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The Rise and Fall of Public Service


Ealing Town Hall.  My UK public service career began here in 1970 as a pre-graduate experience placement. In 1974 I joined Surrey County Council, moving on to Devon County Council in 1975 and to Dorset County Council in 1978 where dealing with “Social Services” was the biggest challenge.  I left for overseas life and work in 1985, going to St Helena; Saudi Arabia, Malawi and Rwanda before settling in SE Asia working mainly in Cambodia. My profession and training is in “organisational development” and “human resources” - how to obtain the best performances from people.  I retired from full-time work in June 2016.

Mr Ricketts couldn’t believe his luck.  He’d asked for a pay rise and got twice as much as he’d asked for.  His trade union representative Mr Watson beamed approvingly: “Never” he said  ”Never has his union won a pay upgrade by two whole grades”.  Mrs Bicknell chairing the Appeals Committee addressed all three of us. “We don’t care what the rules are supposed to be.  We are correcting an injustice and that is our job as elected Councillors.”

As the local authority’s management representative, I was not surprised, although the rules were actually the law of the land at the time. Pay rises were restricted, allowed only if bigger responsibilities had been taken on. That was not the case for Mr Ricketts. It was though democracy at work, for good or for ill, and how some of us do miss it.

Years later my experience at Dorset County Council was the foundation for [trying to] introduce good governance in to public service in Cambodia.  One simple principle was over-riding:

“You must consult people before making a decision that affects them.”

Unfortunately the absence of this principle was and still remains the case in Cambodia despite our efforts and official edicts otherwise. Equally unfortunately it seems public service in the UK is going the same way as the commitment to maintain public services has declined. It’s a pity as it is just one more moral lead in the world that the UK is guilty of sacrificing.

Cambodia could do with the likes of Mr Ricketts.  Police work and judicial decision-making seldom rely on forensics.  Mr Ricketts was Dorset’s top Fingerprints expert and his painstaking meticulous examination of finger-prints left at crime-scenes had convicted many felons beyond doubt.  He was rare, a civilian employee, not a Police Officer.  Successive governments keen to reward Policemen had awarded them annual pay rises far ahead of civilian colleagues.  So Mr Ricketts had fallen well behind.  There was an argument that our elected Councillors were restoring the status quo and with it justice.

Now in Cambodia public service, it is invariably the other way round.

Somebody important wants to change or upset the status quo, to change things in their favour, adversely affecting other people.  Often they are not consulted and in perhaps the most common occurrence of land developments, they are denied rights of representation, a fair appeal, and compensation. Invariably those with most to gain are connected with the ruling party.

As we often relate to the wider world, corruption in Cambodia starts before birth. Mothers-to-be pay informal fees for maternity and child-care.  Children do the same to attend school.  Few workers can gain jobs without paying “commissions”; “facilitation fees” and extra financial inducements for essential permissions and documentation.  So the process goes on in every facet of life until and including death - Yes - fees have to be paid to do that and to have funerals.

In recent years there have been NGOs and trade unions trying to bring about a fairer more equitable society where any Cambodian appellant like our Mr Ricketts (or his family) will not be punished for exercising rights.  Occasionally we even find a few Mrs Bicknells, public officials prepared to do the right thing, but these are indeed rare, almost all are afraid of a certain fate by doing so - a spectacular fall from grace for going against “how things work in Cambodia”.

Although “#Foreignaid” is no longer as big an element in Cambodia’s national revenue, and contributions from “The West” are much less now than from #China, the UK taxpayer is still forking out for public services as he or she does in the UK.  There is still some direct bilateral support as you can see from examining the British Embassy’s website. Plus until and unless BREXIT does occur fully and cleanly, a big chunk is disbursed via the European Commission.  In addition and less known are the many multi-lateral and international agency contributions made via UN bodies, World Bank, and the likes of the Global Fund for TB, AIDs, and Malaria, etc.  So we do have a continuing future interest as well as a past one to see our taxpayers' money is not wasted. (That is one of the roles of the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee that have no real equivalent in Cambodia.)

I do regret that we have not done more to export and implant the notion of a “neutral public service”, and many opportunities missed to do so, as well as key concepts of accountability with checks and balances through similar state institutions.  In recent years the UK has been reticent to promote such ideas and human rights because of priority given to trade and not wishing to alienate authoritarian regimes.

A few years ago after a three decade career in international development and human rights I had my first encounters with public service in the UK – with one notable exception** – since my formative professional career from 1974 to 1985.

The first thing you notice is how public services are under much less directly-elected member control, indeed some have been contracted out in entirety. There have also been swingeing cuts in budgets since the Global Crisis of 2008, that have led to corresponding cuts in staffing and other “efficiencies”. One of these is automation of administrative procedures, so decisions are conveyed impersonally with follow-up actions pre-determined and set via computers unless overt action is taken to stop it.  My late Aunt who was suffering from dementia received a letter from the debt collection agency engaged by the local authority to enforce arrears of payment of Council Tax.  She had failed to reply to notices that had arbitrarily cancelled her benefits when it was “discovered” her sister-in-law was living with her and "she had failed to disclose this material fact". That set in automatic referral to bailiffs as controversially is standard practice by Councils today.  The problem was that the lady did not live with her but abroad and had only used her address to receive and collect her renewed driving licence.

I then had a similar experience.  After many years abroad, many as a volunteer, I only qualify for a basic state pension and a small private pension. It means that my income is below the figure the government allows for a “pensioner couple” of £255.25 a week to live on (US$320).  Despite that the Council has forced me to pay full Council Tax and other penalties.  Furthermore it resisted my representations and one from an elected Councillor on my behalf. Most significantly today there is simply no longer an independent appeals committee as existed in my days in Dorset. Whatever happened to "the Principles of Natural Justice" that were drummed in to us in our early public service careers?

Now these may be just two personal examples but they are precisely the kind of public service policy deficiencies that UN Rapporteur Professor Philip Alston highlights in his report on poverty in the UK.  He did not go looking for faults but he found them.  He would have preferred to conclude that the UK was serving as a best example to the wider world.  Instead our UK reputation is now tarnished, compounded when followed by the exact same kind of official denial by the government that circumspect regimes in other countries make against what are supposed to be international standards and benchmarks by which all nations are judged.

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: Normally in law the status quo is maintained pending an appeal. Northumberland County Council insists that its decisions must be implemented immediately, so any extra charges it levies must be paid straightaway. The money must be found! If not its automated defaulting procedures are invoked ending up with its debt collection agency, and of course ratings at credit agencies.  If the status quo rule applied, it would be more likely to expedite appeals instead of delaying them. Indeed this policy is probably designed in the hope that people simply give up. In my case, despite several reminders sent to them, it was only after invoking the Council’s formal complaints mechanism that I received a response, appeal turned down (of course) – 10 months overdue.

Little wonder therefore that public service is suffering a fall in the UK and in the eyes of the outside world. If that trend continues where will developing countries be able to learn from?  Will it deter the rise of citizen-friendly public services in the rest of the world - as in Cambodia’s case -  from a very low base?  If Cambodia copies the latest UK model, a leap directly in to similar automation via latest Smartphone outreach, my fear is that it will mark the end of “prior consultations” with people in person or groups, and no concept of local representative democracy as some of us once knew it.

** The exception, my encounter with the Charities Commission is partly told in this blog.  It led to my ongoing campaign for fairer more effective Foreign Aid.


One of the shocking developments of late in the UK has been the rise of and need for "Foodbanks". Poor people who have no other means go to them to feed their children, dependents, and themselves despite the UK having one of the most advanced state welfare "Safety-Net" provisions. I should be able to live reasonably comfortably but extra retrospectively-imposed Council Tax bills etc. did force shopping habits such as waiting for the last-minute drastic reductions on fresh food such as this still fresh salad from LIDL supermarket to just 20 pence. Apparently to live like this in the UK is "reasonable" and no hardship. (See "Valuation Panel" below)


Additional Notes

1  "Talking the Talk" in Cambodia.

Cambodia has had so many years of "foreignaid" that is not just development professionals who use the jargon with consummate ease.  Although as I explain in other blogs there is not a lot left to show for our extensive "Good Governance" training - detailed in my exit blog - much of the content does crop up again. In fact both the Prime minister and Minister of Interior have repeated publicly that government officials are "to serve the people".  Indeed PM Hun Sen in August 2018 told them "You are servants, not Bosses". To people unfamiliar with Cambodia, these words will be taken on their merits.

To others, we know that they are intended for external audiences, especially international countries and organisations concerned about the crackdown on freedoms and Civil Society. Domestic audiences, least of all government officials, will pay no heed at all to them. Similar sentiments have been expressed often before, especially in media coverage of good governance training.  As an authoritative study explains and I often tweet, the system of public service in Cambodia is based on "rent-seeking". These are informal cash payments collected at every interface with citizens with a share posted up through the staff structure with ultimately a share ending with the Minister. It is why ministers are wealthy despite official salaries of around US $1,000 a month. (For more, please see Global Witness (2016) and PM's claim: "his US$ 13,800 annual salary was his sole source of  income".

More can be seen in my 2005 London presentation as to why "Wealth percolates up in Cambodia;  it does not trickle down."

2     Wise Words or Bemused Looks

One of my favourite memories of [trying to] introduce Good Governance in Cambodia was the session I introduced for citizens to express their opinions on public service.  Now please bear in mind this training was only for the most senior officials in all ministries in ranks below Director-General equivalent of Permanent Secretary in the UK , and all local authorities including Provincial Governors.

Before getting down to detail I would tell them about my earliest days in local government in the UK with a quip and let them ask questions. I'd explain that I was involved in setting up a new local authority, Surrey County Council, as part of  "local government regorgaisation", except we nicknamed it "local government disorganisation". (It and subsequent reorganisations well and truly live up to the name)

I had adopted and translated a small form that peculiarly I happened to have not from the UK but from then apartheid South Africa. You simply ticked a few boxes to say how satisfied you were with whoever dealt with you in public service.  We began by each participant noting the last time they were a customer of public service, then to use that experience to complete the form anonymously and post it in a box.

Then a selected team would open the box and analyse the results. Results almost always expressed dissatisfaction. I don’t think you should read unduly in to this but education and children’s schooling was usually top grumble. Those days were before today’s proliferation of private schools that is confirmation of the grumble.  Then they would usually debate if this form should be introduced in their service. Would feedback help? Many said that it was the right thing to do, wise words, but all expressed their true feelings in expressions of bemusement on their faces. Not for the first time was the unstated message “That’s not how we do things in Cambodia”.

The next session was on a similar theme. This I did borrow from Surrey County Council and our Chief Executive, Mr F.A. Stone, who was of course known as “Fast One!” He was keen to have a new corporate image and one way to show this. although I have forgotten the exact details was for three simple standards to adhere to such as:

-        If someone comes to see you, don’t keep them waiting for more than 15 minutes.
-        If someone telephones you, don’t keep them hanging on for more 5 rings.
-        If someone writes to you, answer within 3 days.

The standards included what to do if you couldn’t meet them. You had to give holding arrangements, when you would go back to them, or pass them to someone else that could see you. Above all he insisted from now one every citizen must know the name and job-title they were dealing with.

I do not need to dwell long on how this suggestion went down in my sessions.  Again most said it was a great idea but expressions on faces told me “It won’t work here!”

I find it sad that in 2019 in Northumberland (and Cambodia) neither of these practices of good governance exist.  I must add that in June 2016 I made formal representations to Northumberland County Council's Chief Executive suggesting a return to good governance with an assurance that "they would be taken in to account". 

  
An example of another Good Governance session in those pre-Powerpoint days.
 If you want to try the test go this blog:


3.  There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.

Very often I am critical of the way leaders do things in Cambodia, and this is not simple Cambodia-bashing. I learned from the wrong ways some things were done in the UK as well the right way from good bosses. I feature one in my “Inspirations” blog with his equally charismatic Social Services colleague who also began one of most read widely-publicized articles and blogs about “Care-in-the Community.  In fact the theme of this sub-section has been in other blogs such as “Never dismissing too lightly” and “Best person for the job”.

I am therefore amazed that public service in the UK has gone backwards while #Cambodia has shown some signs that it might go forward. It won’t if it takes a lead from regressions in the West while countries like UK and USA  - or their compatriots - keep telling it what it should do.  As stated above idle disrespect for the UN’s Human Rights Raporteur on Poverty emboldens authoritarian leaders to dismiss all such reports out-of-hand too.

Now much of my early learning and professional experience was founded on “The Rules of Natural Justice”.  Indeed they have stood me in good stead over the years.  One of the many lessons that should have been learned from the “OXFAM Haiti scandal” is that “Abuse-of-Power” occurs all too easily, especially in #foreignaid, where Country Directors enjoy considerable freedom. If they work where there is weak or no Rule-of-Law without proper external supervision and inspection, some evil people will have their evil ways. OXFAM’s Haiti Director exploited underage prostitutes. I have always held that whatever standards I would be held to in the UK must be applied abroad.  I have managed to deal with some of the worst human rights violations, not shying away from them (unlike others) by staying true to these values.



Now I wonder though am I guilty of being stuck in the past in an unattainable world of old-fashioned values?

Do I or do I not have a right to have Northumberland County Council decisions re-examined, properly, independently and fairly?  Is it not obvious that it simply no longer observes the Rules of Natural Justice?

Is there no-one there to do as I did many years ago in Dorset and advise the Chief Executive that if she is involved in a decision or personally setting the ground rules, she should not preside over a complaint or appeal hearing?

Northumberland Council opposed me having a right to appeal to the Valuation panel (on just part of my overall complaint) and now the local Government Ombudsman also seems reluctant to accept the case too. Why?  I have had to chase them up as the auto-response message to say that a staff member would be in touch within 4-5 days proved incorrect.  Earlier in the saga, when I asked them “Do I have to appeal to the Valuation Panel first?” they regarded my question as a full formal complaint and dismissed it out-of-hand.......because “You have not exercised your right of appeal to the Valuation Panel”.  Needless to say they did not reply to my response to that.

A few years ago the population of Northumberland voted against having one large unitary authority, but it was imposed upon them.  There are reasons for its unpopularity. One is that while cuts to services are made and Council Tax bills go up, it enjoys a large surplus in its Council Tax collection. So much of that money bolsters reserves that can be borrowed by one of the UK's richest men. Again at one time the #UK was a firm advocate of the concept of Conflicts of Interests.  More on this here.

This does not fill you with confidence. Indeed it may be one of the reasons why a lot of people tell me they have no faith in local democracy. What is the point if you consult a Councillor about your case. He says that he will take it up and come back to you – then doesn’t despite reminders.

In Cambodia at least we know why that happens - either we have not bribed him enough or the other party has bribed him more!

4   Representations to the Local Government Ombudsman 

9 August 2019
 - The Local Government Ombudsman has at long last replied to me to ask "If my complaint is the same one or a new one?". I have submitted all the papers even though it looks like a waste of effort. I have asked for specific answers to my questions about officials not being bound by the figures that the government says people should have to live on and to impose their decisions arbitrarily.

4 September 2019 - The Ombudsman sent me a draft response proposing to dismiss my complaint as I had had two rights of appeals, one of which I had exercised and it had failed (Council Tax), and the other I had failed to exercise (Housing Benefit).  I replied to indicate that I was not aware  - and had never been made aware - of a right of appeal over housing benefit - quite the contrary the Council indicated it had no choice but to apply national rules. Also more importantly my main complaint is not about money but the way that the Council makes and enforces decisions, including several failures to respond, and that this should be examined as "maladministration". The Ombudsman has referred the case for more investigation.

11 September 2019 - Excellent article condemning Councils like Northumberland's widespread use of Bailiffs to enforce payment of Council Tax and my Tweet on it.

29 November 2019  – I will spare you the detail ( please ask if you want it) but finally, surprise, surprise the Ombudsman dismissed my complaint.  The main reason is they have only examined the housing benefit element of my complaint and they have accepted the Council’s submission that I failed to register an appeal to go to the Social Entitlement Chamber. This is despite me maintaining I had seen no communication outlining such an appeal and it was not mentioned once in reply to my letter asking what rights of appeal existed; subsequent telephone calls with officers, in response to my representations made by a County Councillor, and even in the course of the hearing with the Valuation Panel.

So at the end of the day, my main question has never been answered, or cleverly evaded – namely can benefits be cut off and additional penalties be imposed arbitrarily that take claimants' income far below the figure the government specifies they should have to live on – nor have any of the issues of delay; failure to reply, and if natural justice is observed in automated processes.

In my November 2019 blog “Best Days of My life 1969”, there is a video of Kingston Borough Council from that time. We did not think so at the time but now we can see that for local government in the UK those really were the best days. Financial cuts are part of the problem but a lot more besides has deteriorated.  It is astonishing that a United Nations Rapporteur could find the UK so wanting in 2019.

11 December 2019 - email from UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Poverty:

Alston, Philip

<philip.alston@nyu.edu>
4 December 2019 at 11:30
To: John Lowrie <lowriejohn@gmail.com>

Dear John Lowrie,

I very much appreciate your taking the time to write and to explain the ways in which the welfare system is capable of mistreating people and being entirely unresponsive to their plight.  Your aunt's case seems reasonably representative of others that I have come across and I often ask myself why the relevant bureaucracies are not capable of adapting or adjusting their procedures to avoid obvious injustices.   My focus is, as you would know, not on individual cases but on how the system as a whole operates and I can assure you that I will continue to try to shine the spotlight on that dimension.

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