One of the hottest buzz-words in the UK public sector right now appears to be “diversity” which, as I understand it, basically means celebrating the richness of the UK culture or getting on with your ethnic minority neighbours.  As the conquerors and oppressors of innumerable cultures in the past we Brits are falling over backwards to make up for our evil past by making the folks we have displaced feel “at home at our place”.  Just the kind of thing guaranteed to get lefties throwing public money around like confetti – which it seems is just what they are doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the diversity idea is fine.  It might not feature much above chip-and-pin wheely bins and installing badger tunnels under trunk roads on my “must do with taxpayers money” list in these hard times, but if was standing for election right now I wouldn’t be making a big thing about adding it to my list of proposed public sector spending cuts either.  However, initiatives like this do tend to reveal the yawning gulf that exists between well conceived national policy and local government naivety (or depending on how you see it “incompetence”).

Last week was Chinese New Year – the year of the tiger or something – and the town where I stay when I am in the UK staged a diversity event.  This was devised and has been run for the past few years by a husband-and-wife team who have some nice, if a little cutesy, ideas and, it seems, a simplistic and naive approach to management.  They told me that over the years the event has grown, although they didn’t seem to have access to any numbers other than a rough guess that visitors currently numbered around two-hundred, which it seems to me is more a bit of a get-together than an event – I’ve had bigger parties in my Prague apartment.  However, more power to their elbow.  If they are prepared to flog themselves to death for a year to entertain a couple of bus-loads of people then good luck to them.  But here’s the rub.

There wasn’t an ounce of commercialism in the venture at all.  Everything was a cost.  Every glaring revenue-generating opportunity, from the provision of chinese food by local restaurants to face painting and lantern-making for the kids, was duly ignored in the name of purity.  But purity has a price and in this case the taxpayer was footing the bill … not once, but twice!  Firstly the County Council were contributing taxpayers money from their “diversity” fund and then every visitor was paying for a ticket at the rate of £5 a head or £12 for a family of four, which, when you add it all up, isn’t cheap when most of the labour was voluntary.  But the real bummer was that the limited resources, skills and experience of the organisers resulted in a bit of a shot in the foot.

Firstly the publicity in the local paper quoted the price of family tickets at £5 insead of £12 so every family that turned up was instantly annoyed.  The price included a shambles of a children’s theatre production which the organisers seemed to think was just fine because the kids had only had two days to prepare for it (they didn’t seem to get it that people were paying, the organisers had had at least a year to work out how to prepare better and the kids were probably embarrassed to hell).  Tickets also included a “chinese meal” served in the Town Hall Council Chamber, which was organised on a sitting schedule, was an hour late and not very good and, to cap it all, by the time diners had extracted themselves from the lunch the volunteers who had set up and were supposed to be running the side-shows in another building, had decided that nobody was coming, so packed up and left, which meant that there were no activities.

I appreciate that there are folks out there who might think that I am being unsympathetic, but I do believe these things are a great idea, they just have to be viable and there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be.  I don’t think its the place of local government/taxpayers to pay for them – underwrite them by all means, but only if there is a business plan and a genuine attempt by the organisers to make them viable.  There was a film maker sent by the County Council to record the event, undoubtedly to “big” it and them up at Whitehall at some future date, but actually what was needed was for the council nobs to get their fat-cat Business Link buddies to give the organisers some free advice and support – make a contribution for a change.  I am sure that even Business Link could run a raffle (well, maybe not)!

Diversity is a great idea, but in the hands of do-gooding local councils, as in this case, ideas can produce the opposite to the intended response with visitors leaving feeling angry and disappointed and taxpayers feeling betrayed.  Wholesome events don’t have to cost money either.  The Prague Marathon – the third largest marathon franchise in the world – and in a developing economy to boot – runs on a team of six full-time employees.  All the rest are volunteers and sponsored activities and I would be embarrassed to tell you how much revenue that generates!

With the UK facing the prospect of unprecedented cutbacks in public spending our public sector needs to get real.  The easy option, and I’m certain that it will emerge, will be for local services to be cut back and events like this to fall victim to the axe, but if the folks at County Hall deserve to stay in their jobs this wouldn’t be the case.  That’s the challenge to the public sector, who, for the first time is going to have to demonstrate some commercial competence.  Running a country, a county or a town is a business.  Customers are looking for improved value.  If you can’t hack it, stand aside and let someone who can see the ball.

Meanwhile I genuinely do appreciate the effort and commitment that the organisers put into Chinese New Year in Redditch and I feel as bad as anyone about it not hitting the mark, but next time, I’d like to see the County Council support them with expert help and advice rather than cash, even if that advice is to bring in someone to show them how to make this the event it could be.

Michael Weaver
March 10, 2010

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