Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Layer Upon Layer

I recently took part in a survey of what things I felt could be done to help Britain reduce its borrowing. Hold your horses - it was neither the front bar of a pub nor was it in the corridors of power. It was an online thing in one of the networks I use.

So the results are hardly likely to go anywhere. However, I have to say that some of the thoughts seem to resonate with those of others and the broad consensus of agreement is that there were many, many ways for the country to save money and reduce borrowing long before we actually impact services.

The first and most obvious way to reduce costs is simply to look at the layers of structure that exist both within public service departments and Government itself. Over 1 in 4 jobs are now in the public sector and this is warning enough. But when you start looking at the complex web of management structures and communication bridges, quangos and the like you suddenly get very depressed at the level and competence of the people that must be in there. Yet not a day goes past when some advert comes out for an overpaid interim to run some NHS Trust. We are breeding terrible grounds for long term bureaucratic money sumps.

So a starting point would be to review how many people we need in Parliament, the number of people to support these and start cascading the process. Very quickly we could home in on the number of MPs, the flunkies and mandarins, then the level of Local Councillors required, their staff and amorphous bodies around them, National Assemblies and their associated costs. Vast sums could be saved on the multiple layers of politician and the associated support infrastructure and people in pretty short order. Then we start looking at the departments around them and critically analyse who does what and why - the old time and motion study on public servants would bring into stark focus why Departments have spawned their own empires and management structures - Business Secretary alone has 9 junior ministers and umpteen staff - it's bizarre.

Don't start me on quangos and ancillary 'private' companies like the FSA or similar - vast staff who have proven they do nothing and cost loads. There are thousands of them, all stocked with the highest paid clever-clogs and never sensibly priced workers. It's all jobs for the boys and none deliver real value.

Associated with this is the whole costs associated with public service. In Wales and Scotland whole new prestige buildings were erected to house new assemblies when there were oceans of office space going begging - the costs, the salaries, the expenses so much of it unregulated. Then you start to look at the 'hangers on' - how many of these offices have associated external advisers, consultants, PR agents and the like running around on vast retainers adding little value to the everyday business process and our lives. Value for money is the key issue - it's not about making politicians or civil servants' lives easier it is about getting value for taxpayers' money. First to get the chop would be the army of investment bankers and lawyers advising on the current economic crisis - nearly £100m on them alone per year.

Then we could start looking at the layers of management in each department. Having experienced the NHS at first hand in the last few months, it is absolutely clear that money is not being focused in the right area. I have no qualms with the services provided, but when consultants have to beg for the prescription pad to administrators you know there is something wrong. The layers of management in such organisations are dreadful and unnecessary. The first thing these people would do is call in advisers to look at structures when in fact this is what private business does all the time. Management reviews are an everyday occurrence in business and if that's what the NHS is meant to be, then the managers should be capable and tough enough to do it. The amount of cash it could free up in the largest public budget is enormous.

Coupled with this is the vast wastage of money associated with budget overruns or badly implemented projects. It is not rocket science but you see £billions wasted on overly complicated IT and data projects, emergency service automation projects and the like. And so much focused in Police projects on how to balance budgets through revenue collection rather than focus on crimes. Value for money is the mantra here.

And again coupled to all this is the potential savings in salaries and costs associated with reviews. But it should go deeper. There is also recession on and wage negotiations have to be tough and tightly controlled while the whole bonanza on public sector pensions has to tackled before it cripples us completely. Why public service has such bias in terms of pay and conditions is beyond most people in the private sector who would kill for such fantastic automatic pay increments and pension schemes.

The target system is these departments is just a mess. While checking in waiting times may have gone down at the NHS, the chances of getting treatment quickly is minimal and highly trained people are focused on the simplest of tasks as they help hit targets. As we all know, hitting targets means money so more can be spent to hit the next targets which move you ever further from proper value for money. The whole service of Government is becoming a postcode lottery as incompetence seems to breed in certain areas.

Education is costing more and more and delivering less. How Ed Balls can smile is beyond me when you look at the basic deficiencies of entrants into the business world. They can text nicely on a phone but using written English defeats them while basic maths skills are beyond them. Looking at exam results, then the message is that we are producing genii. We are loggerheads with reality and what is required for future generations.

It's a simple matter but layers of management are counterproductive - we in business know this. Looking in at the whole public sector and you see layer upon layer of unnecessary levels of management whose tasks are to aggregate communication for the next layer up - in today's world of advanced communication that delivers nothing and hinders plenty.

The problem stems back to the central control issue. The idea that a Government has to control everything means that you have a cascade principle at work. Only partly in that structure do you get any kind of devolved thinking and its why we get so little value for money. Services in general are less but cost more - just take a look at local refuse collection. The amount of refuse being taken is decreasing, we have to do more of the work as individuals than ever before in sorting and if we should break the rules we get a criminal record. yet do we see a decrease in cost? It's just crazy. More and more talk comes about direct taxation for specific roads or services and it makes you ask, 'Then what have I just paid for in taxes?'

Value for money should be the credo for all taxpayers. We should be able to ask how our money is spent in wars, services, education, health, bank bailouts and other areas - we want to know why we are funding more politicians than ever, why are we supporting such generous pension requirements for the public sector and why are we paying for so many external bodies who deliver zero value?

All that happens instead is we sell off £16bn of assets no one cares about. It's a drop in the ocean in terms of what is required. Governing this country and delivering service has been an enormous sponge to cash over the last 12 years and no one knows how much we get back for the money we spend. It's time that rigorous reviews are done and savings identified fast. The IOD reckons at least £50bn per year can be saved on annual expenditure without cuts in services and I think they are undercalling it.

Waiting for the election will not help deliver the necessary savings in time. It needs to start now.

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