The Spin Doctor and Cumbria County Council’s PR Disaster

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IN public relations terms, Cumbria County Council must surely have a “damaged reputation” this weekend after nine months of bad headlines.

And there’s a delicious irony in that because it’s due to the fact that they’ve finally had to admit spending £71,000 on a spin doctor and the head-hunting agency which delivered him to them.

So in this blog, and at great lengths, I’m going to explore in full how the council shot itself in the foot and then carried on blasting – all the way up both legs.

Because after all the power games and bull-headed stubbornness that the media has come to expect, C.C.C has waited until the very last minute to spit out the rotten tooth about how much tax payers’ money went to Mark Fletcher-Brown (pictured below).

Mark Fletcher-Brown of Reputation Counsel Ltd
Mark Fletcher-Brown of Reputation Counsel Ltd

He was the hired Midlands PR man, “smuggled” into county council headquarters last October as the council was caught up in the failure to sort out the introduction of parking machines.

The “Fletchmeister” worked three days a week for C.C.C over a six month period which ended in March.

City-based middlemen Gatenby Sanderson, who wrapped the bow to bring him here, shared a total of £71,000 with him. If he was paid £700 a day, it’s £2,100 a week or £8,400 a month.

The average member of staff at C.C.C gets about £22,000-a-year.

But Mr. Fletcher-Brown is undoubtedly one of the best sugar-coaters in the business and £700-a-day rates are small fry in the world of big city PR.

His management pamphlets speak some sense but are also peppered with mystic guruisms like “opinion dip” and “occupying a mind space”. But they seem to have a cat nip effect on impressionable town hall bosses and out-of-touch councillors from Merseyside to South Yorkshire.

Copyright: Mark Fletcher-Brown
Copyright: Mark Fletcher-Brown

Through no fault of his own, and who can blame him for taking the money, Mark Fletcher-Brown was parachuted in last autumn.

It was a hire that was rubber-stamped by people at the council who, you would have hoped, individually or collectively, might have the wisdom and sensitivity to recognise that an appointment like this, at a time like this, might go down like Dixon’s Chimney in a Force 10 tornado?

Not a bit of it, which makes the whole affair even more terrifying.

GATENBY SANDERSON – THE HEADHUNTERS 

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“Resourcing solutions” Headhunters in other words…

The arrangement that C.C.C would pay Gatenby Sanderson, rather than Mark Fletcher-Brown directly, and Gatenby would then pay him, was a master-stroke when it came to the precise figure remaining a secret all this time.

The arrangement meant the council could truthfully tell the media it hadn’t paid Mark Fletcher-Brown anything but then, in what appeared to be an open contradiction, say that it published all spend over £500 online.

The puzzled media would trawl through long excel documents on the C.C.C website looking for Mark’s name, or his company name, Reputation Counsel Ltd, but not find it.

Because it was actually being paid to Gatenby – a name the media wouldn’t have been looking for because it wasn’t associated with this story.

And no-one in the council thought to introduce it to any of the media asking questions.

None of this was illegal or wrong but the council, unhelpfully, never explained it.

WHY WAS AN OUTSIDE PR MAN NECESSARY?

Dawn Roberts
Dawn Roberts, head of governance

C.C.C, it has to be said, is an organisation that last autumn was already well-stocked with PR wizards and managers. It is also ultimately overseen by one of its assistant directors Dawn Roberts (£90k-a-year).

She acted as Mark Fletcher-Brown’s direct line manager during the six months. She also seems content to take the money for the responsibility that goes with this area of the council’s work.

So why didn’t she carry out the review of Comms? It’s not difficult to arrive at what Mark ultimately suggested: reduce the comms department down from 27 staff to just 12?

Because everyone knows that the first rule of business is that less staff = less spend.

C.C.C, in its statement on Friday, suggested that someone external was required to review the department. Essentially, it wasn’t just a maths job but a deeper look at the comms function.

It needed an outsider because everyone’s job in comms was at risk.

And with their PR manager having already gone, the thinking clearly was that if Mark Fletcher-Brown replaced him for only half the year and for three days a week, it represented a saving on the former PR’s salary; as well as extra experience in the dept to undertake the review.

Which isn’t unreasonable and makes sense!

But perversely it was never communicated this explicitly. And had it been, it would have saved C.C.C a bucketload of trouble.

And if they had been bold enough to reveal his daily rate last autumn, the story would have been dead by Christmas. The only way to really “kill” this story was to be open about it, let the storm pass over, and get on with it.

But no, because of all the half answers and cleverly-worded FOIs, it periodically flared up every couple of months.

This allowed the opposition Tories on C.C.C the perfect opportunity to exploit it (particularly with a General Election coming up).

And the accepted wisdom in Government is that when the PR man becomes the story, it’s time for him to go.

So said one Alastair Campbell. Whether this gem was understood, or ever reached the ears of those who needed to know, looks unlikely.

“CYNICAL AND CONTROLLING OBFUSCATION”

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The council waited until Friday (26th June) to release the figures to the media. This was when the council was publishing its annual report and legally had to reveal its spend. The timing is emblematic of the cynical and controlling tactics that have soured the whole sorry business.

On Fridays, many of the papers are already out and the media is switching off and heading towards the graveyard of the weekend news cycle, although I managed to get it in Saturday’s edition of the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald.

Not only does this type of “tactical timing” erode faith in C.C.C as a transparent and open organisation, but it insults the legitimate “right-to-know” of voters who duly cough up their council tax and turn out at the ballot box.

C.C.C takes about £550 million from council tax every year, with the rest shared with district councils, the police and crime commissioner, parish councils etc.

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And for the record, most members of the public don’t pay council tax to feather the nests of PR magpies like Mark Fletcher-Brown, who reportedly earned £650-a-day at Liverpool.

And they don’t expect to line the pockets of head-hunting recruitment agencies based 104 miles away in Birmingham and with offices in Leeds and London.

Gatenby, along with firms called Solace Enterprises and Veredus, were sent the tender to get PR help to C.C.C.

£200 MILLION TO SAVE, 2,000+ JOBS TO GO

The public finally attend a meeting of C.C.C
The public finally attend a meeting of C.C.C

The facts are that upwards of 2,000 people could lose their jobs at C.C.C between now and 2018 in a county not famed for alternative employment choices.

In the period between 2011-2018, it will have had to have saved upwards of £200 million because of the national austerity agenda.

It will be lucky to survive any more financial icebergs.

But this hasn’t stopped the Labour and Lib Dem-run council from voting through a series of insensitive and poorly-timed decisions which have exposed it to criticisms that it is not practising what it has been preaching.

Such as:

  • Spending £12 million on a new HQ for itself (naturally centred in Carlisle) and now said to be mulling over a £6M ivory tower in West Cumbria
  • Paying £44,000 for a single 40-odd page report asking whether we should get rid of all the councils in Cumbria and replace them with one
  • Alienating and angering many residents with a long and ultimately botched attempt to bring in parking machines
  • Cutting off bus subsidies used by pensioners and kids in one of the most remote areas of the country

As a former PR man myself, the people I feel most sorry for work in the council comms team. Having this dog’s breakfast of a mess dumped on their desks every couple of months to try and justify!

It’s no wonder one of its most experienced comms performers, Gareth Cosslett, has accepted the Sellafield shilling.

A TRACK RECORD OF BIG FINANCIAL PACKAGES

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Let’s not forget that this is the same council which allowed Jill Stannard, a member of staff since 2005 and it’s chief executive between (2009-13), to leave with a package worth £411,000.

She left her £170,000-a-year post in May 2013 and with echoes of the current row, it took the council 14 months to face the music and tell the public how much she was paid.

That happened exactly a year ago this week..during last year’s publication of its annual report.

For the record, her handshake included an £87,000 lump sum, her salary for the part of the year she worked and a one-off £297,000 top-up to her pension pot.

Surprise, surprise…She joined the NHS recently.

But to be fair, she also bailed out the authority through the floods crisis which saw most of Carlisle under 12ft of water.

THE FORMER DIRECTOR NOW RUNNING A LEADERSHIP BUSINESS

julia morrison

Let’s also not forget Julia Morrison who is another important example in terms of context.

She was another member of the council’s top team of recent years.

Ms Morrison was a director at C.C.C responsible for its Childrens Services. It failed Ofsteds and she eventually went off on sick leave for around four months and then left in March 2014 to “pursue other interests”.

The council’s children services was recently again ranked “inadequate” earlier this year for the third time.

Ms. Morrison was replaced, briefly, by Helen Smith, who was offered the job at C.C.C despite having been suspended and resigning from a council further down the country that was failing kids. (Suspension is often a neutral act.)

The battered department in Cumbria is now overseen by a new director who has been praised by Ofsted for his work, although the section now remains at risk of being ripped from the council’s grasp by the Government.

It cost £228,509 for Ms. Morrison to go and she is now looking considerably healthier and happier. As well she might. Children’s services in Cumbria is clearly the Department of Nightmares.

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Ms Morrison is co-running a business, as an “executive coach”. Which, its website says, does stuff like this…

“Through curious questioning, careful listening, insightful challenge and compassionate, mindful focus your coach will help you to explore your thinking, find what drives or holds you back, and support you to resolution.”

A colleague tells me she recently published an advisory post on LinkedIN called “It’s ok to say no”.

But not to money perhaps?

THE EMPIRE FIGHTS BACK…

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Despite the continued embarrassment over directors leaving the sinking ship with big financial packages – C.C.C has a brass neck. Ms Morrison’s departure was printed in big headlines across the local paper and C.C.C wasted little time in complaining to the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC). C.C.C played semantics by arguing the toss about the wording of the headline, and went on to make an entirely legitimate point about errors in a readers’ letter.

And won its case.

C.C.C duly knocked out a triumphant press release hailing the decision as some kind of moral victory in the crusade for better journalism.

But local newspapers never write about other local newspapers. So what was the point of the press release apart from self congratulation?

council complaints

Stewart Young, leader of the council

Stewart Young (left) with Lib Dem deputy leader Pat Bell (right)
Stewart Young (left) with Lib Dem deputy leader Pat Bell (right)

The supreme leader of the council is Stewart Farries Young, or “Kim” as some like to joke. He represents Upperby in Carlisle with a 600 or so majority.

My own experience of Stewart is that he’s rarely near a phone when there’s bad news (like most politicians). And like most politicians, when he’s on the ropes, he is inclined to defend the indefensible until he’s blue in the face, especially if it protects his party.

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My piece on unitary authorities from the @CWHerald

Along with his cutting, funny one-liners, one of Stewart’s strongest skills is being able to rationalise his way out of an argument. Often in understated, earnest tones.

But a failure of many councils is that its long-standing members can’t avoid developing strong friendships with the officers they’re supposed to be in charge of.

Stewart recently stood up in county hall and criticised the media’s fascination with the Mark Fletcher-Brown story – saying it’s not a story. That’s why I thought I’d write one at this level of detail…to see if anyone would read it.

Prone to occasional piety, Stewart swore a solemn oath to never reveal officers’ pay (despite it being public money).

He sat down in his seat on the front bench with the cheers and foot-stamps of his loyal, councillors ringing in his ears.

Most of these hail from Cumbria’s tough and poor towns (Carlisle, Barrow, Whitehaven etc). They occupy the majority of the 84 seats on C.C.C.

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In recent meetings, Stewart has, at least in my narrow “spectator’s” impression of these things, radiated a disillusionment with local politics. Cutting budgets is not what Stewart, and others, signed up for and his 60th birthday is not far off.

He has also not shaken off, I suspect, the long but ultimately failed attempt to install photogenic “woman of the people” Lee Sheriff as Labour MP for Carlisle.

This was all going well until Lee started being asked questions during a live radio debate and began to babble. I was on my way to Carlisle and heard one of the debates.

I was so gripped by how horribly squeamish it was, that I moved to turn the sound up and accidentally drifted from the fast lane into the centre lane..and nearly into the path of an oncoming Eddie Stobart lorry.

But by the time the sun had set on May 7 and the results were in, the car crash was all Lee’s.

OSBORNE’S BARBECUE BUDGET?

Summer budget
Summer budget

The council’s chief exec, Diane Wood, is dreading July 8. That’s the date of George Osborne’s new summer budget where he is expected to skewer local government finances again and grill them on a barbecue.

Undiluted Tories in national Government will further axe council budgets, although one of Stewart’s qualities is his acerbic sense of humour…

Tweet from @stewartyoung058
Tweet from @stewartyoung058

But he’s one of the few in the council chamber able to roll with the punches coming from combative Tory leader James Airey, who loves to blast opposition members as much as he likes to go shooting.

As these tussles unfold, most of the Lib Dems tend to watch on silently – hoping no-one will notice that they’re mea culpa in all of this too as the power-sharing party controlling C.C.C.

I’m sure Stewart puts in a lot of hours as leader and on the basis of the Tweet below, he’d probably like to see councillors paid more for it…

paidmore

But he’s been leader three times now and over the years that will add up to a few hundred thousand.

For example, in 2013-14, he received total payments of just over £31,000 for his role, which included £1,300 in travel and expenses.

But when you consider the multi-million pound responsibilities the job carries and the flak they have to take, would you do it?

And the suggestion seems to be that, in spite of all the calamities, councillors may even get a possible pay rise. If this recent press release is anything to read into..

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FLETCHER GETS A BETTER OFFER…

markfletcherbrown comms journal

As for Mark Fletcher-Brown, he’s gone now. Down the M6 in a Merc or Jag or whatever he drives. Sadly, despite his media prowess, we never spoke. But I fear he would have laid a Jedi Mind Trick on me anyway.

“I’m not the droid you’re looking for.”

Looking online, I notice his current website is being re-designed and if you live in Cumbria, your probably paying the bill for it by the way 😉

He’s also gone shy on Twitter too – locking his account so that his management mantras (and photos of exotic destinations that he’s visited) can only be seen by faithful followers.

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But after six well-paid months of spinning straw into gold up at the C.C.C, the big legacy is that the communications team that welcomed him last October and hung on his every word, is now being decapitated.

And it has not gone unnoticed that despite being defended as being required to help communicate its budget position to the public, actual public involvement in the council’s budget consultation of 2014-15 was less than half it was on the year before when he wasn’t there.

It fell from 1,500 responses in 2013-14 to just 624 in 2014-15. (Basically, around 0.1 per cent of the total population of Cumbria took part (although not all of the population pay council tax).

Who knows how much, or little of his hand was over it? Not me.

Curiously, it seems that every time Mark moves on, the story creeps out somehow and ends up plastered all over the media. This must give him acres of free exposure from which to catch the eyes of panicked town hall bosses?

mark fletcher brown

They say he’s at Rotherham now. Where a report found that 1,400 children were systematically groomed and abused by Asian gangs in the town between 1997 and 2013. A place that’s had, what Mark might call, an “opinion dip”.

 C.C.C’S DEADPAN WEBSITE… 

County council website
County council website

THE BIG SHOWDOWN IN KENDAL’S COUNTY HALL…

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The excerpt below is a pivotal moment in the story from back in April. After tearing her hair out in frustration, journalist Caroline Barber revealed via an FOI that the council had tried to “kill” news of Mark Fletcher-Brown’s appointment.

Kill the story...
Kill the story… (an excerpt from the Evening Mail story)

And below is the full exchange between Stewart Young and James Airey from a council meeting in April this year.

“WILL YOU APOLOGISE TO THE PEOPLE OF CUMBRIA?”

james airey

JAMES AIREY: “Following an FOI request by the local media, it is now clear that your administration deliberately tried to hide the appointment of a £700-a-day media guru from the public of Cumbria. Will you now apologise to the residents of Cumbria for this shameful behaviour?”

“THE MEDIA ARE NOT PART OF THE DEMOCRATIC SYSTEM” stewart young

STEWART YOUNG: “It’s entirely up to the newspapers what stories they wish to print. They are after all, private businesses, they’re responsible to their shareholders. They have to try to make a profit, they’re not part of the democratic system. 

“I have to say I have always been intrigued as to why they think this is a major story. They continue to bombard us with FOIs, I understand, although obviously as elected members we don’t see those requests.

“Rather strangely, you’re not allowed to reveal who submitted the FOIs, even if you submit an FOI to find out that information! We do know that the Press cost the council tax payer a huge amount of money in submitting – what on many occasions I have to say – are frivolous FOIs.

“I have been thinking for some time we ought to work out the cost to the county council, it is substantial. You wouldn’t believe some of the requests that we get and we are obliged to answer.

“Our full time communications officer moved on to pastures new, we did employ a consultant. We’ve never commented on how much that consultant was paid, and I don’t intend to comment on that today, as I wouldn’t comment on the salaries of any of our staff.

“The press print figures that they make up – again as they’re entitled to do. And I have to say James, you repeat those figures, in fact I suspect the figures they make up they actually get from you. Unfortunately I can’t submit an FOI to the Press to find out where they get their figures from…

“The reality is that the employment of that consultant has contributed to saving the county council half-a-million pounds a year. Going forward, we will have reduced the number of staff in our communications team from 27 to 12.

“It’s a significant contribution to the huge amount of savings we have to contribute. As you know Mark Fletcher-Brown left our employment at the end of March having done the job that we asked him to do.

“I know the Press put in requests to see emails, they ran a story that somehow or other we were trying to kill the story. The reason that people use that language is because there wasn’t actually a story.

“There was no story but the Press continued to run it. So, I think the answer I would give to you James is that you need to move on. I can’t be responsible for the stories the Press choose to run.

“Obviously they’re wanting to run negative stories in the run-up to the election in two weeks time, but that’s a matter for them.”

“TO TURN THE TABLES ON THE MEDIA IS SHAMEFUL”

james airey

JAMES AIREY: “Stewart, to be honest I don’t know why you employed the guy – you’re a pretty good spin doctor yourself. But to turn the tables on the media and accuse them of wrongdoing and costing council tax payers, is actually shameful Stewart, and you do need to apologise to the public of Cumbria.

“The reason I keep raising the question is because it keeps getting raised to me by my constituents and people right across Cumbria on the doorsteps. It is shocking, it is shameful. The facts were there…they were in emails…this was not made up by the media.”

“These facts were in emails that had to be requested by the media, if they had just been given by our staff to the media in the first instance it wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers of this county a penny.

“I’m afraid the fault lies entirely with you and your administration for trying to hide a very damaging story that cost the people of Cumbria an absolute fortune.

“We do not need outside people to come in to slim down our workforce. We have an excellent communications team, we still have an excellent communications team and this chap, Fletcher-Brown, added nothing to it.”

“PAPERS ARE IN DECLINE, WE’RE GOING TO SOCIAL MEDIA”

stewart young

STEWART YOUNG:“There is nothing to apologise for. Our officers employ the staff that they need to employ to deliver what the council has asked them to deliver. I have had it said to me: “Why do we need to have communications?”

“The fact is as a council we need to communicate, not just with the press, sometimes through the press, but essentially to communicate with the public and also with our staff.

“Of course we need to communicate, and communication is difficult. And can I say it’s made more difficult by the fact that the traditional print media in particular, its business model is in difficulty.

“We understand that, its got declining numbers, few and fewer people are reading their newspapers, the challenge for us is, how do we then communicate with the public? We’re looking at the new media, social media, we’re looking at different ways of doing it.

“There will be 1,800 staff leaving the organisation over the next three years, it’s vitally important that whilst that is happening we keep the wheels on the wagon and we keep services being delivered to people and that means we have to communicate with our staff.

“It was all of those things that Mark Fletcher-Brown was advising us about as well as the reorganisation of the department and he’s done his job, I don’t know where he is now, he’s gone on to somewhere else, and we’ve saved half-a-million pounds which I’m very content with and for which I don’t apologise.

THE F.O.I “GAMES” C.C.C SEEM TO PLAY

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The press office at C.C.C was refusing to confirm or deny Mark’s salary was £700-a-day and in the interests of both accuracy and intrigue, I was keen to know.

In January, I sent a Freedom of Information request but got nowhere with the responses and they only blurred the issue for me. The council likes to half answer questions, it seems.

So I tried a different approach.

Q1: Is the council going to be, or expect to be, charged for the work of its part-time temporary communications consultant?

CCC: Yes

Q2: Does the council know how much it is going to be charged?

CCC: Yes

Q3-4: What is the total amount of money the council expects to be charged and for what time period? How much has the council budgeted to spend on the part-time temporary communications consultant, and over what time period?

CCC: This information is exempt from disclosure under Section 22 of the FOIA as it intended for future publication.  A full explanation will be published to coincide with the publication of the Annual Accounts as the expenditure relates to 2014/15. The Council’s Draft Accounts will be published before 30th June to meet statutory financial reporting requirements.

((Clearly, Section 22 of FOIA needs to be radically overhauled as it’s an easy cop out for power-crazed councils not to reveal sums until they’re good and ready with all their ducks in a row)).

HOW MANY COUNCIL MANAGERS DOES IT  TAKE TO ANSWER AN F.O.I?

Duncan McQueen and Dawn Roberts of C.C.C
Duncan McQueen and Dawn Roberts of C.C.C

Q5: With whom were my questions shared, discussed? Name and job title please?

CCC: 

  • Dawn Roberts, Assistant Director, Corporate Governance
  • Duncan McQueen – Senior Manager, Performance and Risk
  • Gareth Cosslett, Strategic Communications Adviser
  • Claire Park, Team Leader, Corporate Complaints and Information Compliance

Q6: Are these answers solely and entirely yours? (I was addressing Claire Park)

CCCSee Q6 (earlier answer)

Q7: Did anyone else take part in formulating the answers? If so please provide their names and job titles?

CCC: See Q6 (earlier answer)

Q8: In respect of your saying it would cost over £450 to answer my questions regarding CCC disclosing emails, please provide your actual cost estimate. I am happy to pay this but before spending money I’d prefer to know the actual cost and would like you to demonstrate why you think it would cost over £450)

CCC: Under the Freedom of Information Act the council can refuse requests that will take longer than 18 hours to complete.  Based on the wording of your request and the information that was potentially within scope the council estimated that it would exceed the cost limit.  For this reason a more detailed breakdown of cost and time has not been completed.

((So essentially they “estimated” it would cost £450 but never got round to sitting down and, erm, doing the actual maths.

Some might say that this says a lot about their approach to public finances.))

Q9: Please provide the full tender document relating to the appointment of the interim part-time communications consultant.

CCC: Information relating to this question is being retrieved and will follow shortly.

NB: It never arrived.

F.O.I REQUEST, MARCH 2015:

Q1: Beyond citing confidentiality, can you tell me the specific actual law/act/or guidance/CCC is drawing on/using to justify withholding information about Mr Fletcher-Brown’s daily rate/cost to the council?

CCC: “The council is relying on guidance issued by the Local Government Association (Local Transparency Guidance – Publishing Spending and Procurement Information) in relation to the Local Government Transparency Code 2014.   Any salary payment to an employee (including bonuses) except when published under the senior salary scheme is exempt from disclosure under Section 40 of the FOIA as it is the personal data of the employee. The guidance states that: “Any personal information that identifies an individual, or data that could lead to harm to an individual, is excluded from publication.”

Note: ((This too needs to be overhauled as, in my opinion, it’s public money).

Q2: Has Cumbria County Council ever published Mr Fletcher-Brown’s claims in its monthly spend over £500 and does intend to? (If it has published in this way, can you point me to it online with links to each of the months where the spend is claimed/published.)

CCC: In line with the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code the council publishes details of all expenditure over £500 via the Open Data pages: http://www.cumbria.gov.uk/council-democracy/accesstoinformation/opendata/default.asp.

((I never found any evidence it had published the figures in its spend over £500 and the accurate answer to Q2 should have been “no” – because of course it wasn’t paying Mark Fletcher-Brown but Gatenby Sanderson. But C.C.C knew that answering “no” would have let the cat out of the bag to the media that someone else was involved in the payment.))

Q3: If the council is not publishing this information, does it accept it is not conforming with the Local Government Transparency Code (updated on 3 October 2014)?

CCC: See response to Q2.

THE DEPT OF COMMS AND LOCAL GOVT

dclg

After being royally messed around and starting to losing patience, I rang DCLG. They said councils should publish spend over £500, and include contract and tender information and senior salaries.

Councils are also cautioned against citing the Data Protection Act 1998 as a way of concealing payments. The Act “does not automatically prohibit information being published,” says the DCLG.
 
But there was no word on the FOI clauses which C.C.C had referenced, which ultimately help councils stall the release of information and obscure the embarrassing stuff.
 
DCLG encourages local authorities to “name the suppliers” with whom it has contracts, including sole traders, because of “the public interest in accountability and transparency in the spending of public money.”
 
A spokesman for DCLG’s transparency program said the council should reveal “the total amount of spend” on Mr. Fletcher-Brown as he is an external contractor.
 
“The payment would be regarded as paying a sole trader or supplier for a service,” she added.
 
((But of course, it was Gatenby Sanderson who were being paid by the council.))
 

F.O.I EXCHANGE: FEBRUARY 2015

Q1-3: What is the total amount of money paid to the council’s part-time temporary communications consultant and over what time period? Please include expenses and breakdowns of these expense items. What is the equivalent daily and hourly rate in pounds that the council has been charged for its part-time temporary communications consultant?  What is the maximum single amount claimed by the consultant from the council and for how many days/hours of work? When was this and what was it for?

CCC: The council has not made any payments to or processed any expense claims from Mark Fletcher-Brown.

Q4: Who does the consultant report to at an officer and member level and who is his line manager?

CCC: Dawn Roberts, Assistant Director Corporate Governance

Q5: Please provide all email communications between the PR consultant and the communications manager since his work began, and between the PR consultant the leader, chief exec and deputy leader

CCC: “We can confirm that the council holds information falling within the description specified in your request. We estimate, however, that the cost of complying with your request would exceed the appropriate limit, specified in regulations for Local Government, of £450. Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act the council is not obliged to comply with your request due to the excessive cost of providing you with a response.  The council will reconsider a revised request should you chose to submit one but please be aware that this will be handles as a new request for information.”

Q6: Please explain how the consultant was appointed. Please detail any costs relating to this appointment and whether an external firm was paid/used to appoint this person?

CCC: Put out to tender; other bidders were Solace Enterprises, Veredus and Gatenby Sanderson.

FINAL THOUGHTS AFTER NINE MONTHS OF FRUSTRATION…

Cumbria County Council does a lot of good work, on a daily basis, that you’ll never hear about. But it also allows fiascos like this to blow up and, as I have hopefully demonstrated here, then uses them to play silly games with the media, who ask these questions on behalf of the voting/tax-paying public who keep them in well-paid jobs.

This has been a sorry and regretful saga that I, for one, want to forget as quickly as possible. It has only served to increase my distrust in the highest tiers of public organisations, and erode my dwindling faith in democracy.

My natural instinct is to fight apathy and encourage people to take part in the process, but when councils behave like this and are defended for doing so by the politicians supposed to represent us…

Whether this whole, ridiculous affair will be one of C.C.C’s epitaphs – a final, avoidable blunder before it’s struck by a financial meteorite and becomes a unitary, I’m not sure.

But in the meantime – don’t forget to vote.

2 thoughts on “The Spin Doctor and Cumbria County Council’s PR Disaster

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