Monday, 31 January 2011

UPDATED Barnet council talking to private firm about running libraries

I've been tipped off about this story, "US firm ‘can save county’s libraries’", which has just been published in the Oxford Times.

Barnet council is mentioned as one of the authorities in talks with a private company, Library Systems & Services UK, about running the libraries service.

The article is about Oxfordshire libraries, but the story gives an idea of how, if at all, LSSI manages to keep costs down in privatised libraries:
Mr Fitzgerald [LSSI's vice president] said the firm would look at cutting staffing and management costs but could not be specific as it had not spoken with the council.

He said: “We would relish the opportunity to have a discussion. Some people perceive the involvement of the private sector means selling off the Crown Jewels. We would not own the libraries, the shelves or the books.

“We would simply manage the staff and service, under a five to 15-year contract.”

Mr Fitzgerald said talks with one South of England council looking to close 40 per cent of branches had led LSSI to propose keeping all open without cutting opening hours.

Only one of England’s 151 local authorities, the London Borough of Hounslow, has contracted out its libraries, to private firm John Laing.

But Mr Fitzgerald predicted up to 12 councils would follow by the end of this year and LSSI is working with authorities including Somerset and Barnet on future plans.
UPDATE: Barnet council is not talking to LSSI (not yet, anyway). The reporter mixed Barnet up with Brent. However, it's good that we have found out about LSSI, and I urge you to read the comments below: Mr Fitzgerald of LSSI has written a response to my original blogpost. The mix-up allows us to rehearse our arguments against privatising public services.

And, of course, I've tipped off Brent Fightback about what might be in store for their libraries.


Stuart St V Fitzgerald said...

Dear Vickim57
I'm afraid, when interviewed by Liam Sloan, the Oxford Mail's journalist, about what LSSI could do for Oxfordshire's (and other) library services, he didn't quite manage to quote me correctly. I was very careful NOT to say with which authorities we're working but I did mention that Somerset and BRENT (not Barnet) are looking at their options for libraries - all of which is in the public domain. I couldn't have said Barnet because I simply don't know where they're up to with their library service.

Furthermore, Liam's piece was also inaccurate ref what I actually said about staffing and management. I said, when asked what we could do to help library services "We would obviously start by ensuring that management and staffing budgets are being managed as efficiently as possible." That surely goes without saying.

Vickim57, LSSI is about libraries, reading and books (and a lot more besides using the physical, virtual and outreach elements of our services). Library management is practically all we do and as such our entire business depends 100% on making sure we get every single library branch right; first time; every time. Therefore it is utterly not in our interests to offer to do something we're incapable of doing well. we are libraries advocates.

As a council taxpayer I would certainly rather see a more efficiently run library service in my city than the current vogue spreading across the nation to close branches thus threatening our young people's right to literacy and older people's right to have a safe place to browse and to enjoy books whilst remaining independent.

Please have faith in me and in LSSI - we only improve library services wherever we go.

Many thanks for reading this and I apologise for the annoyance the Oxford Mail's misquotes may have caused you and fellow Barnet residents. Liam Sloan is aware of my disappointment and I'm sure he will confirm that if you'd like to contact him.

I will also be contacting Barnet's Leader and CX to apologise. If you would like to speak with me directly, please feel free to follow the links from our website.

Rog T said...

Dear Mr Fitzgerald,

Am I correct in saying that Brent are planning library closures. Please can you explain where these "efficienies" come from. Presumably it's either less books, less staff or lower pay and worse T&C's for staff leading to worse staff. On top of that you have to make a profit.

My suspicion is that if a company such as ISSI runs the library, it gives the council someone else to blame for any problems and that is the real political pay off for them. I'd be very interested to see evidence that libraries have delivered a better service following their takeover by your company. Whilst you may be correct, I suspect that in the realms of Council Outsourcing it would be a first

Citizen Barnet said...

Dear Mr Fitzgerald,

thank you for taking the trouble to contact me over the mix-up between Barnet and Brent. There's many a London journalist, less forgivably, makes the same mistake.

(I'm surprised that Barnet hasn't been in touch with you! They are embarked on a large-scale outsourcing project, One Barnet (aka easyCouncil).)

I've only heard of LSSI today and so I haven't had time to explore what you do at length. I'm guessing you're a commercial company that seeks to turn a profit from delivering contracted-out services on behalf of local authorities.

The question and the worry for many people who oppose privatisation of public services is: how do you manage it? How do you manage to run a service cheaper and, yet, turn a profit?
Where is the squeeze? The staff? The level of service? There’s got to be one somewhere.

The overarching question is: if you can do it, why can't we (I mean, the in-house council service, which is democratically accountable to the residents)? And, if we did it, couldn't we also keep any savings we make to spend on other services, rather than paying them out as a dividend to a handful of shareholders?

Barnet’s outsourcing programme has so far managed to cost more money than it has saved. We are promised savings in two or three years time – many of us doubt there will ever be any. Meanwhile, staff are demoralised, residents are anxious, and consultants get fat on all the vague reports that the council commissions.

Excuse us if we are sceptical. The shame of it is that the scenario I suggested, that savings could be made inhouse, has been on offer. For three years the council promised to consult widely with staff and residents about making ways to improve service delivery. They simply haven’t done that.

There’s something else to object to in what you say. You write “I would certainly rather see a more efficiently run library service in my city than the current vogue spreading across the nation to close branches.”

Closing libraries is not a vogue, Mr Fitzgerald. It’s part of a massive, ideologically driven cuts agenda, the government deciding to axe local government spending by about a quarter over the next four years. I don’t object to you trying to earn a living, but sniffing around hoping to pick up the odd contract here and there while this process plays out is, largely, beside the point.

(You know that other cost-saving ideas are “in vogue” such as getting volunteers to run libraries, and, an idea floated here in Barnet, running libraries out of Starbucks – mostly all preposterous.)

We here in Barnet, like campaigners in Oxford and Brent, are going to oppose the closure of our libraries, and cuts across the board. We aren’t going to embrace the privatisation agenda as an alternative. People like you could get jobs in the public sector helping to improve delivery. Any savings made would go back into the service, not into the bank accounts of a few LSSI shareholders. I think your talents are wasted where you are.

Of course, I am using your reply to my blogpost to make some political points for a wider audience, and I don’t for a moment blame you for trying to make a buck (or working for a company that tries to make a buck).

There are some useful lessons here, however. Your reply has been far more fulsome and courteous than any we have ever had from Barnet councillors themselves. But then you are defending the reputation of a small private company; Barnet’s Conservative councillors only represent themselves and the governing party of the UK.

Best wishes,
Vicki Morris

David Duff said...

Private libraries? Excellent idea. I remember when Boots used to have a small library in all their big shops. Bring them back and then we can close down all those Victorian mausoleums that must cost a fortune to repair and to heat and get rid of all those librarians whose pay and pensions cost me a fortune.

Citizen Barnet said...

I'm starting to think, DD, that you are an agent of the Labour Party, sent out to make Conservatives look bad. (Like they need help with that.)

Carry on, you're doing a splendid job.

David Duff said...

Alas, Vicki, not so. I am not one of life's joiners, or perhaps to be strictly accurate, no-one will have me. Can't think why!

Mrs Angry said...

I can imagine that in your Barbara Pym like world, Duff, a Boots library would suit very well: all those Georgette Heyers and Dennis Wheatleys, probably just your sort of thing, but some of us prefer a more challenging read, which is why we support our public libraries.I suppose they still have the Boots arrangement in Frome, next door to the Copper Kettle tearoom and Somerset's answer to Spearmint Rhino?

Moaneybat said...

Mr Angry,
That is some Right hook you delivered Mr Duff

Emma said...

There's an interesting New York Times piece on LSSI in the US.

In in, they quote the company's Chief Exec who says one of the ways LSSI saves money is by replacing unionised staff members.

The full piece is here:

Emma said...

Sorry, broken link. Here's the New York Times piece again - you'll need to remove the link break.

Citizen Barnet said...

Thanks, Emma.

And further on LSSI:
Bicester (Bucks?) looking into outsourcing to LSSI - report in local paper:

US library journal reports on campaigns by US library campaigners against outsourcing to LSSI:

And the Independent newspaper explores (15 Feb) LSSI and the possibility of library privatisation as part of Big Society:

Citizen Barnet said...

Emma's link wasn't working today (23rd Feb) but I think the article she refers to is here:

Citizen Barnet said...

Yup! Sounds pretty much like union busting to me!

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

The company, known as L.S.S.I., runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by cleaning house. The company is majority owned by Islington Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Boston, and has about $35 million in annual revenue and 800 employees. Officials would not discuss the company’s profitability.

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”