Council cuts: we’re hacking for Oxfordshire

Journalists at the hack day.

Bureau Local organised a hack day on local government budgets last weekend. There were five hack gatherings across the country. I attended the one in London, along with fellow Oxford branch member Gill Oliver.

Was it worth the sacrifice of a Saturday? Yes, I think it was. These guys are onto something important.

As they say in their blurb about this project, “Councils across the country are planning cuts to vital local services in next year’s budgets ‒ including adult and children’s social care, sexual health support, alcohol and substance rehabilitation and youth groups. With an estimated funding shortfall of £5.8 billion over the next two years, and having already cut back many services they don’t legally have to provide, local authorities in England face an unprecedented challenge. Not just to maintain ‘frontline’ services, but, in some extreme cases, to avoid bankruptcy.”

Bureau Local isn’t offering solutions. It’s doing something better. It is helping promote informed debate about the problems and possible solutions at a local level, by skilling up its growing network of collaborators to research their local data and publish stories based on what they find.

The preparation

In the run up to the Hack Day, Bureau Local had brought together an impressive “local government roundtable” to get ideas about some of the key issues to look for. Included on the 15-strong panel were:

  • leader of Peterborough Council
  • director of corporate resources at Leicestershire County Council
  • public affairs officer, County Councils Network
  • research and policy officer, Women’s Budget Group
  • director of the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort
  • director of the Business and Local Government Data Research Unit
  • committee member, Disabled People Against Cuts.

The message coming out of councils themselves is that there is an urgent need for discussions on the state of local government finances, and the implications for the services people rely on, to extend beyond local government circles.

The reasons why that isn’t happening much at present became clear to us when we saw that data. Even leaving aside the fraught heading of housing, local authority spending covers a huge swathe of vital areas. Making sense of it requires factoring in inflation and demographic changes, and remembering that “savings” may mean doing less of something or doing it cheaper, but could also mean charging people more for the service, or securing a grant or ‘viring’ funds that had been allocated to another part of the budget.

This is a job for an army of local government reporters, and where they exist they do a great job. But they don’t exist in large parts of the country, and where they do, their numbers have been slashed – local authority press offices are replete with journalists who used to work holding those same authorities to account.

The panel offered helpful advice about the sort of things we should all be looking for.

  • Children’s services: Lack of local authority homes. Private sector charging too much.
  • Children’s services: “Safely” reducing the number of looked after children. Is this possible given statutory requirements? Perhaps through early help, but early help budgets being cut back; suggestion that councils now keep looked after children arrangements under constant review and some may end earlier (saving money).
  • “Moderate/critical” eligibility for Adult Social Care. (If you’re perceived as having a social network of support then you will not be seen as critical).
  • Moving homelessness ‒ moving people around the country. Single parents losing support networks, disabled people cannot take their care support package with them, pays for their assistants.

The data

We were given access to more data and information than we could process in a month of Saturdays. Key among them was an Excel file compiled by Bureau Local showing the “outturn” (government speak, I’m told, for actual spending) of most local authorities in England over the past five years, broken down into fairly detailed spending categories on which they are obliged to report, and adjusted for inflation.

Added to each local authority entry was a link to the relevant minutes of local council draft budgets for 2018/2019, which in turn gave links to a series of pdfs giving details of different aspects of the draft budget – what money is coming in from where, where it’s being spent, “pressures” ‒ additional spend not anticipated in original budget (pretty mega for adult social care and children’s social care), and then the “savings” agreed to help pay for them, impact on resources etc.

Questions about what things mean and why they didn’t add up could be posed and answered using Bureau Local’s Slack chat channel. As luck would have it, however, Gill and I found a dedicated source of information sitting a few seats away in the form of Neil Lawrence, digital development manager at Oxford City Council, a veteran of local authority budgets from his time at Cherwell district council – and a champion of open data.

What did we find?

Here are a few things that stood out for us:

Children’s services

Taking inflation into account, total spending on children’s social care has gone up by more than 57% between 2014/12 and 2017/18, despite a 90% drop in spending on children’s services for asylum seekers from £3,096,000 in 2016/2017 to £309,000 in 2017/2018 and an almost 99% drop in funding for “Other children’s and families services”, from £2,060,000 in 2014/2015 to £39,000 in 2017/2018.

This raises many questions, including: is this down to an increase in kids in care? If so why? Is it down to increased costs in paying for services for looked after children? If so why? Are we reaching the point at which there will be no money to pay for anything that is not a statutory requirement? And if so, what happens next?

Adult care

Total spending on adult social care has stayed relatively stable, rising by around 3% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018 (from £192.5 million to £198.4 million), which is probably less than the rise in the elderly population over the same time period (those figures were probably somewhere on the Slack channel, if we’d had the time to find them). The draft budget for 2018/2019 reveals “pressures” (additional spend not anticipated in original budget – as explained above) of £10.6 million, and proposes savings of around £1.5 million to be made by changes to charging policy – who has to contribute how much.

This is the mechanism by which more elderly people are being required to pay more for essential services due to the lack of government policy on sustainable adult social care. What will the implications be for whom? And could cuts to support services (or raised charges), imposed to try to make up the shortfall, be fuelling greater costs down the line? Maybe in services like social care activities, down by 54% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, or assistive equipment, down by 56%, or support for carers – who are subsidising the whole system often at a big price to themselves – down by 54%. Good to see, however, a tripling of spending on “Information and early intervention”.

Public health

Public health? Who knew that responsibility for public health has been devolved from national to local authority level? There has to be a reason behind the data that shows that Oxfordshire County Council cut spending on helping people quit smoking by 99% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, from £1.08 million to a mere £2000.

A hack day for Oxfordshire

More generally, we learned that when it comes to data-led journalism, what matters is less your Excel skills (pretty much guesswork in my case) than knowing what data exist and how to get access, understanding exactly what is being measured, having lots and lots of time to sift through it, look for trends and key indicators, and then having lots and lots more time to line up the data of interest and use it to ask the right questions to the right people to get the story.

We also learned that it is fun and helpful to work collectively on big datasets with people who may be coming at the same data from various perspectives. So at the February branch meeting we intend to propose organising an Oxfordshire hack day.

If you are interested in attending or helping organise the hack day, let us know at oxfordnuj@gmail.com.

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