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Archive for the 'DCMS Review' Category

Shhh… A little less conversation, a little more action

So, the two year wait is over. Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have finally released the modernisation of public libraries review and proposals for public libraries in England. At first glance, the review doesn’t necessarily provide much in the way of illuminating ideas or leadership, but it does go some way at least to (re)focussing the mind on the public library mission.

The review starts off discussing a Library Offer to be made up of a core offer, which all library services will deliver, and a local offer, to deliver services relevant to community needs. On the core offer, free internet access to all must be commended, and a national book collection available to anyone is clearly being picked up as an important policy. Flexible opening hours to suit demand is recommended but abdicates responsibility to the authority, suggesting that at a core level there is a lack of foresight. Surely Mrs Hodge could have showed more leadership and made Sunday opening hours mandatory, providing families with a chance to visit the local library together at a convenient time. Many of the local offer suggestions will require local authority budgets that might not be there for the foreseeable future.

The vision and leadership that is lacking from the review may eventually come from the new strategic body for the libraries sector. Made up of the MLA, the Advisory Council and the registrar of Public Lending Right, this body will be formed to ‘provide a stronger national voice for libraries and improve leadership and development of the sector’. Let’s hope this is a step forward and provides some real drive in the sector.

In an attempt to reverse the current decline in library usage, the review recommends communicating to the users about what is available but avoids making the point that marketing a service is also about the delivery of a good user experience. Someone who has a good library experience will be more likely to become a regular user and spread the word to others.

I am still not sure what the recommendations are on the whole polemic of expert librarians vs. volunteers. The initial idea put forward is that a commitment to expert staff is required but the report then later recommends the use of volunteers to accommodate the 24/7 culture we live in.  Margaret Hodge referred to this 24/7 culture last week on The BBC’s Newsnight programme and I wasn’t really too sure of the point she was making then. I would argue that we don’t live in a 24/7 culture at all and public libraries in England certainly don’t. Margaret Hodge is confusing, or putting too much emphasis on, the internet and the fact that it is always ‘switched on’. There are more important things to worry about than the 24/7 culture… like a decent library website, or being able to go to any library on a Wednesday afternoon.

We will have to wait and see what the full impact of this consultation process and review will be. I guess the proof will be in visitor and lending figures over the coming years. I can’t help but feel that a lack of funding may impact more than the review and the DCMS missed an opportunity to lay out a vision to energise librarians and users alike.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information Management Report: a review

APPG report more ppl shotLast week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group launched their new report: an inquiry into the governance and leadership of the public library service in England. On the basis of the progression we have seen with the DCMS modernisation review, I had little expectation of this report providing any real insight or vision. As I worked my way through the report, I found myself scribbling and highlighting away, only to find the very thought I had just noted to be clarified in the upcoming paragraph. So I was pleasantly surprised to say the least, as I found the report to consider more perspectives than I anticipated.

It would have been too easy for the scope of the report to be wide and vague, which no doubt would have provided a foggy vision if any. So it was good to see that the focus of this report is specifically on the effectiveness of arrangements for the governance and leadership of public library services. The six lines of enquiry were very appropriate in light of the current situation. They were:

1)      What are the strengths and weaknesses of the present system for the governance and leadership of the public library service in England?

2)      Should local communities have a greater say in decisions about the public library service?

3)      Should central government do more to superintend the public library service?

4)      Are local authorities the best agency to provide library services?

5)      What are the governance and leadership roles of the Advisory Council on Libraries (ACL), the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)?

6)      What changes (if any) are required to improve and strengthen governance and leadership?

Perhaps a closer look into the role of technology and innovation may have been a potential area for inquiry, though this may be something which stems from point six. As the report began to take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of the public library service, they acknowledged that:

“The submissions presented a bleak national picture with more weaknesses than strengths being identified.”

Amongst some of the more legitimate and agreeable points raised, there were a few points which led me to frown as I read. For example, the group believes the library service is diverse and innovative, listing it as one of its strengths. But is this really the case? Would this report really be necessary if they were? A couple of contradictions arose too, for example, listing staff to be helpful and experts at one point and then ill equipped and unhelpful at another.

In summary, the key recommendations were to develop one lead voice for libraries through the establishment of a single Library Development Agency for England (LDAE). A reassuring recognition, as a vision leading the library service could not be any more crucial than it is today. The current role and purpose of the many national agencies has brought confusion to the service, lacking a prominent player leading the way. The report rightly recognises the library sector has lost its way, and is sadly regarded to be of low value by decision makers.

Whist the LDAE is in the making (I assume answers around who, when and how are yet to come) we can expect a mid-term communications strategy and training and development programmes for public library personnel to improve management and leadership skills, from the MLA. Interesting, as the report recognised the MLA’s poor record with libraries in the past, and some contributors felt regret around the recent changes to its regional structures. The formation of LDAE would result in revision to the role, function and allocated funding of the MLA, making them a surprising/uncertain candidate to lead the way on the mid-term plans.

Overall, I was pleased to see the group recognise dramatic action is required and quickly. Yet it could be argued that recognising the problem is the easy part, finding and implementing the solution is the real challenge.

Image copyright of APPG. Publisher, CILIP.

Full report available to download from CILIP.

PLA 2009 – Day 2

Grand hotel

Today, my day didn’t begin in the most ideal way. As I’m staying in a hotel a few minutes away from the conference, a complementary shuttle bus has kindly been provided to escort delegates back and forth. This morning, a combination of a late dash for breakfast and the shuttle bus being reliably late, led me to be a little more flustered than usual, only just managing to make the start of the conference. However, I didn’t let this dampen my outlook for the day as, of course, today was the day the DCMS publish their long awaited Modernisation Review; at least it was supposed to be. But more on that later.

Andrew Cozens, Strategic Advisor at the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) kicked off the day with his interactive workshop, introducing the approach – outcomes based accountability. He explains that currently there are too many terms defining performance measures, and not enough discipline in using them. By using three key particular definitions, ‘outcomes’, ‘indicators’ and ‘performance measures’, a real outcomes based accountability approach can be achieved. The term outcome would be used only to describe the high level goal, for example, ‘improve the well being of children and adults’. The term indicator would then go a step further, by highlighting the measure which helps to quantify the achievement of an outcome, and finally performance measure would then measure how well the programme is performing. Overall, this was an interesting session which challenged delegates to re-think their current thought processes, as all too often, it’s easy to focus on the measuring performance elements and lose sight of whether the outcome is improving.

Then the session many were waiting for began, as the Rt. Hon Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture and Tourism took to the stage. She began by acknowledging that public libraries are very precious, but from time-to-time, we must question whether things could be done differently to ensure a comprehensive and efficient service fit for purpose in the 21st century is being delivered. She then went to on to provide some ‘interesting’ statistics which appeared to paint a sad and downward spiralling trend in library usage. However, these statistics were later questioned, to which Margaret was only able to respond “I don’t know where they [the statistics] came from, they are just given to me”.

She believes engaging with young people requires radical innovation, as they require something new and something stimulating. Her acknowledgment of the technological revolution being at the heart of future of libraries hinted at what the (once again delayed) Modernisation Review would focus on, looking to models such as LoveFilm and Amazon. Some ‘innovate’ suggestions for libraries included a loyalty card that rewards every ten book loans with a free DVD hire and a library card for every new born baby, bringing frustration to many delegates sitting at my table, as they squealed “We’ve done that for years”. They felt such suggestions demonstrated Margaret’s lack of understanding of the library profession and felt patronised. However other ideas to provide an internet lending service to have books delivered to your home; selling books as well as lending in conjunction with companies like Amazon, led to more positive reactions.

The Modernisation ReMargview itself is to be published in a much faster paced climate than previously published reports, she explained, and therefore, the DCMS do not intend for it to be the last word in the conversation. Margaret would like the time to input her thoughts on the paper before release, and publish as a consultation document. The cynic may read this as a lack of ideas or direction on the DCMS’ part, yet others may believe wider consultation is a genuine attempt to engage with those experienced in the field. In her closing statements, she encouraged librarians to get in touch, as she would like to produce a comprehensive and controversial report. She promised that the Government remains committed to strong and modern public library services and will continue to value and champion them.

The third session was lead by Liz Forgan, the Chair of the Arts Council, highlighting the importance of reading. From the conference programme, I got the impression that this would be a bad case of preaching to the converted, however, I was proved wrong. She explained, for a library to support reading is instinctive, but today, everything must be evidence based, therefore the difference that reading makes must be highlighted. “Libraries are central to reading, and reading is your jewel” she explained.  Miranda McKearney, Director of the Reading Agency explained how they can work closer with libraries to do this. Firstly, national reading programmes can be worked harder. Secondly, stronger partnerships can be established with publishers, broadcasters and media to publicise reading further. By setting up a digital taskforce to take up reading developments online can help showcase achievements as well as build stronger networks. Thirdly, a 21st century library workforce created via strategic training could also contribute significantly to wider reading. And finally new thinking would be essential to develop clear messages and creative new projects. The session finished on thoughts of cross authority reading strategies, where a show of hands indicated a mere two local authorities were actively adopting them. A second show of hands highlighted how many would like to adopt such strategies in their libraries and this time there were significantly more than just two.

For the afternoon session, we were given the opportunity to visit local libraries providing unique and innovative services. I chose to visit the Hartcliffe Library and the Knowle West Media Centre in the South of Bristol. The Hartcliffe Library was built in 1974 in what was once a vibrant part of the area. Following the closure of a nearby factories and banks, the library began to suffer. It wasn’t until the adjacent Morrisons supermarket was built that the area became revitalised and the close nit community was reformed. In 2003 the refurbishment of the library began, in which the local community remained faithful to the service, bringing flasks of hot drinks through times of power cuts. With strong support from youth in what is described to be a ‘challenging area’ the library acts as a social environment engaging with all, simply by opening up.

The Knowle West Media Centre is a stunning building; the walls of which are made of straw bales and a rubber roof which harvests rain water. As we were shown around the building, we were told about the activities that take place within the centre including photography, music and film maker projects. But what was really interesting was how the local youth had been engaged in the development of the building. And we’re not just talking minor consultation. Real decisions such as choosing designers, architects and creating the design brief were all done in close conjunction with the local youth. This way, not only is the passion ignited within the youth straight away, but they are presented with a building that they are a part of and something which is made to their requirements. The Media Centre staff believe they learn just as much from those who use the centre as they do from them. They believe the jobs of the future require a solid understanding of digital skills and therefore the centre has a massive role to play.

Today I have enjoyed speaking to delegates from all sorts of backgrounds and the coach trip around Bristol. Though my highlight has to be Margaret Hodge’s presentation, simply because of the debate she stimulated. Tomorrow promises more interesting sessions as the conference draws to an end. Watch out for PLA Day 3 tomorrow…

Images published by _satunine and ourcreativetalent on Flickr

Thoughts on the Darien Manifesto

Many bloggers have commented on the rather grand opening to the Darien Manifesto:

The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilisation.

Even the Annoyed Librarian was wowed, notwithstanding her subsequent remarks about manifestos generally. It’s a superbly self-confident statement, and unlike some of the commenters on John Blyberg’s original blog posting, I get it. Humanity owes a great debt to librarians who, in some of the darkest periods of human history, have taken responsibility for the custody of invaluable intellectual artefacts.

It is, however, worth bearing in mind that libraries always operate in a specific time and place and must be responsive to the world around them. This makes the statement “The purpose of the Library will never change” particularly problematic, and we should remember that the term “civilisation” has different shades of meaning as we move through history.

Related to this, the Darien Manifesto, courageous and elegant though it is, may have been written in such an abstract way as to be a bit too open to interpretation. It’s the same old problem of trying to be all things to all men, and ending up being curiously ineffective as a result. At the same time there’s statements in the manifesto that really do jolt the reader back to earth. Take this one:

Hire the best people and let them do their job; remove staff who cannot or will not.

There’s been sufficient comments about unions etc. for me not to have to debate the substance of this statement. My point is that if you’re going to delve into the nitty gritty on one aspect of library provision, then there’s other issues at operational level that should also be raised.

But just because there are difficulties with this manifesto, doesn’t mean that all is lost. At the very least the manifesto is a useful discussion document or alternatively as a source of ideas for more applied strategies. It also has a universal quality and is readily extensible into libraries everywhere. Specifically, I’m thinking that for the English public library sector it couldn’t have made its appearance at a better time. Here, the DCMS (Department of Culture Media and Sport) is currently undergoing its Library Service Modernisation Review. The DCMS, along with lobbyists from the sector, would be well advised to make use of this manifesto and remind themselves that the library does have an enduring cultural value beyond the current clutch of Government agendas.

The future of UK public services?

As England’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport proceeds with its modernisation review of the English public library service, I’m sure I’m not alone in spending time thinking about and discussing the future of public libraries. Having just read Working together: Public services on your side, I feel that this recently published policy document can offer some valuable pointers in terms of how Government perceives the future of public services more generally.

The starting point of this document is the financial crisis. What else? Most of us will be aware that with serious shortfalls in Treasury receipts and the frightening number of bail-outs we’ve all seen in the news, there will sooner or later be a serious rationalisation of UK’s public services. UK cannot be alone in reviewing public sector costs in this way, even if it is experiencing the global downturn in a more acute way than some other countries.

The document foresees a number of consequences of the downturn for public services. For one thing, the Government will have to target its investments on frontline investments, in order to support people through the crisis. Government will be expecting public services to be more personalised in their delivery than has hitherto been the case, reflecting the diverse needs in the population at large. They’re specifically concerned that services should fit around people’s needs and lives, giving an example that will chime with many of us, namely the ability to visit a GP at a time and in settings that suit us.

To pay for this means yet more back-office efficiencies (a further targeted £30bn in the current spending period, plus £5bn of value-for-money savings in 2010-11), for services that have only just gone through the 3 year Gershon Efficiency Review (in which £26bn of savings were delivered across the public sector).

The third consequence of the downturn is best articulated in the words of the document itself:

“At a time of global recession as government increases its role in meeting new economic challenges, so too will there be some areas where it will play its role best by being less hands-on or by withdrawing altogether.”

So how will this work itself out? Well, for longer than they’ve actually been in power, New Labour has been keen on the idea of communities running local services and amenities themselves. This idea has always been a key part of the community agenda, but it’s a bit tricky to implement, to say the least. Government may argue that the introduction of more local “democratic” structures such as Local Area Agreements are a part of this, but I personally don’t feel particularly empowered by these developments. I wasn’t consulted over the “35 agreed priorities” that supposedly exist for the area I live in, for example.

The recession may give Government the pretext to finally take this bull by the horns, although in some ways, it couldn’t be a worse time. Recessions are hard-biting de-energising periods for all but the most fortunate among us, and to expect people to be battling to keep their jobs, AND cut out many of the pleasures of life in preparation for that “rainy day”, AND accept part responsibility for running their local services is one big ask. For a long time, Government has somehow failed to connect that the people they would like to assume additional civic duties in their neighbourhoods re the same people who are working longer hours than ever, having to provide child-care to grand-children and so forth. In this document, Government does at least acknowledge the lack of time that many people complain of these days, yet they are forging ahead with the idea of communities running “disused buildings” themselves to “harness the capacities of communities to identify and solve their own problems”.

So if this is where the future of public services lies in the UK, then at the very least we need to acknowledge how difficult this is going to be for any public service, not just for libraries. How should we be preparing for this? Well, apart from thinking critically about the feasibility of these ideas, we need to arm ourselves with robust statements about the value of the public library service in the 21st century. That’s exactly where the DCMS must deliver at the end of June – the survival of public libraries in this country may depend on it. The fact that libraries don’t get so much as a mention in this document should serve as a warning to us all. And secondly, we need to be thinking what resources we could use that would make the load lighter. Is it resources from the voluntary sector, or innovative technology, or a combination of both?