Money talks

The last time I contributed to these columns, I discussed the demise of the professional local government officer and the rise of the bureaucratic manager, with a focus on management objectives, targets and performance measures. Within local councils this shift has fundamentally changed the relationship between elected councillors and their library chiefs, who are no longer valued for the quality of their professional advice, but for their willingness to meet targets, produce soundbites and spin the media.

There has also been a significant change in the relationship between local councils and central government (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), professional bodies (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and quangos (the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Arts Council).

The DCMS has struggled to gain credibility within town halls, despite its prodigious output of guidance and advice, because its professional perspective is no longer valued. If productivity were measured purely on the quantity of reports and recommendations, then the DCMS would have topped the Whitehall league over the past five years. Yet much of this output has had very little impact on its intended audience. "Framework for the Future", for example, advocated books and reading as central to the mission of public libraries, but failed to stop the savage cuts in book funding by local councils.
When CILIP argues for the value of public libraries to the local economy and community it is dismissed as being defensive and protecting its member's interests in the face of inevitable change.

The MLA was not taken seriously because it looked and sounded like something produced by a committee, with no clear remit or focus. It was an extremely self-absorbed organisation, and gave more attention to its own endless restructuring than to the external world. And as most of its effort and financial rewards went into museums via the Renaissance programme, councils were more interested in that than its views on libraries.

The factor deciding who councillors will listen to is not the quality of the advice, but the offer of money. For this reason the Arts Council has been very successful in persuading local councils to support initiatives—ranging from the Cultural Olympiad to increasing the number of people actively engaged in the arts. The Arts Council is generous with its spending and has a light touch with its monitoring arrangements—the perfect combination for "inward investment", one of the few growth areas in local government in recent years. Since it works in a joined-up way across all the sectors it represents, its take-up of the MLA's library functions may mean an increase in the level of advocacy, support and funding made available for public libraries.