Why pennies do matter

The best way to start a blog is often with a cliche. Look after the pennies, we are told, however contrast this to the claim often thrown at those in opposition – you’re missing the big picture. Can you do both? Of course – anyone who decides to forgo their small indulgences in favour of saving for a house, a car, a holiday is doing just that. So why the brickbats when a councillor suggests a bit of care with small budgets?

One of the first blogs I ever wrote focused on my confusion as a new councillor at the amount of letters I get from in response to emails I’ve sent. Why can’t you email me back? I appreciate that some things have to be sent as a letter – but the ultimate snub surely to cost effectiveness is to say that one letter to one person won’t break the budget, as I have been told recently by one organisation in response to a Freedom of Information request I made.

As a resident, I received a letter in response to something I had reported to them. It thanked me for my help and gave me some advice. Initially, I was pleased but then had a think about how many other residents across the city do what I’d done and received a letter in reply too. That’s a lot of letters, all posted out to residents, thanking them for reporting something that could actually be reported every day by every resident. I wonder how much that costs?

The response to my FoI was that they didn’t know – but that the cost would be so small as to not be worth bothering with. Interesting attitude.

Maybe it’s a one off, however to perhaps rub salt in the wound, I was surprised to receive a letter from the same organisation this week, in my capacity as a councillor, advising me that a member of staff was leaving. It was personalised to me, though the content was generic, thanking me for my help and signed off with a pp from the person’s PA. I appreciate the thought, but an email would’ve sufficed and I’d rest assured knowing my taxes were going into services, not unchecked bureaucracy.

Yep, it’s probably a petty thing to pick up on, but the implications of what it’s saying – don’t sweat the small stuff, we aren’t – sits uneasy with me. I pay my taxes to get a service, and although I’m a pretty understanding person (I’ve worked in two large public sector organisations myself), it sounds a bit worrying that a deliberate policy to send letters to people isn’t actually monitored for cost.

A few letters won’t break the bank – but does the attitude stretch further? Is there any monitoring of stationery? What about other consummables? You see, for me, these aren’t just a few small budgets that might be in danger of running wild, but an indication of a potential systemic problem. It’s often the small things that aren’t right that draw people to scratch below the surface and see bigger institutional failings. Sometimes too much concentration on the ‘bigger picture’ allows the spending of the pennies to get out of control.

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