This is a beef of mine. Councils and public bodies that spend our money are not held accountable locally are they? You get the odd expenses story or when something goes wrong but someone actually trying to find out about the value for money of services councils have delivered never happens. But why is that? When I went to UCLan to study journalism in the early noughties I expected we would be taught about how to investigate not just how to tell the story. It was a disappointment to me that this aspect of journalism seems to be ignored at university courses. I understand why though… the skills of the investigative reporter are not wanted across much of the industry with a few notable exceptions. I want to stress though the course I did at UCLan was a life changer and a wonderful experience but not quite what I expected that’s all.
Answer the question Sean
Why is local journalism not holding the public sector to account?
Well I think it’s because local papers and radio don’t have the time to go through the sheer weight of administration our local public sector produces to find the answers out. Councils have become closed over the years and although you can get a set of accounts they are not much use when you are trying to find out if they are getting value for money in the spending they do.
Also the skills required don’t match those of your average local newspaper/radio/TV journalist plus there is not a huge incentive for anyone to rock the local boat is there? Plus there are many people who could not give a flying fig if their local council are wasting money. This is the other thing missing from this journalism equation… that is passion for the subject and often a real connection with the locality they serve. Let’s face it, it is a cynical and often politically charged business this journalism thing.
So in an effort to address this we will soon be doing some journalism at SPACE on the new website and here and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, journalism is about communicating ideas AND uncovering stories so I hope for the young people that work with us on this that will be a good opportunity for them.
Secondly, I am watching as local councils cut youth services back to the bone because they now have no money. But how good at running these services are the councils? How well did they use the torrents of money that poured into their budgets during the good times? I fail to see the results among young people I know of all that extra spending but I do see where alot of it was wasted on buildings, staff, buying things nobody uses and dumb ideas that never worked.
I could but won’t list half a dozen areas we will look at locally. How come youth services in Blackpool are going to be cut so badly? How did they spend past monies? What were the real outcomes of that spending?
So often I saw money spent that had no impact at all on young people locally yet we as a social enterprise were funding our work ourselves out of our salaries from our day jobs and the small micro business we have created.
Due to the way councils hide this kind of information or make it hard to find out, we are going to have to go on a journey into the world of council accounts. Last time I did this I realised just how difficult they make it to understand who spends what and why. We will dig through the numbers, make freedom of information requests and in a positive way shine a light on the performance of local councils.
I am really looking forward to this aspect of our social enterprise because my belief is that it is only through “disruptive change” that we will get better services and facilities for young people. It is not just about throwing money around (we know that from the past) so let’s learn the lessons and ensure when money does come to youth services again that it is spent in an accountable and sustainable way.
If anyone who reads this fancies getting involved with the journalism aspect of SPACE just email us or comment here.