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  • Lawrence Bailey

It's the way you tell 'em

I once had a consultancy gig many years ago with an Whitehall appointed agency. The work involved helping English local authorities who had been deemed to be 'under-performing'.

In those days, the inspection process that awarded such a negative status took on the guise of a pre-arranged burglary - after which the intruders left behind notes suggesting the best kind of lock to install.

The ‘penalty’ for getting a bad assessment was a wad of cash. However, councils were then obliged to pass on to consultants (like us) to help improve whatever was failing.

On this particular occasion, the task was to ‘facilitate better communications’ between politicians and senior staff within a (nameless) northern local authority. The government inspectors had concluded relationships were “poor”. In truth, the place had the makings of a war-zone.

This spilled over on the arrival of our helpful little group. We encountered a kind of passive hostility which is pretty standard and meant that most of those who occupied positions of influence ignored our presence. That said, the abusive notes left under the car windscreen wipers was definitely something new.

As one long-serving councillor assured me with cheerful bonhomie, “Ye’ll ne’er last the month, lad”. He wasn’t wrong. A subsequent visit saw us intercepted on the entrance steps by the chief executive who told us how the council leader – our ‘sponsor’ - had been found guilty of fraud (in his day job) and since been carted off to the county nick.

This came as a blow, not just because no-one had mentioned he was even facing trial but that he’d previously invited us out to dinner that same evening.

Despite all sorts of commitments that our work would continue, the sudden pressing need to use our assigned office for storing lollipop-crossing signs and the revoking of our car-park permit told a different story. The subsequent unanimous emergency council decision taken the same night to end our assignment came as no real surprise.

What I remember most about that experience wasn’t the abrupt exit (I’ve been chucked out of worse places). but the report that went to the from the team leader, himself a former chief executive, to the government department that had commissioned us.

He wrote: “it can be seen that the team’s interactions to date with key individuals has clearly laid the basis for improved internal dialogue. This in turn has started the local authority upon a process to establish a sense of common purpose”. The report was accepted and we were given a new gig.

So that's how official perspective is moulded – especially when money is involved - and its the same sleight of hand that enables Theresa May to portray £20 billion for the NHS as a big deal, despite the fact that the increase remains half of the annual growth rate seen in the ‘bad old years’ of Blair and Brown.

Be assured that the notion of a ‘Brexit bonus’ is the result of a similar re-arrangement of the facts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility have both dismissed the idea as fantasy. But none of that matters. In government, it's simply the way you tell ‘em.

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