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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Is Brent Council Too Bureaucratic?

Returning to a comment on this post about grants, which asks why Brent Council does not access the same funds that seem to have been tapped in the case of two of the Borough's "Community Library" projects leads me to a number of thoughts. 

The first barrier is a straightforward rules based one, that many grant giving bodies simply don't allow public bodies like Councils to bid for their grants.  The argument is that public authorities have there own methods of funding (Public Works Loan Board loans for example), and that they should use those rather than crowd out smaller voluntary groups from accessing funding that is inevitably outstripped by supply. 

As well as total prohibition, a number of grant giving bodies may impose rules that make it more difficult for a Council to get a grant.  For example, a Council may be expected to provide a higher level of match funding.  It may be required to meet criteria that sit uneasily with a public sector ethos (meeting certain religious restrictions for instance).

More interestingly perhaps is the possibility of a difference in culture, where the merits of a public sector approach have as their flipside certain demerits that make it harder to apply for grants.  What I would see as in many cases the advantages of a good public sector body can become disadvantages in this context.  Councils can be very risk averse, not moving until it is clear that a decision has been fully risk assessed, that it is legally grounded, openly debated and so on.  Councils in particular are subject to democratic oversight that should make them better decision makers, but can also slow them down and make them less flexible.  All this, depending on your viewpoint can be seen as overly bureaucratic or as properly respectful of public resources.

Voluntary groups can be more flexible in bending to a grant givers' conditions and more like social entrepreneurs in quickly targeting fleeting opportunities.  In an ideal world, I think an effective political leadership would join the advantages of both approaches.  However, it is worth remembering that the "social entrepreneur" role can also have pitfalls.  Risks can be ignored, objections unreasonably brushed aside and corners cut in ways that can lead to problems in either the short or the longer term. 

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