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US library outsourcing company pitching for UK business

Among the rumours and speculation about who might take over the core library services in Suffolk, one name keeps on cropping up — LSSI, an American for-profit library services business.

It already runs libraries in a number of US cities and the latest is Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles. The hiring of Library Systems and Services is now heading for the courts.

The New York Times says:

Now the company, Library Systems & Services, has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy.

Save Santa Clarita Libraries has much more.

Throughout the United States, LSSI is hugely controversial. In 2004 the Linden Free Public Library in New Jersey, ended its second two year contract early. It found that it would save $300,000 by doing this.

There were also problems about late payment of bills by LSSI at Linden which was also given as a reason for Fargo in North Dakota cancelling a contract.

In Hernando County, Florida, a proposed deal with LSSI was dropped after protests by citizens.

There is no doubt that LSSI can reduce costs, particularly where modern technology has not been adopted. This is the not the casein Suffolk.

Another way is by forcing down labour costs. This is possible in Suffolk. In January at Winston, I heard county council chief executive Andrea Hill say one of her tasks was to transfer staff to other organisations without them taking the council terms and conditions of employment with them.

LSSI also talks about bringing Starbucks into libraries. I don’t object to the principle of that but would prefer Cafe Nero.

LSSI has established a subsidiary, LSSI (UK) Ltd and a couple of weeks ago The Independent said the company:

has set itself a target to manage libraries in eight British local authorities by the end of the year and to capture 15 per cent of the market within five years. Libraries could house coffee shops and bring in self-scanning technology.

In Oxfordshire, campaigners for libraries, are protesting at talks with LSSI.

Suffolk County Libraries meet library campaigners

A dialogue between library campaigners and Suffolk County Council was opened yesterday. While it did not produce accord, a number of important points emerged.

The original classification of the 44 libraries into 15 county libraries, to be protected and divested as a group, and 29 community libraries, which would close if community groups did not take them over, has been effectively abandoned.

Only Ipswich County Library, Bury St Edmonds and probably Lowestoft remain in a core group to be divested. This appears to mean that Chantry (Ipswich), Gainsborough (Ipswich), Beccles, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Halesworth, Haverhill, Mildenhall, Newmarket, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Woodbridge, join the other 29 seeking community arrangements.

No libraries will be closed without a further consultation. The process of divesting all libraries is expected to take two or three years.

Those who believe libraries should continue to be run as a Suffolk County Council service should write this when filling in the consultation response form.

While the Suffolk libraries face a 30% cut in funding over three years, the overall reduction in money available to the council — government grant plus council tax — is 19.5%

It is, we heard, a question of priorities, and the council side rejected the suggestion they were “diverting funds” away from libraries.

We were also told the council proposals did not envisage the raising of council tax by parish or town councils to fund community-run libraries. This was said in reply to a question about double taxation.

No one at the meeting suggested that libraries should be run by people other than professional librarians.

It was generally accepted that there were problems with the current consultation, although the word “flawed” was rejected by the council side.

A suggestion that the idea of community libraries should be piloted at one library was generally thought to be good, and the council side said they would consider it.

I hope that is a fair resumé of the main points to come out of the meeting. Anyone who disagrees is welcome use the comments below or the contact page to let me know.

The meeting was arranged after James Hargrave, a Stradbroke library campaigner, used the Freedom of Information Act, to acquire a list of names of the consultation team. He has also blogged on yesterday’s meeting.

Library campaigners from Stradbroke, Bungay, Beccles, Leiston and Debenham (myself) were at the meeting with a strong council team headed by Anna McCreadie, director of adult and community services, and Councillor Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries.

The consultation documentation was strongly criticised. It turned out that this had not been produced by the library service or the controlling adult and community services directorate. It was done by the transformation and performance team, which, so far as I can make out, is driving the New Strategic Direction (becoming an “enabling authority”).

No one from that team was at the meeting, which meant that many questions could not be answered. We hope that answers to specific questions will be forthcoming later.

The consolation is muddled because it seems to be addressing two issues at once — cuts to the library budget and the New Strategic Direction.

The council side accepted that use in consolation documents of only depravation measures within library catchments was unsatisfactory and other things like the elderly frail and transport issues would be considered.

Complaints about the tone and wording of the consultation response form were rejected. Campaigners felt that the introductory question set unfair parameters. It reads

This consultation invites communities and businesses, library users and staff, and district, borough, town and parish councils to:

1. Propose how their local library service could continue with the county council paying at least 30% less, and in many cases, substantially less than 30%

2. Tell us of their interest in providing this service.

This, together with introductory material, seems to preclude an answer to the first question saying that the service should continue to be run as a county-wide council service.

We were assured that it would be valid for people to write in that reply.

The invitation to borough, town and parish councils to make proposals for taking over libraries is deeply puzzling, as we are now told that precept-raising was not envisaged.

All the other sections of the consultation, except for name and contact details, are irrelevant to anyone who wants the library service to continue substantially as it is.

Data given in the consultation documents was challenged. The categorisation of county and community libraries was unsustainable. No public announcement has been of the changed category of 13 libraries has been made. Many people, unaware of this, would see no reason to respond. We were told that local councils had been informed of the changes, though.

A suggestion was made that the consultation was so deeply flawed that it should be withdrawn. That was rejected.

That is a great pity, as the construction of the consultation is so poor that it is very difficult to see how it can be analysed to produce any credible results. There is evidence that some people are so confused that they do not submit responses.

The abandonment of the original group of 15 “county libraries”, which were to be divested as a group, leaves many unanswered questions.

Has the council failed to get any interest from alternative library service providers? We know that University Campus Suffolk rejected the proposition. Others may have done the same.

That would certainly explain the smaller group of Ipswich County Library, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft. Are the council talking to commercial library service companies, and do these include the American company LSSI which has set up a UK base? Probably.

A suggestion was made at the meeting of a joint council/campaigners working group. No campaigners accepted this on the spot, but it is a possibility. We were told that other similar meetings were planned.

East Anglians still reading newspapers

Media commentator Roy Greenslade finds a bright spot among the latest sales figures for regional newspapers. While some have sales falls of 10% and more compared with a year ago, those in Suffolk and Norfolk are doing pretty well.

Roy reports:

There were just three risers – the Dundee Evening Telegraph (publisher: DC Thomson), up 3.4%, and Archant’s two Norwich titles, the Eastern Daily Press and its evening partner, which each put on 0.5%. Their Ipswich titles  [East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star] were not too bad either, down about 3% apiece. So well done to Archant.

Archant is based in Norwich. I am not sure whether it is a reflection of quite how poor many regionals have become, or that in East Anglia we are slower to loose the newspaper reading habit.

Pickles urges councils to open up to scrutiny by bloggers

Once again, I find myself agreeing with something Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, says. I would, of course, support him in opening councils to greater scrutiny by bloggers.

I can’t really put it better than Pickles did in a press release yesterday:

Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.

To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the ‘citizen journalist’ as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.

Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.

The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.

For example Tameside Council has accredited professional journalists to report from meetings using Twitter. The decision means local bloggers, the public and even councillors are not permitted to tweet because they are not considered members of the press.

Eric Pickles said:

“Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.

“Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don’t seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year’s budget this is more important than ever.

“Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

“We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors.”

The letter also reassured councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements following concerns over personal information. In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection principles.

What to add? Suffolk CC has someway to go, but an RSS (Really Simple Sydication) news feed on it press release page would help bloggers and mainstream media get information more easily and quickly. I guess, it should take about half-an-hour to set it up. If it takes longer, ask the IT specialists why?

Compare Suffolk’s press release page with the equivalent at London’s City Hall.

In Cambridgeshire there is a good example of what “citizen journalists” can, and are, doing. Richard Taylor’s report of this month’s budget meeting is here.

Legal challenge to council plans for “Big Society” libraries

Library closures in Gloucestershire and Somerset are to be challenged in the High Court. The application for judicial review will question “Big Society community-transfer initiatives”. This makes it very relevant the Suffolk where the council is seeking to transfer 29 libraries to Parish Councils or community organisations.

Public Interest Lawyers who are handling the case have the story.

On ‘parsimony and prodigality’— a view of Suffolk County Council

Caroline Page points to wasteful spending authorised by Suffolk County Council while they are cutting school crossing patrols to save £174,000. she writes:

On the parsimony side, they [ruling conservative group] stand up straight, cross their fingers behind their backs  and declare straightfaced that they simply haven’t the money to spend on inessentials like road crossing patrols and libraries.

Yet it was just before Christmas that they spent literally hundreds of thousands of pounds on setting up Suffolk Circle, a membership-based social enterprise that had apparently worked well in Southwark.  (Where, I would suggest,  there is less sense of social cohesion and a greater turnover of population than in Suffolk).

Page, the Lib Dem councillor for Woodbridge, has more examples in her  full post.

Suffolk Circle has been given £3/4 million over three years (see my previous post Taxpayers taking the ‘risk” out of being an “entrepreneur”.)

The shortage of bloggers in the east

I am with Ipswich Spy in their analysis of of political blogging.  Primarily, they are talking about Ipswich but do expand into the wider country.

As they say: “Locally, Councillor 2.0 as a concept has been completely ignored.” And this, at a time when the blogosphere is full of talk of Web 3.0.

I suspect Ipswich Spy was prompted to write on this subject by Alasdair Ross’s post about Ben Gummer’s website and the Conservative and Lib Dem websites in Ipswich. He, naturally, thinks the Labour website is good, which it is by comparison.

One of the county councillor blogs mentioned by Ipswich Spy is that of Jane Storey, which I have been put off because of my irrational dislike of rottweilers (that is not a personal allusion to the councillor who struck me as rather mild when I heard her at the council). It is a pity that her blog looks as if it has been taken over by Russian spammers who have placed links to sites selling fake Gucci handbags.

Like Ipswich Spy, I want to see more blogging in Suffolk. For a start it makes blogging easier, because the more people involved in the conversation, the more lively and productive it becomes.

Wordblog has been live again for about a month and I am still finding other bloggers in the area, but it proving much harder work than writing about the media and interacting with other media bloggers.

So we need more and better bloggers in Suffolk. I wonder if the county council would give me a grant to run seminars on blogging: if is important in developing communities. Seriously, I am willing to talk to anyone of any political colour about blogging.

* Note to Jane Storey: I think your spam problem would be solved by moving to WordPress.com or Blogger.com. I would choose WordPress.

A defence of Andrea Hill, chief executive

A Riverside View, the Ipswich blog with a Conservative bias, has an interesting post, on Andrea Hill.

It is called In Defence of Andrea Hill, and is primarily about her terms and conditions of employment, her job description,  and the person specification, presumably used when she was appointed.

Perhaps, the surprising thing is that the Freedom of Information Act was used to obtain what is pretty routine stuff.

There is some interesting information. She is required to “propose…a strategic vision” (my emphasis). And she should be, “a robust, resilient, confident and resourceful leader”. She is certainly doing what was asked of her.

A Riverside view gets to the political point in the last paragraph:

The local labour party has been putting it across that Conservative councillors should make Andrea Hill take a pay cut. This shows that Labour are not on the side of the worker because they believe that Suffolk County Councillors should bully Andrea Hill into taking a pay cut. If they did this and she complained to unison about her employers bullying her, what then?

Strange logic, when the person who has been loudest in calling for chief executive pay cuts is Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, a Conservative (as if anyone could forget).

I also doubt that Ms Hill is a member of Unison. But I am enjoying the mental picture of a little woman on the steps of Endeavour House with a huge placard.

Taxpayers taking the “risk” out of being an “entrepreneur”

The word entrepreneur has its uses, but is too often misused. Alan Sugar hit the nail on the head in The Apprentice last year when, exasperated, he said something along these lines to a contestant: “Entrepreneur is not something you can call yourself. It is for other people to describe you an an entrepreneur.”

This brings me to Belinda Bell self-styled “social entrepreneur” behind Suffolk Circle, a newly established business to befriend and help (at a price) over 50s in the county.

Collins dictionary defines an entrepreneur as, “The owner or manager of a business enterprise who,  by risk and initiative, attempts to make a profit.” Risk and profit are in all the definitions I have seen.

But where is the risk when Suffolk Circle has been given £3/4m over three years by Suffolk County Council to get itself established? It looks as if Suffolk County Council has taken over the risk on what looks like an uncertain business plan.

Suffolk Circle has been set up as a CIC (community interest company) which has to put profits back into the community and cannot be sold at a profit. But, I believe, salaries are not controlled.

There were allegations at the county council meeting last week that Suffolk Circle is duplicating work done by voluntary organisations which do not get anything like the same level of support.

Kathy Pollard, the Lib Dem leader on the council said on her blog after the council meeting that Suffolk Circle was duplicating the work of others. It seems this statement was challenged (off-line, I assume, as I cant see any comment on her previous post).

She has now blogged justifying the duplication claim in some detail which you can read on her blog.