Suffolk Libraries: Where now for the IPS?

Suffolk Libraries IPS has certainly had a difficult birth. No doubt the County Council would claim that "doing things differently" is always difficult and there is an element of truth in this. For the IPS to work effectively it needs to both stand on its own and have a constructive relationship with the County Council. If the County Council appears to be pulling the strings it is likely to fail. If it is constantly at war with the County Council it is also likely to fail.

Establishing that balance is what the IPS seems to have been doing and there are signs that it is starting to make its mark as an independent organisation.

In response to earlier comments from a reader of this Blog I promised to post outlining what my personal strategy is for the future of Suffolk's libraries. This post is an attempt to do that.

I have already clearly stated that I would prefer it if the County Council had continued to run the service but as an arch pragmatist I now feel that the best way to secure the success of the service is to get behind the IPS and try and make it succeed. This is what I wrote back in February:
So that is why it is vital that everyone who wants to see Suffolk's libraries stay open makes sure that the IPS succeeds. Staff and campaigners may well continue to have mis-givings about it (I certainly do) but I think they should get behind the IPS and try and help it to succeed. 
This means the IPS does need to ensure that it is a strong and independent voice for Suffolk libraries and I agree with the excellent Wordblog article that it would help to drop some of the more "nasty" policies such as cutting pay for newly appointed staff. This would not cost much but would send a strong message to staff and library users that the IPS means business.
IPS General Manager Alison Wheeler has made much of the fact that the IPS is a membership organisation and that local library groups are a part of the IPS. She has been right to do this.

The new IPS Chairman Shona Bendix has also impressed local groups during visits to the pilot groups with a clear understanding of the need to get practical issues such as property sorted out and her professional and well organised approach. Her "day job" as CEO of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils helps too giving her an establish relationship with the County Council but also with local town and parish councils.

I will admit to having some initial misgivings about Alison and Shona due to some things that happened in the library campaigns last year and this was probably mutual however both have clearly drawn a line under those events and are establishing positive working relationships with local library groups. I think campaigners have done this too.

But there is still much to do and here are a few of my own ideas as to what the IPS should be doing:

  • Staff morale is still a key issue so moving to clarify the position of staff is vital. I think the IPS needs to establish itself as a different (as in better) employer than the County Council
  • Thought needs to be given to the role of the pilots. After the collapse of the largest one in Ipswich I would be inclined to put them on hold and focus on getting the IPS up and running
  • I would like to see all staff and buildings transferred to the IPS initially for at least a year with thought given to if and when they might be transferred to local groups.
  • The IPS needs to establish its own identity distinct from the County Council with logo, website etc
  • The IPS needs to ensure that "Suffolk Libraries" still continues to exist as a coherent countywide service but allow local groups to "add" to this offering but (a bit like a franchise) they would need to do some things in the same way
  • The IPS should encourage as many local libraries as possible to establish their own local groups as soon as possible - another reason not to focus just on the pilots
  • Thought needs to be given to the constitution of local library groups that can be members of the IPS. Do they all need to be expensive limited companies? Some may want or need to be but in places where the IPS will employ staff and own the buildings it seems overkill.
  • As part of this there needs to be a clear IPS policy on issues such as the use of volunteers
If the IPS does something like this - importantly not trying to do everything all at the same time - it has every prospect of success. If it tries to create a complicated system of local devolution without first taking hold of the services and running and knowing them for itself I think it will fail. As ever the key to success is pragmatism.
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