that no one notices that it is already six months into that year, with the first and second quarters already behind us.

Judging by last year’s reports, it’s looking like “quarterly reporting” in Croydon is now happening only once or twice a year, and often with out-of-date information. This element of performance doesn’t appear in the performance report.

But according to O’Connell, these performance reports are better than when he first became a cabinet member for performance in 2007, because then he was only reporting… wait for it… once every two months. How’s that for progress?

Moving on to the “context” of the new reports – it states they “will focus on key issues that reflect priorities at the time of reporting” and that will change according to the instructions of cabinet members. So that gives our Brave Leader, Mike Fisher, and his top team the opportunity, if there’s something that they might, possibly, be embarrassed about, to choose to “focus” the next report on other “priorities”. It’s entirely Orwellian.

There can be no performance comparisons if the performance report shifts and changes from one period to the next.

In O’Connell’s introduction, he talks about achievements in the last quarter, but as the report doesn’t mention quarters anywhere else, it is unclear to what O’Connell is referring. Indeed, just how confusing the new, shifting reporting method can be is amply demonstrated in this introduction, where O’Connell writes about achievements in areas that the council is no longer reporting on.

Some of the achievements that O’Connell cites, while important, are not necessarily the best examples. Under “Empowering Communities”, all they mention is the number of Big Lunches that took place in the borough, but nothing about helping people in London Road or surrounding areas following the riots (remember, this non-quarterly quarterly report is supposed to cover the period from April to June this year). Is this an example of “sharper focus on priority issues and the impact that the Council is having”?

But the biggest indicator of what is really worrying Croydon Council’s key decision-makers is what is missing from the body of the report. These are the performance areas which, according to the cabinet members, in all seriousness, the people of Croydon are not interested in. These are indicators which have appeared in previous reports, but are notable by their absence from this first performance report of 2012.

Missing from O’Connell’s latest council performance report is:

  • Council Tax collection: apparently, Croydon being owed more than £50 million in arrears is of no concern whatsoever.
  • Customer Services: the council’s performance in these areas all nose-dived in 2011. With no mention in this latest report, it’s impossible to tell whether there’s been any improvement, or whether things have got even worse. But with 35 per cent of staff about to be axed from this department, we can probably guess what’s happening in terms of our council’s performance in this department.
  • Planning applications: Another area of council business that has been airbrushed out of existence according to the latest performance report. This follows previous poor performances which had Croydon at the bottom of the league table of London boroughs.
  • Crime: Well, this is clearly of no consequence to the residents of Croydon, according to the Tory council cabinet, and so there’s no mention of the total reported crime figures in the latest performance report. In the past, figures for total reported crime have appeared in the performance reports. This convenient omission comes just months after the new Crime Strategy highlighted the crime rate had increased sharply.
  • Roads: No performance indicators about Croydon roads included in this report.
  • Parking: Missing from the performance report.
  • Clean Streets: one indicator, on recycling, is included in this report. But the landfill indicator has gone.
  • Education: renamed as the Children’s section, this has nothing on Ofsted inspections, which do change during the year, but it retains all the attainment indicators which are based on annual exam results. What was that about sharpening the focus?

In this latest report, our council – new motto “Proud to Swerve” – talks much about improving transparency. Yet this report is a magnificent example of full-on opacity.

Here are a few examples of some outcomes that haven’t been improved:

  • Young People in Education, Employment and Training: Croydon is in the bottom five councils in London. This is not mentioned in its report.
  • Households living in temporary accommodation: this is better than the target according to the report. But then the target for this year is much higher than last year’s. This report was compile long before last week’s report on Newsnight which highlighted the vast increase in the number of households forced to stay in temporary accommodation in Croydon.
  • Self-directed support for social care clients: the report talks about excellent progress. But then, there was plenty of scope for improvement, since Croydon is the bottom of the league table.
  • Adoptions: This illustrates how the report has been poorly drafted, and is more an exercise in burying bad news than in serving any real purpose. On adoptions, there is  contradictory information, with a status that says no targets have been set, yet with a chart which highlights a target of 27 adoptions. The report is silent again on the fact that Croydon is the fifth worst borough in London.

As a piece of public information, the performance report is therefore virtually worthless, except as a document that attempts to brush under the carpet the uncomfortable truths of the present council’s performance. Not so much “sharper focus on priority issues”, but merely an example on how the self-serving priority issue for too many of Croydon’s public servants is to protect their publicly funded allowances.

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