Supporting the development of community managed library services:

Supporting the development of community managed library services:

Posted by Jo Gooding  |  9th Mar 2012
An interview with David Jones, Service Delivery Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council

Many local authorities are being bashed from pillar to post as they restructure their service offer to residents in response to tightening budgets, and in some cases a recognition of the need for service reform and improvement.  David Jones, Service Delivery Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council spoke to Locality about how the Council has moved to adopt a bespoke approach to  the review of library service provision in fourteen library outlets, to build upon lessons learned in the past and, in particular, improve the way the council communicates with local communities about this issue.

The story starts five years ago….
…..With the closure of eight service outlets, leading to the creation of three independent libraries; Little Chalfont, Chalfont St Giles and West Wycombe. The independent libraries had access to the Council’s library book circulation system, preferential treatment with regard to leasing the library building, but all additional services were chargeable to the new independent bodies. In David’s own words, “they were spawned through conflict, and despite the odds, they thrived”. In the here and now the Council is again weathering difficult times, and balancing the desire to enable sustainable alternative library service delivery models, whilst meeting the requirement to meet tough and immediate budget cuts.

There are 14 libraries services being considered in Buckinghamshire for community management. Two are already open, three are due to change over in April, and a further 4 are working towards a self-managed solution. Of the remaining five, three will develop a partnership, with the local authority retaining a presence. The Council have yet to agree the direction of travel with another community, and further research and consultation will inform plans for  the remaining library; the latter is located within an area of high social deprivation and low social capital, and has been identified as requiring a longer term solution. 

This time the approach is different…
David talked about lessons having been learnt, and the steps being taken to avoid replication of past mistakes:

1. Provide clarity on local authority messages
When considering a community managed library approach, the local authority needs to be aware of the full impact across the whole library service. The evaluation of the Council’s position should include back office functions as well as changes to service delivery.  The size and location of the current service will require different models moving forward to ensure sustainability. Messages given during the process of negotiating with community groups should be informed, honest and unambiguous.

2. Think through the format of communication
Public meetings are not the best format for constructive conversation, whereas workshops facilitate open dialogue and can be used to test delivery concepts.

3. Sit down with community groups, talk through the vision and demystify the terminology
It is important to look at the ideas and motivation of the group as a starting point. The professional language used to describe some operational requirements and policies may not be readily understood. However, if you strip back to the actual outcomes required, you will find mutual common ground and understanding of how to implement actions to meet everyone’s requirements. It’s a question of language! In some cases the Council found local creativity and new solutions to improving access to services with great potential to enhance service provision. This is due to the application of different skill sets, greater freedom to try new approaches and local networks and knowledge. However, the groups would not have identified these activities in the formal expression of policies and procedures at the outset. 

4. Articulate a core resource grant to enable effective business planning
Buckinghamshire County Council has defined a standardised offer to its community-managed libraries. The core offer consists of: free IT equipment (broadband services are chargeable to library users), no rent for premises or book stock costs. All revenue generated by the library services is ring-fenced, and each library has a premises maintenance agreement. Community managed libraries are required to sign up to minimum standard outcomes measured by key performance indicators. David mentions that assessing performance in the early days is a ‘two way street’, with the Council recognising that systems and operations will need time to embed. The Council is ready to support and smooth the transition to avoid disruption to library users. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, transformation of management arrangements will inevitably need to be incremental.

5. Customise the approach to tailor to local need
In one library a partnership arrangement is ensuring a smooth transition through interim arrangements whilst measures are put in place for the change over. The Council continues to manage the service, with a reduced staff compliment, whilst the community organisation involved trains local volunteers and develops capacity. In the library outlet that services an area of high social deprivation, the Council’s expectations are being modified and a longer timeframe has been agreed. In this instance, the Council has been able to secure a five-year funding package, to give the local community and the Council time to help establish new voluntary originations.

6. Encourage diversification of services offered and creation of new income streams
A number of community managed libraries in Buckinghamshire are reviewing options to convert the space they have into sources of revenue income. Some of the proposals under consideration are co-location with other services, such as Sure Start and the Police, the creation of a community hub to provide other facilities and managed workspace.

7. Equality in service provision
Buckinghamshire County Council has been mindful to create an operational management structure that will not discriminate against community-managed libraries. Having a clear overall service vision is enabling a structured approach to the different types of library management that the Council will either be directly responsible to deliver or will have a continued evolving relationship with new management structures. Across the board the Council are working towards enabling a professional library service.

Thank you to David Jones for taking the time to talk with us and share your learning.