The London Borough of Sutton (LBS) needed to make significant savings by 2019. Libraries were no longer exempt from contributing to savings.
All consultations in the London Borough of Sutton (LBS) are run under the banner of the ‘Sutton’s Future’ programme, which is looking at ways to engage citizens on budget savings. This structure allowed the library service to receive professional support, for example in questionnaire design and analysis and subsequent reporting which eased work pressures on library staff.
Prior to the consultation the council already had a library strategy for Sutton, which set out the core priorities of the service to 2019. These were:
- literacy - growing the readers of the future
- meeting the needs of an ageing population
- narrowing the digital divide
- creating a viable, sustainable and quality service within available budgets
These priorities provided a framework for the questions in the consultation and made targeting key groups much easier. For example, Sutton held a focus group for elderly people with Age UK and engaged an existing young user group in a special session.
The consultation was backed by research mapping demographic trends and needs analysis across the borough. This was so staff had a clear view of the communities the libraries serve.
Residents’ views were sought on the 6 potential ways of making savings from the libraries budget. These had been set out in the report to the Environment and Neighbourhood Committee in September 2015. The 6 options were:
- closing Beddington (a small shop front) library
- stopping the mobile library
- reducing opening hours in branch libraries
- making more use of community groups and volunteers
- commissioning or outsourcing the library service
- sharing the library service with another council
Residents and library users could respond to the consultation via a telephone survey, by completing an online/paper questionnaire, and/or attending an open public meeting to discuss the options with senior staff and lead council members. In total, nearly 3,000 people took part in the consultation: 1,000 in the telephone survey and nearly 2,000 through the online/paper survey.
The telephone survey gathered the views of a representative sample of Sutton’s residents, including those who did not use the library service (over 40% of the sample). The online/paper survey was completed predominantly by library users. Inevitably, those services perceived to be under threat prompted the most responses, in many cases disproportionate to the current usage. Questionnaires were drafted by the council’s Research and Intelligence (R&I) team and they also undertook interim and final analyses of the results, building in statistical confidence levels and the ‘net agree’ score. This is the percentage of people agreeing or strongly agreeing with the proposal minus the percentage of people disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Staff and councillors who had to ratify the consultation were satisfied that a robust and professional exercise had been undertaken by the R&I team.
In line with council policies, staff were briefed before the questionnaires went live and were sent out to libraries, with instructions to try to encourage as many users as possible to complete them.
Encouraging people to get involved: marketing the consultation
LBS marketed the consultation by:
- making all consultation materials and data on the current service available on the council’s website
- giving hard copies to libraries and the mobile library
- issuing press notices
- prominently featuring on the council website Sutton’s Future and links to the survey (where the open public meeting was highlighted)
- sending all households in the borough an A5 postcard about the Sutton’s Future consultations – including the libraries one
- displaying posters and the consultation documents in all of the libraries
- emailing a Sutton’s Future newsletter to people who had registered on the council website to receive updates
- a link to the survey was sent to all library users with an email address on file
The respondents to the telephone survey were a representative sample of Sutton, based on:
- age group
- work status (employed full-time, not in employment full-time)
Results were weighted to reflect the general population.
As a result, Sutton Library Service were 95% confident that the responses given by the sample were likely to be within ±5% of the answers that would have been obtained if everyone aged 16 or over in Sutton had been interviewed.
Those completing the online/paper survey had access to a ‘background information’ document which gave further details about the council’s financial context and the options in the consultation. It also contained links to profiles of each of the libraries (also available on the council’s website).
Open public meeting
The main options proposed for discussion at the open public meeting were:
- the use of volunteers and community groups
- commissioning or outsourcing services
- sharing library services with another council
There was, however, space for people to discuss and raise any other issues of concern to them, including the mobile library.
The meeting allowed time for group discussions among the attendees and they were encouraged to put their thoughts, comments and questions on Post-It notes under the main consultation options. There was then a plenary session where attendees were able to comment and ask questions of the panel made up of councillors and senior council officers.
Results of the consultation
The most usual comment was about how valued the staff and services were by people. Overall, there was some support for each of the 6 options apart from ‘commissioning or outsourcing’ which was consistently viewed negatively across both surveys.
The committee paper had described Arts Council England’s 3 models for community involvement in the delivery of libraries. This may be why ‘making more use of volunteers and community groups’ was the option which had the most support in both the telephone and online/paper surveys. However LBS does have a very strong volunteer tradition, particularly in support of heritage and community arts which could be a contributing factor. In both surveys, people who supported the option thought that the best way of doing that would be through a ‘community supported library, which would be council-led with paid staff but with significant support from volunteers’.
In the telephone survey, the option of sharing services with another council received significant support; the responses to the online/paper survey were still in favour, but much less so.
The option of closing the shop front library was supported by respondents to the online/paper survey, but, in the telephone survey, the same number of people agreed with the option of closing Beddington Library as disagreed.
Stopping the mobile library had a positive ‘net agree’ score in both of the surveys, but less so in the online/paper survey where responses from people who use the mobile library were more prevalent, and strongly against the option. People with a disability or long-term health condition were also against the proposal in the online/paper survey and much less supportive in the telephone survey.
Reducing opening hours was viewed positively in the telephone survey, but overall in the online/paper survey more people disagreed with the option than agreed. In the latter survey, however, people whose main library was Sutton Central were in favour of reducing opening hours in other libraries, as were people aged 65 or over. Written comments about this option were varied and suggest that further consultation might be considered before any changes were made.
Respondents to the surveys were asked to say which of the options was the most preferable. In both the online/paper survey and the telephone survey, the top answer given was making more use of volunteers and community groups. Telephone respondents put sharing library services with another councils as their second highest option, while in the online/paper survey the second most popular answer was closing Beddington library, closely followed by stopping the mobile library. Stopping the mobile library was the third highest choice for the telephone survey.
Use of the consultation by councillors
The detail gained from and reported back to councillors from what had been a year-long process formed the options for their decision making. Feedback from the chair, lead councillor and other committee members across parties was that the consultation had been thorough, fair and robust and that it gave them the confidence to take hard, and in some cases, unpopular decisions. Corporate colleagues were pleased at the willingness by residents to get involved and surprised by the numbers of respondents.
As a result of the response to the question about volunteering and greater community involvement Sutton Library Service have now been charged with designing a model which encompasses community feedback but which does not lead to a massive de-skilling and de-professionalisation of a good service. Working in partnership with the local voluntary sector they are striving to ensure the next phase will be as carefully conducted and soundly based as their consultation was.