Sunday, 19 April 2015

Corporate culture

There will be an extraordinary meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council on 17 June to consider a raft of changes to the council's constitution.

Those with long memories will recall that last year Carmarthenshire County Council asked the WLGA to carry out a peer review of its governance arrangements. The group duly reported back and councillors discussed the recommendations in November.

Rather than accept the recommendations, the council decided to review the review and pick out the bits which, in Kevin Madge's words, would "fit in" with the way things are done in Carmarthenshire. The idea was that the second review would be completed quickly and the changes adopted in the New Year.

Bearing in mind that the aim is supposedly to make Carmarthenshire "the most open and transparent council in Wales", the review group has been meeting behind closed doors, and its deliberations are available only through freedom of information requests.

The only change which has been brought in is removal of councillors' right to question matters arising from the minutes of the various scrutiny and other committees. So far, then, we have actually gone backwards.

Changes to the constitution were one part of the WLGA's recommendations, but more important than that was a call for a change of culture.

No matter whether you are a large bank, a multinational corporation, the BBC or a more humble county council, no organisation on this planet has ever succeeded in changing its culture without changing the personnel at the top, and Mark James, Kevin Madge, Meryl and Pam are going nowhere.

Which brings us back to the Breckman case which, in the final analysis, was all about the culture which has developed in County Hall over the last decade and a bit.

Carmarthenshire County Council employs around 9,000 people, and the vast majority of those are honest, decent and hard-working people, despite what Meryl Gravell has had to say about them.

As part of the investigations leading up to the publication of his report on the Breckman case, the Ombudsman for Public Services interviewed a number of key witnesses and then asked them to comment on the draft. One of those interviewed was a retired council officer, identified in the report as "Officer F", who had been responsible for planning enforcement.

The former officer's full response to the draft is contained in the report, and it reflects the sentiments expressed in only slightly more diplomatic fashion by Mark James and Meryl Gravell (see Dear William).

He begins:

"Initially it was my intention not to waste my time replying, as the contents of the report merely confirmed my belief that it was your clear intention to find for this woman so that she might finally disappear from your radar".

However, because someone had explained to him that silence could be taken to show that he was in agreement with the findings, he changed his mind.

Having impugned the professionalism and integrity of the Ombudsman, he then accuses the Ombudsman of impugning his own professionalism and that of the head of planning for failing to spot that Mr Thomas was operating a haulage business from Blaenpant Farm and suggesting that officers had allowed their dislike of Mrs Breckman to influence their judgement. If that was not bad enough, the Ombudsman had even challenged "planning decisions made by professional officers".

For her part, Mrs Breckman and other local residents would probably say that the officers concerned should probably have made an appointment with Specsavers.

What nonsense, he says. This woman is "sly, devious and a bully", he adds, rather proving the Ombudsman's case.

But Officer F is just getting into his stride. The Ombudsman has exceeded his remit and "you have for some reason ventured into the field of being a planning expert".

"Of course, your organisation is something of a loose cannon in that regard, as I have wondered on more than one occasion who exactly is the 'ombudsman's ombudsman'. You appear to be just a self-righteous part of the blame culture."

After several more paragraphs of rant, including a brief foray into the First World War to quote Kaiser Wilhelm II about lions and donkeys, he concludes that it would perhaps be better to pay Mrs Breckman off and be done with the matter.

"My only satisfaction in this sorry affair is that my initial belligerence resulted in my acquiring nearly £200 from you for my involvement".

And he concludes by telling the Ombudsman that he would be grateful not to be contacted again as he has "absolutely no interest" in the final conclusions.

The original text is shown below (click to enlarge):


Anonymous said...

As someone who has an interest in planning in rural areas I have been closely following this case initially from the first programme shown on television and now from comments on your blog.In one post I believe someone described the culture within Carmarthen Council as "Toxic."Having read the comments attributed to an officer mentioned in an ombudsman's report I can honestly say the adjective "Toxic" is exactly right.With reference to the post regarding the Breckmans the three programmes shown clearly expose what can happen in rural areas when planning officers are of a mind to "Turn a blind eye." The developments allowed under the guise of agriculture shows a blatant disregard for policies put in place to control unauthorised activities.In this case the vitriolic attack on someone who was exercising their democratic right to question unauthorised activities is reprehensible and is so clearly proof of the culture which still exists.The important question in this particular case spanning 11 years is WHY?!!!

Anonymous said...

Re. The obvious anger vented in the letter in question spilled over into unprofessional gabbling.

He wrote "The Ombudsman had reached conclusions which even challenged the planning decision made by professional officers."

Just fancy that I say!

Officer F would not be best pleased to know that quite a few more of us might actually agree whole-heartedly with any challenge to some planning decisions.
Needless to say those would only be the ones we believe to have been decided on less than professional grounds. Flinging around accusations of you "know nothing" or The Ombudsman's legal team knows nothing might be his true belief or might be a smokescreen. Whatever the reason behind the blabber, that letter has done him no credit and might even to some appear to be "Unprofessional" Let's hope he felt better after writing it.
He would have gained more respect had he just then torn it up.

Blodwen said...

I would dearly like to believe that this appallingingly rude letter to the Ombudsman from a retired council officer is a spoof. Unfortunately it's only too real and exactly demonstrates the toxic culture which still pervades the county council. No-one, not even the Ombudsman, is allowed to question or criticise anything this council does or fails to do. How on earth are we going to get rid of these awful people?

Cneifiwr said...

One contributor named the former officer. As he is now in retirement, there is nothing to gain from disclosing his identity. It is what he wrote which matters.

Please could I ask anyone else considering posting on this subject to refrain from naming him?

Anonymous said...

The first comment today ended with the big question.
Only a properly conducted lawful investigation might ever discover that reason. Let's face it there just has to be a reason.
Mistake, incompetence, contempt for any rules or laws? Those can only explain some decisions.
Even 'mistakes' could be attended to in any organisation which has the humility to even once accept that they are not above the law.
Without that, we have no recourse.
Can anyone tell us to whom are the Planning Service responsible?
Oh. may I correct that to add, "and will actually be interested enough to do something about the WHY?

Anonymous said...

This officers quite vicious attack on both Mrs. B and indeed the Ombudsman is truly shocking but confirms the culture/mindset of this council when they are required to respond truthfully to legitimate, albeit sometimes unpalatable questions.
They clearly hold anyone and everyone in contempt. As Blodwen says even the Ombudsman comes under fire for simply doing his job.

ramaredtheone said...

If the government at Cardiff Bay is serious in clearing out the "deadwood" in local Councils it should stand up and be counted and promise to bring Carmarthen County Council under control. The comment "we do not have the finance and manpower to check on the behaviour of Councils"I'm afraid is no longer acceptable.How much longer are members of the public to be treated with total disdain by Carmarthen Officers both elected and unelected?

Anonymous said...

JUst to clarify one point related to the
comments described as "unprofessional gabbling" made by the officer.The ombudsman has access to planning officers as well as those from legal.Yes, we do need to know why in the particular case discussed here planning officers have allowed, over a long period,one person to expand commercial businesses under the guise of agriculture.Why indeed!

Tessa said...

Arrogant prick.

Anonymous said...

Shocking - but a window into the psyche of a culture which pervades this council. Integrity -objectivity - honesty is embedded in their code of conduct-all disappears when things don't go their way.

Blodwen said...

Beautifully put Tessa - right on the nail! Brief and to the point - brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Exposure is the best way to draw attention to these dreadful people's lack of moral compass.The welsh government also has a lot to answer.This is the time for anyone who has been affected by the action or non-action of unscrupulous councils to make their concerns heared.Even if one has not been affected the future must have safeguards against a repetition of what is going on behind closed doors in Carmarthen Council.
I have said "Closed doors" but some of the councillors and officers are quite happy to do it overtly in the knowledge they remain untouchable and devoid of responsibility.It is truly a blow against democracy and accountability.

Anonymous said...

The letter is so witty in a way but certainly well constructed with good grammar. I can't believe it was written by a council officer for those reasons I'm afraid.

I think it's a con !

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@15.34 Not quite. You will notice that the Ombudsman has inserted (sic) a couple of times.
It is all too genuine.

Anonymous said...

Incredible to think that Cardiff wants MORE power when they cannot even manage what they have got UNDER them now.... THEY ARE A JOKE.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is shocked by the letter, in the ombudsman's report, from the council officer, just imagine a situation of having to deal with him in the pursuit of valid answers.Impossible.

Anonymous said...

I honestly cannot understand why the Ombudsman continues to assist the CCC by not publishing all his reports whether damning or not. This is where his strength is. To withhold from the public information that enables the public to be fully informed when the time comes to make a cross on their ballot paper is playing into the hands of this "toxic" council. We need to be confident that the members we chose to represent us will listen to our concerns and make sure the executive and the officers act in the public interest not against it for their own (unknown) spurious reasons.

Could it be that it suits both the Ombudsman and the CCC to put across to the public that he to suffers disrespect from the CCC (proving he certainly has no reason to protect it's reputation). I have come to believe it's a kind of game between them as both have worked their way up through the same public body cultures and understand how public opinion needs to be managed and controlled. The Ombudsman is set up to give the public a sense of false security that he will support them when they have been wronged. He is instrumental in keeping the wider electorate in the dark by refusing to publish all of his reports good or bad. We are just pawns being played by these people (our representatives, public servants, Ombudsman). We are deliberately kept in the dark. Respect has to be earned by putting the public interest first; I do not see WAG, CCC or the Ombudsman doing this.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)

Anonymous said...

You are quite right Jennifer.You are speaking from experience and there are quite a few people in Carmarthen who even without personal experience realise the failure of a system which does not go far enough in delivering truth and justice.
The welsh government must address this issue.If Mark James can write to the petitions committee advising against any involvement in the case of the Breckmans
Letters should most certainly be sent to the leader of the Welsh government.

Anonymous said...

CCC are not at all concerned when the Ombudsman investigates them. The Ombudsman's hands are tied in such a way as he can only look for and expose 'maladministration'. That is sadly a quick slap on the wrist for officers, over and done, to simply carry on in the same old fashion. Who oversees the Ombudsman's recommendations? No-one! It's time for 'misconduct in public office' to be investigated, which is far more serious and is a criminal offence. This is something that the Welsh Assembly should be looking into, there is enough evidence, and also maybe Dyfed Powys Police. How much longer do the public have to put up with the mindset of this authority, so clearly obvious from the letter from Officer F. before someone decides enough is enough and steps in to look deeper into the conduct of this officer led council. Their own Code of Conduct states quite clearly:

'the public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all performing their duties employees must act with 'integrity' 'honesty' 'impartiality' and 'objectivity'. Oh really??

Officer F most certainly didn't abide by his Code of conduct as one can read from his disgraceful letter to the Ombudsman. It is time for another agency to step in and look more deeply into how this council is being managed.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 17:56 your " Their own Code of Conduct states quite clearly:

'the public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all performing their duties employees must act with 'integrity' 'honesty' 'impartiality' and 'objectivity'. Oh really??

To help reinforce the need for the above conduct an Authority produces Policies & Procedures which describe how officers should behave when interacting with the public, other employees and all matters that are of public interest. Were the leadership's conduct as described above it would make sure it's officers followed the very good policies of which the CCC are so proud and continually point to as proof of their good intentions. Trouble is, from personal experience, I have found the leadership, Administration & Law, Standards Committee, Scrutiny members and the Ombudsman have no interest in policing the policies by looking into whistleblowing complaints regarding the officers' failure to follow them. To change the culture in the CCC the Complaints Policy and the Whistleblowing Policy needs to be followed in an honest and impartial way. The leaders are forcing their own culture and attitudes on down to the officers. There are good people working for the CCC but they are being coerced into "maladministration". The Executive take offence when the CCC's culture is criticised and come up fighting (they are not fighting to find out the truth though)to denounce anyone with the temerity to speak up. WAG fails to take notice and act on evidence of this CCC's "Toxic Culture" and the Ombudsman abuses the Complaints Policy so as not to look into whistleblowers complaints. The only reason for this is either he is protecting the CCC or he is protecting his reputation as his actions have failed to improve it's culture and maladministration and misconduct abound. I personally find the Ombudsman lacking in any motivation to properly look after the public interest. His power is in thoroughly investigating and making public his reports. This would force the executive and members to police the officers or else hopefully lose their seats in the council. The local media needs to be less cowed by the CCC's actions against free speech and free expression whether by them, complainants or whistleblowers.
There honestly does need to be a wide, overarching inquiry by a body, independent of the local police, CSSIW, Ombudsman and WAG, into the CCC who would not have continued to act against the public interest had these bodies not deliberately turned a blind eye and ignored the warning signs. These bodies appear to have more interest in protecting each others reputation than the public interest.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention I went to my Labour AM Keith Davies to assist in persuading the CCC to look into how my complaint against POVA's actions was not being looked into. Nia Griffiths would not have been able to help as Welsh LAs are supposed to be policed/overseen by WAG. Keith Davies was not interested and told me the CCC had investigated the complaint (who gave him that wrong information I do not know). The CCC told the Ombudsman they had discussed the matter with him but I have seen no evidence under Data Protection that shows what was discussed, from him or the CCC. I doubt the independence of Keith Davies AM as his constituency assistant is a Labour County Councillor. I have always voted Labour and will vote for NIA but as for the ASSEMBLY elections I will have to find someone who intends to look after the interests of their constituents not the interests of this toxic CCC.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)