Saturday, 31 December 2011

HAS GOVERNMENT A BRAIN ? And what of Surrey CC ?

Elected government is ultimately responsible to the people for getting it right executively and operationally, yet politicians stand apart  from the Civil Service. The retiring  Head Sir Gus O’Donnell has just said that there is too much problem solving by legislation, and not enough risk-taking.

The Rt Hons Eric Pickles, for local government, and David Cameron, for Departments of State, knowing that government costs an awful lot of money but trying to leave it to us to do their job for them, love the new idea of the “armchair audit”. They fondly imagine you and I excitedly poring over masses of  unformed data about things beyond our ken and “holding to account”.  But this only means that we are left to wonder what it all adds up to, and who in the shapeless body of government can be held to account, how and for what exactly.

Consider a terrifying thought in the light of the deficit-laden  public finances.  The Chancellor, for his Autumn Statement, relied on input from the Office of Budget Responsibility. This included provisional data in the first ever Whole of Government (consolidated) Accounts, for 2009-10. These are only now (today) due to be placed before the House of Commons by the Treasury with a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General ( will he not sign them as has happened in Europe now for 17 years ?). That data is 21 months out of date.

So called management-speak, particularly of the financial kind, is anathema to politicians. The front line is good and the back office bad. They have a poor sense of the dynamics of delivery up to the point where the word sounds good in political-speak. Government is 50 years behind the times in the evolution stakes. The ship of state is not designed to cleave the waters and is without a chief engineer (a new Department of State perhaps ?). They seem unable to grasp the concept of the Total System, and System Architecture now transformed by communication technology advance. This failing is crystal clear to one who has been fortunate in his industrial post-graduate on-the-job training and career-long senior experience.

There is a crying need for simplification with a big S in thought and practise. And this is aside from the desperate need for radical simplification of the tax system beyond just the usual tinkering which seems only to increase the length of the official guide.

Big problems have spawned a body of analysis tools and techniques based on common sense and some mathematics, and the ordered and disciplined use of symbolic and diagrammatic portrayal for communication and resolution.  Operational Research has like other professional disciplines been prone to jargon. However it has given sight to blind people. One can quote Organisation and Methods, Work Study, Critical Path Planning (CPP), and now Lean Technology.

The important thing is the mind-bending leading to decisions for action and its direction, completion and feed-back. What is the economic case for a fire extinguisher ? What is the optimum pump layout and spacing on a forecourt ? What the best alternative cash flow projection.

Here is some history which may be news to some.  In the US in the cold war there was an urgent need for a new weapon. Its creation had to be from then unknown science to  meet a definable objective delivered in the shortest possible time. It was a vast project. The Polaris submarine was born of CPP which in turn was based on Network Analysis. That in turn took a simple line (activity) and joined it to a circle (event) from which the inter-connections spread out working back from the wished-for deadline. This is still at the heart of project planning and  management with additions for optimum resource allocation – not a restraint financially with Polaris.

My pet example: Local government let alone national government doesn’t even yet discharge and sign off accountability by delivered narrative Annual Report by the leader or chairman. To do this it requires the financial aspect, ie audited annual accounts, to be available quickly to complete the  picture. Our resident taxpayers’ rights are dismissed with bland talk of (passive) transparency. It has often been said that to speed up from the present six months or so would cost more in council tax when in practice the reverse is probably true. Certainly each day of delay wastefully diminishes value. I first met the problem early in my career 50 years ago when a new Chief Accountant.  I had been on a one-day Operational Research course  and discovered the remarkably simple network analysis idea –simple is revolutionary as was the invention in 1492 of double entry book-keeping. I was able to apply this to the production of a bar-chart company-wide  inter-facing timetable for completion of the Accounts. It was  a crash course in my employer’s  manufacturing company activities outside the financial. But only now in 2011 has SCC, according to an official Minute (of a committee), come to understand this interdependence within itself to contrast with the traditional departmentalised silo mentality, a political rather than reality tuned mind-set.

As a local tax campaigner I recently spotted a recruitment advertisement for a Lean technologist for the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Expecting to be able to go yah boo non-job ! I contacted the recruiting agency who, however,  gave me full explanation and reference to the professional body. Once again I experienced the thrill of discovery. This technique started life in the Toyota Company seeking to ‘car-centre’ its production and assembly process to optimise the movement of people and parts etc. focussing on the car  rather than the separate and remote or awkwardly placed departments. It is increasingly used in hospitals to patient-centre the medical process. The working analysis will discover and portray for resolution the high proportion of ‘idle’ time and ‘in-between’ activity. It is noteworthy that these disciplines are not employed primarily to save money but anyone with imagination will see that this must be one result.

It is good to be able to report that at our recent meeting with  Leader David Hodge and Acting Assistant Head of Finance of Surrey County Council Sheila Little, we learnt that work and results now ensue from Change and Efficiency Directorate employment of this thinking in its Public Value Reviews. Please may it extend to a revolution in the ‘mainline’ ways things are done by, for example, simplification  of its constitution and innovative streamlining of due process. The last World War took less time to fight and finish than it took SCC to initiate and “sign off” the new street lighting.

Please let’s transform the ways and attitudes of government by letting in and encouraging higher quality brainpower and management clout.  Politicians need to regain our trust in their competence.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Watch out ! There are (local) Party politicians about !

It has only recently struck me how much legislation is designed in  a vain attempt to control or counteract the inadequacy of Party politicians where they have responsibility for actual decision-making.

Currently the department of Communities & Local Government has consulted before legislating to privatise and modernise Local Public Audit. There is debate about how to secure audit independence, and auditor selection and appointment when in fact there are established  or frequently updated safeguards in custom and practise. But it seems that this is not safe with local councils who must have an Audit Committee with balanced party representation. As if we wouldn’t notice if Surrey CC appointed Messrs Hide, Fix and Fiddle, Accountants, of Back Street Woking. In other words they are not regarded as competent to decide on their own and cannot be trusted.

Because the local politicians elected to run their councils are not expected to be experienced or of sound judgement, and might bully their professional staff  there must be a statutory officer (sec 151 Officer) to be responsible for vetting financial forecasts and adequacy of reserves. In other words they are not competent to decide and cannot be trusted.

Select Committees have been the thing for years now at Westminster because of the shortcomings of the House of Commons chamber for governance. Now it is required of local councils to have them too. This in spite of their membership of committees having to be politically  ‘balanced’. In fact they may well not have relevant knowledge or judgement for their subject. And their talking shops conflict with the purposes and objectives of line management at the top of which sits “political management”.  In other words they are collectively not competent to decide and cannot be trusted.

Councils have large staffs to answer their members’ questions. But at taxpayers’ expense they are  also allowed to employ political assistants.  In other words they get away with murder even if they are not competent to decide and cannot be trusted.

And taxpayers have to pay for all the extra rituals, regulations and restrictions necessary to keep politicians from doing too much damage.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Innovation in Surrey CC ?

The STAG is grateful to a supporter for this article which helpfully summarises where we are with the growing policy and  local public service issue of health and social care. Taxpayers are not only concerned about their own ‘joined up’ care outlook but also the demands on our pockets as determined by the quality of its management. In particular the management of Inter-agency collaboration can make or break outcomes.
We are forever concerned about how we have to keep paying more and more rates and taxes for what seems to be just bureaucracy. So I was delighted to meet a team at one of Surrey’s Borough Councils recently that are dedicated to saving us money and being passionate about improving their services. They are the Borough Community Support Services team. We talked about looking after older people. Why would a STAG member want to talk about older people, you might well ask? It is not just because several of us are those older people with time to worry about these things!
It’s simple, really. The average age of the population is getting older by 2 months every year, consequently suffering poorer health for longer. NHS Surrey spends £1.6 Bn on our health, and the Council spends about 40% of its overall budget (less Education) on Adult Social Care (£374 M). A staggering 75% of this total is spent on looking after the 3% of the most critically ill people, who are commonly older people with long term conditions, such as heart or lung problems, diabetes and dementia. If there are ways of looking after these people more efficiently and effectively, then they surely must be taken.
It is a ‘must’ rather than an option. We will have 15 million senior citizens in England by 2020, with less working age people to look after us! If we don’t change anything, care will cost over 20% of GDP by 2050 (OECD report), so we have to change the way we provide care, or it will collapse. You can already see the strain it is under now, with press stories about health or care problems almost daily. It needs a new way of managing care that costs less, while also giving people a better service.
This can now be done by using modern computers and telecommunications to enable people to be cared for in the comfort of their own homes for much longer, instead of in expensive hospitals or care homes. And who would not prefer to stay at home? The facility is called telecare. This used to be simply about falls monitors, which raised alarms when you fell over, to call for someone to help you get up again. But now there are sophisticated home based monitors for all sorts of things like blood pressure, breathing capability, heart rate, and so on, so that an alert can be raised when conditions start to go in the wrong direction. Early corrective interventions will avoid serious episodes that mean emergency hospitalisation.
New telecare can save big money, because every A&E visit costs about £2,000 to process, followed often by a 7 day stay at another £4,000, then frequent outpatient and GP visits which keep adding to the cost paid for by the NHS. Moving to a care home will cost at least £35,000 per year, the average life there is 3 years, mostly paid for by the Council. But for people who own their own homes it can mean selling up and losing much of their children’s legacy. Keeping people in their own homes makes economic sense, as well as improving patients’ safety and wellbeing.
However, caring for patients in their own homes for much longer than presently possible, requires much more than just monitoring of their condition. The new telecare technology makes it possible to enable:
  • Video consultations between carers and patients that gives carers a much better understanding of conditions than just looking at monitoring charts, or asking questions over the telephone
  • Much more opportunity for the many care service organisations to collaborate on behalf of the patient. The commonest complaint about the NHS is that it is ‘not joined up’. But it is not just the NHS: Councils, Pharmacists, Opticians, Housing Trusts, Meals-on-wheels, and many others, all have duties of care, and need to be part of the ‘joined up care’ service
  • On call contacts for the patient, with a variety of trusted specialists for advice, and video training and guidance reminders for self care, to enable them to understand and live better with their conditions, rather than suffering them. This alleviates the demands on (and costs of) professional staff.
  • Provision of respite for personal carers (friends and family), whose dedication to caring for their loved ones makes a huge contribution that the authorities would otherwise have to take on, but creates great demands and stresses on individuals
Clearly, to make big savings in care costs, this technology needs to be deployed on a large scale. Then the question becomes ‘how can this be managed?’ The aim is to provide highly personalised care by a wide variety of care organisations to individuals living in a wide variety of circumstances with a wide variety of health conditions, and yet keep personal information very secure. This is both a technology challenge and a management challenge for the 21st century that most developed countries around the world are facing.
One challenge is that there are many suppliers of telecare equipment that are proprietary, which means that care providers have restricted choices for patients with complex needs, and may have to operate several systems to serve all their clients. This is not manageable on a large scale, and has been a severe limitation on the growth of telecare use.
Another major challenge to the authorities is the need for early identification of people who need help, because so much more can be done to prevent them going in to hospital and care homes. Both the NHS and Councils claim they only identify about 30% of people who could be helped, but they are different 30%’s, because there is very little collaboration between them! A typical problem is that an NHS hospital discharges a patient after a serious episode, who then goes home with no support, because the hospital does not refer the patient to Social Services.
What is interesting and very encouraging is that the Community Support Services team at the Council have recognised these challenges. They are working hard on collaborating closely with the local NHS, and are insisting that all telecare and telehealth is to be managed with a single platform, challenging suppliers to cooperate. What is more, they have impressed SCC with their efforts and plans so much, that they have been asked to take their programme across the whole of Surrey CC.
STAG members can look forward to joined up care in their final years!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


The Localism Bill currently wending its way through Parliament seems yet another sticking plaster on sticking plaster exercise. It doesn’t deal with the funding system and it doesn’t address the overall ‘organisation chart’ for structuring  public services governance and operational decision-making .

The Minister Eric Pickles, lays into local authorities for spending too much or paying people too much yet is in effect the Minister for weekly bin collections.

 All main Parties profess decentralisation and “vibrant local democracy” but show a long history of failed attempts to de-regulate, cut red tape, “reduce the size of the State” and so on.

To this outside observer there are signs of lack of exposure to ways of thinking and doing things outside Westminster and Whitehall and party politics. There are other ‘disciplines’ and tools as well as politics and economics.

Many evolutionary and historical factors explain the tendency to centralise. They are mostly benign or embedded  in human nature. Some  are irreversible where globalisation and wider mobility, standardisation (eg clock-time), communications and technology transfer are drivers. A malign exception is the effect of creeping sovietisation from the EU. But It is entirely right and ‘good business’ to want individual  democratic input  and delegation of decision-making to the lowest possible level. For achievement and maintenance there must be a sense of designed architecture. This is Parliament’s business but the Ship of State lacks a Naval Architect and Chief Engineer .

Local Government” is a sort of party political second XI and as such managerially artificial. People are less tied to place and local authorities are not free-standing. For referenda on council tax does “local people” mean only council tax payers, who are in the minority, and in respect of which component ?  Does “giving a say”  mean informing, consulting, seeking advice, seeking feedback, asking for a choice between stated alternatives.?  For effective practical application should not devolution of power be distinguished from delegation of responsibility ?

 If Local Authorities are increasingly staffed up to meet government regulating influences it could also be said that over-staffing is due to being unsure about their objectives. Are they to ‘be’ or to ‘do’ ? A witnessed manifestation of this is the amount of introspective and self-indulgent activity that is carried out to show off to the Audit Commission. Add to this the tendency to ritualise procedures to a degree that obscures the main thought and purpose eg for risk analysis and equality and diversity.

There is a government culture characterised by  political behaviour, legislation as an instrument, departmental ‘silo’ mentality, the rise of the quango ‘virus’, and protocols and arrangements generally. In fact what matters at the pithead and coalface is  people DOing what has to be done.

There is little recognition that there is a delivery chain in government administration and public service. This in turn needs for completion a feedback loop (undeveloped in government) within a command and reporting structure.

It is suggested therefore that for a significantly smaller State without throwing the baby out with the bathwater there are these solutions:

1.    Parliament must go for ‘world class’ financial control over government beyond just Treasury functions. (How is the business conducted without it ?)
2.    Resources of people and money for legislating, regulating and policing must be capped at an arbitrary level well below the ‘ideal’ so as naturally to force greater prioritisation.
3.    Allow upward precepting to present more directly to legislators and regulators, together with accounts, and budget  consolidation, the consequences of their impositions.

Perhaps  “Returning Power”, or empowerment,  would follow more naturally given central reduction and disempowerment within a consciously designed architecture and non-interfering management philosophy. A necessary first step would be to set up at the top of national government, a Constitution Systems Architecture Department.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The crash of politics

The current national news of the public deficit, whether to borrow more or cut spending, has revealed the inescapable truth that politics has crashed into the buffers of economics..

‘Economics’ is an over simplification. The National Audit Office has long reported the lack of financial and managerial clout at the top of Departments of State.

The whole of the State apparatus, costly in itself,  is predicated on the primacy of the ‘policy’ and funds voted for health and education and so on. The revenue for this is then raised from taxation without thought of the dynamics of effectiveness and accountability. That Government walks away having voted the funds has been shown up as costly, dangerous and uncontrolled by the European court of Auditors refusal for 14 years to sign off their Accounts. I expect the same result when the first ever Whole of UK Government accounts are put before Parliament by the Comptroller and Auditor General later this year. This is not  to suggest that grants to Surrey County Council are lost to sight but without proper accountability processes we are not far from that.

It gets worse. In government there is an almost complete lack of the numerate, operational tool, and professional decision-making culture that the circumstances require. We have just been regaled with the unbelievable results from the PFI initiative. £302 to change a plug and the original capital cost deferred and multiplied down the years. Why is government unable to do these things for itself rather than pay so much to others. Does it not do the usual evaluations, such as discounting the cash flow, before setting off on that road ?

David Cameron has sensed or recognised this huge and very costly elephant in the room by seeking for government departments non-executive directors with clout from outside.

This whole problem is about to be worsened by the big society and ‘localism’. Who is going to do the management and back-office stuff ? And  just when the trend of human evolution and history is moving in the opposite direction. Ever larger infrastructures and standards require broader co-ordination.

The answer is to completely flush out of the system the present poor quality of dreaming and ineffective politicians. If we want to get back on track we shouldn’t start from here. But a changed centre of gravity would perhaps develop from a new department accountable to the Prime Minister whose function would be akin, for the ship of State, to a naval architect and chief engineer to design and maintain the system architecture.

The TaxPayers Alliance and locally in Surrey, STAG, can do much from our own experience to begin to change perceptions as to how government and the public sector should operate.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Let's learn to use the local authority auditor

Taxpayers are, or should be, considerably interested in  the work and opinions of the auditors of their local authorities and all other public bodies.

It is intended but not generally realised that assurance is given on value for money and resource utilization as well as the annual accounts.

This process is currently rendered largely wasted because (a) the financial statements are mired in detail and late, and of (b) bureaucratic language.  Similarly the value for money judgements when written up by auditors are  unintelligable to the lay reader and do not extend beyond  whether suitable arrangements are in place - not whether achieving.

In 2012 the Audit Commission is to be scrapped leaving the ‘market’ open for  privatisation but in ways that have not yet been worked out. At the same time there is to be the gradual decentralisation of public activity eg Private Health Trusts giving way to GP groups.  For example there are now some 11,000 such organisations accounting for some £200bn of public funds, some so small such as parish councils as not to feature even in their own minds as needing to account for our money.

We should be very concerned that developments do not weaken still further our ability to keep tabs on our money in a proper businesslike environment. We are also as a nation moving into a situation which in Europe has caused the accounts there to be failed by the Court of Auditors for 14 years. How will the first ever UK government consolidated Accounts, for 2009-10, fare when they see the light of day at the end of 2011 ?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Councils to set parking fees (News report 3rd January 2011)

At last. Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary says “we’re getting out of the way and it’s up to councils to set the right parking policy for their area”. That includes setting competitive local charges.

Up until now Government made it “unlawful” to use charges to “raise revenue or as a local tax”. Why ?

The Local Government Association still says “Councils can’t use parking as a revenue raising exercise but they should have the freedom to set charges at a level which covers the cost of providing parking”. In other words they mustn’t make a profit. Why not ? Especially if it is ‘ploughed back’ as it must be. And more especially because taxpayers paid for the car park in the first place.

But the LGA view is wrong at a deeper level. The first thing to realise is that in order to meet their requirement it is necessary to pass acres of legislation, codes of practice and so on to define what is cost and when a price is a cost recovery and when revenue raising. I haven’t dared to bury myself in the mountains of stuff trying to do that. In practice there is no difference.

Then Profit and Loss requires a cost accounting system. This is something, and the Audit Commission supports me in this,  which hasn’t yet come into government consciousness and practice. How do they intend to set prices ? Do they have to account for direct costs, direct costs plus overhead apportionment, marginal costs, or contributions  ? In practice "actual" cost is meaningless. Cost can only be defined by the question needing answer.

But set to one side those questions of management tools and technique. There is one simply stated  marketing approach which fits the bill.  Charges should be  set to achieve if possible say a 5% under-occupancy of spaces at any one time. Higher charges will deter to the detriment of revenue and lower will lead to perpetually full occupancy which also frustrates and may even so yield  less revenue. Of course quiet and busy periods might be differentially priced to advantage.

And there’s more. Optimised revenue gives council management choices. Either to stabilise or reduce council tax, or put a surplus towards development, subject to pay-back calculations, of more spaces and in turn more revenue.

Is there now some small hope that government may at last be seeing the light and will allow new behaviours which will relieve the  burden on taxpayers’ shoulders which has been added to exponentially in the past for little discernable benefit to anyone except public employees, managers and councillors.