I was over at the council offices today, meeting with the different departments and teams that fall under my new customer services and IT portfolio.
For those that may be interested, we have several IT projects that are 'work in progress' and have the objective of achieving a more efficient and cost-effective, 'joined-up' approach to the way the council deals with its different silos of information. This is particularly important in meeting the business needs of Revenues & Benefits at a very challenging period in our history.
I was struck at how hard the team are trying to educate claimants and potential claimants on the scope and levels of benefits that are actually available. Apparently many people experiencing difficulties don't claim their full entitlements under the system and the Revs & Benefits team are constantly looking for new methods and new ideas for reaching out to those parts of the community which need their help most.
Looking at the statistics, the impact of the recession is as visible here at the sharp-end of council services, as it is to the Citizens Advise Bureau data, which I reported some weeks ago.
Local unemployment is rising, families are struggling with an insurmountable burden of personal debt and rental defaults are growing; the picture is the same in Thanet as it is elsewhere. I looked at several examples of where the council is trying to help but when debts fall into the several thousands and where no member of the family is working, one wonders how far the Government welfare budget can stretch in the face of such enormous recessionary pressures and a public sector debt the size of Everest.
On local Blogs you read about the council "flogging" it's assets but consider for a moment that this is not only the instruction of central Government but the preferred option for the raising of funds when Government support has been slashed.
Ignoring the standard Labour self-justificatory bull***t that got us in this mess in the first place councils everywhere need to find the money to deal with the unprecedented social and financial crisis that lies ahead. Thanet is more deprived and challenged than most.
I have been corresponding with Michael Child who has been very helpful in making suggestions on improving the council's web presence and I have already explored some of these with officers. I can whip something up on a weblog, as can Michael or ECR or Tony Flaig but local Government is constrained by a technical straight-jacket of standards, regulations and policies and so changes can't be instant.
One further thought for you when resources are tight and priorities lie in streamling and improving service areas that focus our welfare challenges. Would you rather see the two specialist programmers pulled-off the priorities to re-work the website or should they concentrate on developing the tools and integration features that surround the 'sharp-end' of services?
I think I know the answer and I'm sure you will agree that we need to pick our priorities carefully, which in this case is getting as much help to as many people as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible within the budget and the resources available.
This is a challenge that goes beyond local politics. It's about calling on a very dedicated and professional team of people and their resources to help as many people as possible at a very difficult time and applying a shrinking budget where it can do the most good or to use a well-worn American expression, 'getting there the fastest with the mostest!'