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 That data is 21 months out of date.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.

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