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The new grant distribution system defines 'Kafkaesque'...
The new grant distribution system defines 'Kafkaesque'

This year sees the 80th anniversary of Franz Kafka's great study of the power of bureaucracy and petty officialdom, The Castle. Anybody who has worked in the public sector will recognise the frustrations and indirections which have earned the adjective 'Kafkaesque', but the latest local government finance settlement raises matters to new levels.

One of Kafka's most famous stories, In the Penal Colony, sees the authorities create an elaborate and unnecessary new torture apparatus, a machine of astonishing complexity and technical virtuosity. Its designers are so busy congratulating themselves on its cleverness that they do not stop to address the deeper issues surrounding it. Because Kafka was writing in 1915, he did not have the example of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to draw on, and he neglected to call his machine 'The Four-Block System'.

In fact the ODPM's new grant distribution mechanism would not have been out of place in Kafka's work. Its ingenious complexity replaces the tried-and-trusted formula with four blocks designed to reflect each authority's relative needs and resources in a simple and transparent way. What could be wrong with that? The problem lies in the fourth of the new components, the damping block. For upper-tier authorities, the damping block ensures every authority receives a grant increase of at least 2%, while holding back 90% of authorities' increases above that amount to pay for it. So the first three blocks of the new system calculate with meticulous precision the grant each authority 'ought' to have - and the fourth makes sure that they don't get it. The damping block overrides the other three, making them irrelevant.

The calculation of the damping block therefore becomes of primary importance. In a twist Kafka would have appreciated, we find the damping level, rather than arising from rigorous analysis, is purely the result of ministerial judgement. ODPM has created a system of breathtaking intricacy - try explaining a relative needs factor for children's services of 0.00136005679808 to members - and then built in a judgmental element which shunts that intricacy into a siding.

This capricious complexity is at the heart of the new system. As well as the damping block, there is separate damping within adults' and children's social care, adding an unnecessary refinement to this aspect of the system. Challenged to provide year-on-year comparisons - an important element of a transparent system - ODPM agreed, but observed that there were 24 different and equally valid ways of performing the calculation. Kafka couldn't have made it up.

At the end of Kafka's story, the shiny new machine breaks down and consumes its operator. As intricate, arbitrary, punitive and utterly misconceived as Kafka's torture apparatus, the four-block system cannot go the same way soon enough.

Tim Stretton

Chief technical officer, West Sussex CC

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