Build the future?

19 July 2011

Last week the Victorian Government, without warning or any earlier indication, cut funding in the new four-year recurrent funding agreement with local Councils and Library Corporations.  I use the word 'agreement' loosely here.  What actually happened was the Department of Local Government sent an opaque letter out asking for the documents to be signed and returned.  This decision is just the latest in a long history of Victorian government neglect of public libraries.

Cost Shifting

In Victoria local governments are primarily responsible for providing library services, but the state government provides both recurrent (operational) funding under multi-year agreements as well as capital and works grants.  Over the last 30 years the state government's share of operational costs has slowly slipped, to the point where they are now funding only 19.2% of operational expenses.  This scenario of cost-shifting from state to local governments will be familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with local government services.  Whilst Councils make an easy target for local papers and Today Tonight 'journalists', the reality is they're always trying to do more with less as expectations increase and willingness to pay decreases.

Service Shifting

Federal and State departments have been particularly skilled at also shifting service provision onto council-funded libraries.  Many departments no longer provide information in easily-understandable hardcopy, and applications for grants, allowances, licenses and jobs are now often exclusively available on departmental websites.  This allows the departments to reduce staff and work on creating ever more complex ways to apply for things, instead of service the public.  In the meantime, the elderly woman who emigrated from Italy 60 years ago and just wants to work out what visa her niece needs to come from Italy and look after her is forced to go to her local library to work it out.  The woman who has worked for the electoral commission at each of the last ten elections but who has never owned a computer now has to apply for work at the next one online, entering all of her information again.  The childcare worker has to come to the library to download, fill in and submit her police check form for the Working with Children card the state government requires.

The library now has to help these people to complete basic government administrative tasks, because more bureaucracy is being created but less service points are provided.  "It's on our website" is the new magical solution to all information distribution problems, as far as State and Federal bureaucrats are concerned.  This pleases their bosses, as it's a pretty cheap way to distribute information, but it utterly fails to consider whether this is the most appropriate way to 'interact' with citizens (sorry, 'customers').  Meanwhile libraries carry the can yet again, having had the provision of these services affectively shifted across to them.

You can't cut the ribbon on ongoing quality service

The other interesting thing to note about library funding by the Victorian Government is that they have in fact increased funding in some areas.  Funding for the 'Premier's Reading Challenge Book Fund' has been provided, and a new capital works fund exclusively for regional areas is also on offer.  This is the way politicians like to fund things - discrete projects that allow them to launch something or cut a ribbon at the end of it.  Maintaining high standards of service over many years doesn't qualify for a plaque.  The 'Premier's Great Libraries With Properly Paid Professional Staff and Convenient Opening Hours Fund' doesn't seem to have a place in this world.

The other reason politicians like capital works grants is that they can more easily influence where the money is spent. Areas that, due to the quirks of electoral boundary creation, are in marginal seats tend to get more shiny buildings.  So we see a movement of money away from core service provision into plaques and electoral bribes.  On current trends, we'll soon start to see new library buildings that never open, because local governments can't afford to pay the ongoing staff and other operational costs.

I haven't included many of the figures around this particular Victorian example.  The details, in a way, don't matter so much.  What we are experiencing here is a reminder that whilst library budget cuts in the UK and USA are causing uproar and being blamed on economic woes, governments can cut budgets for any reasons at any time.  Whilst cutting library budgets is particularly stupid in a time of downturn when more people are wanting to use them, libraries are experiencing an increase in demand globally - it's part of becoming an 'information society'.  Ignorant decision makers who see libraries as book-warehouses adequately staffed by volunteers can cause problems anywhere, any time.  You have been warned.