Sunday, December 23, 2007

Public services and YouTube

If an antiquated and anachronistic institution such as the monarchy is using YouTube, why aren’t more providers of public services using it? It offers a way of reaching younger people as well as those not keen on wading through paper.

I only know of one social landlord that is making use of YouTube to reach its customers and stakeholders.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas present to Colleges – revised governance documents

The government has presented FE and sixth form colleges with new instrument and articles to go live in 2008.

Some of the amendments to the I&A are housekeeping matters – for example, resulting from the Machinery of Government changes (i.e. the divorce of the pre- and post-19 parts of the old Department for Education and Skills. (Further governance changes may result from this potentially messy divorce.) However, other modifications to the I&A are more significant.

There is the ending of the rigid specification of categories of “external” governors i.e. the requirement for numbers for local authority, community, business and co-opted members. This is a modest but welcome measure of de-regulation. As I have argued here before, colleges should be given more flexibility in determining the size and shape of their governing bodies.

The new I&A also include a strengthening of the “learner voice” with at least two learner governors on each governing body. This will need to be accompanied by action to support learner governors in being able to challenge and contribute in the governance framework. Sometimes this is a problem. (Arguably it would be good to see colleges exploring new ways of enabling learners to hold governing bodies accountable – and this might not require such reliance on learners being on governing bodies.)

Some colleges may struggle with the requirement to post governing body minutes on the internet. However, this is good governance.

If you are a college clerk to governors and can’t find the new I&A, don’t spend all your Christmas and New Year holiday searching for the documents, they are tucked away on the old DFES website so click here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The rise and fall of Carter & Carter – issues raised by private sector provision of public services

Over my 14 years working with Further Education colleges, one of my particular interests has been the spectacular collapses of some colleges. These collapses have often offered other colleges useful lessons in how not to do things, as I have noted here. (They have also led to a series of knee-jerk reactions from certain quarters with the result that colleges find themselves badly tied up in red tape.) Recently we have seen a phenomenon of a major training provider worth (at one point) £500m implode.

Carter & Carter was a fast growing training provider with plans for further expansion. Some colleges considered partnerships or actually entered joint ventures with the training provider. Then things went wrong. The founder and chief executive died in a helicopter accident. Then the share prices fell, the bankers got twitchy and the auditors got busy. The Guardian has the full story.

The rise (and fall) of Carter & Carter poses issues of private sector involvement in public services. I suspect it has delayed the day when we see the private sector taking over a failing FE college. I personally favour a mixed economy in public services (and, more importantly, so does Gordon Brown according to the Financial Times) as a way of promoting choice, competition and innovation. But how does the funder and the regulator ensure a level playing field?

Interestingly outsourced contractors might be star-rated when providing welfare services according to Public Finance. Stretching the regulatory regime for the public sector over the private sector is certainly one option. However, a lighter but smarter regulation might be a lot helpful in allowing all public service providers to focus more on outcomes than compliance.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Payments to charity trustees – the voluntary sector raises the issue

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has launched a report Chief Executives on Governance. The report stresses the need for "fit for purpose" governance including implementing board appraisal and more transparent recruitment processes.

Interestingly the report touches on the controversial issue of payment of trustees. The report suggests that payment should be considered by third sector organisations to encourage the right mix of skills and experience on boards. A survey for the report found that 15% of ACEVO members already believe it will be necessary to remunerate trustees beyond expenses.

I am wary payment. I think it has potential to damage the reputation of the third sector unless it is linked to excellent governance including effective appraisal and transparent appointment. I also think it has potential to harm the ethos of smaller “voluntary” organisations. (Its not unlike the issues posed by the sociologist Richard Titmuss on the gift relationship. Will more people give blood if they are paid to give?) Moreover, there remain the unresolved problems of how payments may cause difficulties and exclude from participation those on benefits.

I do recognise that payments to trustees can be a tool to broaden pool of potential trustees. This appears to be the experience of some housing associations after the introduction of board remuneration. I am not aware of any research studies in this area. They would be very welcome.

In balancing the pros and cons, I think it is another case of horses for courses. Appropriate governance arrangements will vary with payments for trustees making sense for larger organisations.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Some facts about police pay and performance

The latest bulletin from the Reform think tank makes some interesting points about policy pay and performance which are worth considering in the heat and noise over the government’s reluctance to aware the review body’s recommended rise. For example it notes that over the last 12 years, police pay has risen at twice the rate of inflation and by more than the average of the public sector and the private sector pay increases.

It also puts falling crime rates in the context of how now 63 per cent of main family cars now have an alarm, compared to 23 per cent in 1992. So often performance indicators are seen in isolation rather than considering the external factors bearing on them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Social landlords and Plain English

The Plain English Campaign has just announced its latest awards. Looking at past winners I am surprised that social landlords aren’t represented among the winners of Golden Bulls.

While some housing associations have clear and well laid out tenants handbooks, other handbooks are written without tenants in mind. When I have put text from tenant handbooks through reading ease scoring they have have been shown to assume fairly advanced levels of education. How may tenants would understand a tenant handbook that talks about problems with soffits?

I do wonder how many organisations actually use the reading ease scoring that can be found on basic Word packages. The Plain English Campaign has its own Driven Defence software too to make text understandable.

Social landlords have an admirable commitment to translation into other languages (albeit sometimes forgetting the new migrant communities have emerged in the last decade). It would be good if all social landlords (and other public services) had a similar enthusiasm for Plain English.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Social housing and self-regulation - CIH on residents leading the way

I’ve not read all of it yet but it looks like the Chartered Institute of Housing have published an interesting report on resident-led self regulation of social housing. Leading the way: Achieving resident-driven accountability and excellence (pdf available) sets out how scrutiny by residents could be an effective substitute to external regulation of service delivery.

While I believe that resident board members are important in ensuring accountability in social housing, they are not enough. (Indeed there is a risk that the most effective resident voices are co-opted.) Likewise other channels for resident representation are not sufficient.

The report sets out a framework for councils, ALMOs and housing associations where board members and senior managers have a formal duty to respond to the queries and recommendations. The resident-led self regulation group (RLSRG) would have “internal and external powers to get responses and drive change where the board/executive is uncooperative”.

This makes sense to me. How can residents be asked to invest time and effort in getting involved unless they know that they will be taken seriously?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

NHS financial turnaround - superficial or sustainable?

In the Public Finance website’s archive there is an interesting article (yes, really) on the state of the NHS’s finances. In “Surplus to requirements” Sally Gainsbury explores how the NHS has managed to turn a deficit of £547m into a surplus of £510m in one year.

The article looks at some of the most spectacular turnarounds in the performance of Primary Care Trusts.

These paragraphs give a good taste of the explanations:

In annual turnover terms, the biggest recovery was in Western Cheshire PCT. There, the provisional NHS accounts show a move from a £16.3m deficit in 2005/06 to a £4m surplus in 2006/07 – a turnaround of £20.3m, representing 6% of its annual turnover.

But monthly finance reports presented to the PCT’s board between April 2006 and May 2007 show that it received more than £33m in non-recurrent funds in the financial year 2006/07, all of which have been absorbed into its final income and expenditure account.

Other case studies are worryingly similar with one-off windfalls and the like.

Too often “efficiencies” and turnarounds throughout the public sector are a little too superficial.

Monday, November 26, 2007

NHS at 60 – faltering progress on reform

The Economist has made content from its crystal ball gazing The World in 2008 available on the internet. It’s worth a look.

There is a fairly depressing prognosis for the NHS as it reaches the age of 60. The article notes that Gordon Brown lacks the enthusiasm for introducing the market forces of competition among health care providers. The article concludes:

It is hard for the public to feel confident about how Labour is handling the NHS when its staff are so dissatisfied. And one of their biggest gripes has been the threat of private health-care groups moving in on their territory. But there will be a long-term price to pay. For it is exactly that threat which has the potential to unleash real change in the NHS, as Mr Blair belatedly realised. His vision of turning the NHS into a publicly funded health-care market may have run into difficulties, but that reflected the resistance of the vested interests of its staff as well as ministerial incompetence. Under Mr Brown and his health secretary, Alan Johnson, genuine progress in transforming the NHS looks set to falter in 2008.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Charities: time for an inspector to call?


Last Wednesday’s Guardian carried a challenging article by Martin Brookes of New Philanthropy Capital. (A full version of the lecture is available too.) The article addressed what he sees as charities’ lack of accountability for the funds they receive:

This lack of scrutiny is not healthy, and is not fair to the taxpayer or donor either. A total of £1.3bn of subsidy on tax-efficient giving was provided to charities in the last financial year. This is money that could go into schools and hospitals. No one sits in judgment over the value for money provided by this. And private donors - that is you and I - give almost £9bn, the impact of which is not adequately recorded or monitored.

He could have added that increasingly third sector organisations are delivering public services rather than supplementing or critiquing them.

Martin Brookes believes that scrutiny would improve performance with better informed donors picking better charities and weak charities lose funding.

Its hard to argue with any of that. However, he recommends a new institution alongside the Charity Commission. This quango would be concerned with assessing and improving the performance of charities. It would be under the wing of the Cabinet Office and report to a House of Commons select committee.

I do like the idea of reports assessing how well charities are managed and governed, how they involve beneficiaries in shaping services, how they address issues of equality and diversity, etc. But I have some concerns.

Given the scale of red tape that small charities are wrapped in, like any other small business, I am wary of anything that adds to the regularity burden in the wider sense. Moreover, across the public sector there is so often a tick-box mentality where things are only done superficially and ritualistically in the expectation that an inspector will call.

Perhaps it would be better if the charities themselves stepped forward and took up the challenge of measuring and improving their own performance. Self-regulation is not always appropriate (as I’ve argued on this blog in connection with housing associations) but it would be a step forward for charities. They could help define the standards for the sector and design the framework for applying assessment.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Standard and Poor’s give social housing regulation a credit rating thumbs-up

Standard and Poor's have concluded in a new report that the planned re-organisation of social housing regulation in England will not lead to any weakening in the level of control over the sector. They do not expect any changes to credit ratings on U.K. housing associations as a result of the new regulatory regime with an independent Office of Tenants and Social Housing from 2009.

This is good news for housing associations and plans for more new social and affordable homes. We can only wonder whether or not the suggestions of self-regulation from the National Housing Federation would have led to a similarly benign result.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wikis helping professionals to manage the risks of pandemic flu


Its that time of year again – when I start talking about the risk management issues around how the public and not-for-profit sectors are preparing (or not) for the contingency of pandemic influenza.

The technology of wikis has brought a useful website, Flu Wikie, for sharing information on pandemic flu and preparing for the worst.

I hope (and expect) the internet will create more such wiki sites of assistance to professionals in the public and not-for-profit sectors. If anyone has any other examples, please share them.

Monday, November 12, 2007

McKinsey on Government as a business

On the MacKinsey Quarterly website there is a new lecture worth looking at. Ian Davis, the Managing Director on McKinsey, reflects on Government as a business. (Both the transcript and the podcast are available although you'll have to register.) Hopefully the title will not turn people off.

The lecture reviews a range of issues facing the public sector internationally including globalisation and demography. But the most insightful section is on the “productivity imperative” – what is known as the “efficiency agenda” in the UK.

Davis starts by pointing out:

People often use the term "productivity" interchangeably with "savings"—seeing the word as synonymous with cost cutting and layoffs. But that is not productivity. Productivity achieves two goals at once: productivity simultaneously improves performance while decreasing costs. The magic is that productivity integrates both results and costs, conceptually and in terms of measurement.

That isn’t a big revelation. It is common sense. And its in all the UK government’s guidance on efficiency. Yet sadly in the UK the word “efficiency” is being abused in all sorts of ways. (One housing association that I know didn’t spend a large chunk of its training budget – it claimed that as an efficiency in its returns to its regulator.) The UK “efficiency agenda” really does have to get back to the key related issues of raising productivity and doing more for less

Davis advocates stretching ambitions for improving performance but reminds us:

This can't be achieved by pressure alone—you need support as well. And you need training. In government reform efforts we have seen around the world, pressure without support simply leads to demoralization, while support without pressure leads to complacency.

That sounds rather familiar?

In terms of means, he notes:

Virtually all countries could benefit from adopting more of the approaches that have helped drive the productivity gains in the private sector over the past two decades—better transparency, improved performance management, better alignment of incentives, stronger accountability, better incorporation of technology, and, crucially, better attraction, deployment, and development of talent.

I fear that in the UK we’re see more top-down approaches to improving performing – linked (or confused) with a more bracing financial environment for public services. Nevertheless, leaders and managers in the public and not-for-profit sectors can still raise to the challenge for raising productivity from the bottom-up.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Vision, Brown and the market for think tanks

Last month Prospect magazine gave the “left-leaning” Institute of Public Policy Research the accolade of Think Tank of the Year. I see this as significant given IPPR’s closeness to New Labour and power – plus a government in search of the “vision thing”.

It is note-worthy that the IPPR has been thinking and promoting reform ideas quite distinct form the Blairite agenda of choice and competition. Public Finance has carried an article by Carey Oppenheim and Lisa Harker setting out a Brownite “narrative” of collaboration between users and producers.

The two IPPR staffers identify behind “personalisation” and “co-production”, two guiding principles:

The first is that people should have more opportunity to shape their own public services and should be better involved and informed. The notion is that ‘how’ public services are delivered is as important as ‘what’ they deliver. The second principle is that a transformation of outcomes will only come about if users of services are jointly involved with professionals in achieving changes in behaviour. This might sound pretty unradical but it is likely to change fundamentally the experience of using public services as a patient or parent.

That all makes sense.

But I would suggest that public services still require incentives to change, innovate, improve quality and reduce costs – in other words, there is a need for the disciplines of markets. Think tanks like Reform and the Social Market Foundation continue to develop ideas around choice and competition.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Txt helping to cr8 better public services?

In media coverage of the billion texts now being sent every month there has been little mention of the emerging impact on public services.

Schools and colleges are starting to communicate by text on issues such as attendance. Social landlords are reminding tenants of visits by maintenance staff and gas checking staff. Prospective tenants are even bidding for flats and housing in choice based letting. Once tenants increasingly they can use their voice and contribute their views via text in resident involvement activities.

Personalising public services sounds like jargon. But text technology is connecting public services with customers. Its a good news story thats lacking the coverage that it deserves.

Enforcement, education and 16-18 years olds - does it add up?

While the proposed increase in “school-leaving age” (strictly speaking it isn’t that) to 18 does create opportunities for colleges and other providers of 16-18 education and training (partly offsetting the demographic trends of falling numbers), I am a bit of sceptic on this proposal.

The think tank Reform have published any interesting critique. Its worth reading. It quotes the economists of the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation on the proposal in its latest Economic Survey of the UK:

While raising education participation is an important goal, it is not clear that compulsion is necessarily the best way to achieve it. In the United States there is substantial evidence that higher student achievement leads students to stay in school longer voluntarily. For those students who have already performed poorly, and who are unmotivated, it is not clear what the returns to further education and training at ages 16 and 17 would be, particularly since the return on many existing vocational qualifications is low and the new diplomas are yet to be tested. It should also be kept in mind that education participation is a relatively poor proxy for skills, and that a focus on qualifications can hide problems of poor usage and over-qualification. Educational quality – measured by cognitive skills – is a much better measure of human capital than years of schooling, and care should be taken to ensure that greater quantity is not sought at the expense of quality.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Moore is less? NHS and Sicko

Although cinema is one of my enthusiasms, I don’t plan to turn this blog into me talking about my favourite films. However, I think I will comment on Michael Moore’s new film Sicko as it touches on public services here.

Sicko movie is Moore’s polemic against the lack of free universal healthcare in the USA. It makes a strong case against what many Europeans would see as indefensible. When Moore leaves American shores, the film is more ropey.

Moore shows the NHS as idyllic. No reference to MRSA, Clostridium Difficile, the neglect of mental health, the way the NHS has sucked in huge additional resources without a proportionate improvement, etc.

When Moore visits France, its not just the social insurance based healthcare that is wonderful – it is everything. I am no expert on French healthcare but I am aware that there is racism, social exclusion, youth unemployment, etc – and that is just the suburbs of Paris.

I did like Moore’s trip to Cuba. Viva Fidel!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Actuaries, pension deficits and saving public money

This week’s Accountancy Age carries an article about actuaries and their assumptions. It might not be fascinating but it is interesting as well as relevant for the public and not-for-profit sectors with their pension deficits.

Perhaps surprisingly the author encourages finance directors to challenge actuaries despite being an actuary himself. While it is unusual for a professional to suggest that their profession doesn’t always know best, it should be remembered that any debate or correspondence is likely to result in fee income for actuaries. (Call me a cynic but I know from recent experience when I tried to do it for a client.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Industrial disease? The corporate culture of some charities

Last week the Guardian carried an interesting article by Richard Burdett, the editor of Pavement – a magazine for homeless people. The main argument of the article was that there was a growing “homeless industry” with an industrial scale and culture:

These organisations see running charities as dog-eat-dog business … a charity when it needs to pull on heartstrings, but a business when it cones to selling services to local authorities.

Similar arguments are made about other charities as well as not-for-profit and public sector organisations involved in seeking success in contracting and commissioning. (Particularly when contracts are packaged up on large scale as a result of the "efficiency agenda" pressures on central and local government.)

I accept that there can be problems – smaller and specialist organisations being squeezed out; staff being demotivated. But I would suggest these issues are not an argument for turning the clock back on choice, competition and contestability. The challenges are to:

1) government to protect and promote smaller organisations – particularly in better regulation and intelligent commissioning; and

2) boards – who need to make sure that not-for-profits don’t lose sight of their mission when seeking growth and surpluses.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Being Board - a free resource for board members

Few things are in life are free. But board members with not-for-profits, FE colleges, housing associations, etc may be interested in free “On Being Board” downloads from Board Star.

The downloads are about 10 minutes each and give an introduction to aspects of governance and management for not-for-profits. I’ve just listened to the downloads on the work of Finance Committees and the use of consultants. They are intended for charities and have an American accent but they are still helpful and relevant to the “Third Sector” (in its broadest sense) here.

All you have to do is visit the website (or use Itunes) and put the downloads on your pc or Ipod.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Good news for social landlords and their tenants - a new regulator

Inside Housing reports that the government has agreed to set up a new standalone social housing regulator. So the regulatory role will not be handed to the Audit Commission.

Its good news for all sectors of social housing which will be regulated by the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords. Even for the ALMOs, whose representative body had made the case for the Audit Commission. The inspectors are good at being inspectors but that never meant they necessarily had the skills or aptitudes for regulation.

Moreover, there is a strong case for new regulator to focus on regulating on finance and governance while allowing using tenant voice and choice to increasingly “regulate” service delivery.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A future for council housing

Some good news in this week's Comprehensive Spending Review was the announcement that the obstacles to local authorities building new council homes were being removed.

However, local authorities have to learn lessons from the success of the arm’s length management companies (the ALMOs). While some have struggled, most have been successfully transforming council housing where they have been given operational freedom from council bureaucracy.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

NHS Foundation Trusts and accountability - some evidence

One of the legacies of Tony Blair will be foundation hospitals (FTs). They appear to be here to stay too.

A key characteristic of FTs is the governance structure which creates accountability to patients, staff and communities. The example of the co-operative movement served as a model. (Its worth adding that FTs remain not-for-profits and are not a form of privatisation - contrary to what their opponents say.)

Recent research suggests that these structures are working. (It’s a pity that my local FT appeared to lose my membership details for best part of a year. Hopefully I am isolated exception.)

The FT model (and the example of the co-operative movement) is worth applying elsewhere in public services.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The NCVOs on the Third Sector, public services and the efficiency agenda

Yesterday I went to an excellent conference run by Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation on The Role of the Third Sector in Delivering Public Policies. As third sector organisations such as charities, mutuals and social enterprises are being considered as vehicles for both delivering public services and (to some extent) delivering public policies, the conference was timely.

The keynote speaker was Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. (I should declare an interest – Deed Consulting is a corporate affiliate of NCVO.) He outlined the main issues facing the Third Sector in its relations to ‘the state’ clearly and thoroughly – all without the use of Powerpoint.

Stuart Etherington raised concerns about key elements of the government’s agenda. On the subject of the ‘efficiency agenda’, he was concerned that interpretation by the public sector was often a narrow one concentrating on cost cutting with implications for project prices and, hence, the Third Sector. He also suspected that this agenda was driving a scaling up in procurement exercises like the recent letting of large regional contracts by the Department for Work and Pensions.

There was also an intelligent analysis of choice, ‘personalisation’ and localism for the Third Sector.

On the issue of potential conflicts of interest between designing policy as campaigners and delivering policy as contractors, Stuart Etherington suggested that there may be a split between Third Sector organisations concentrating on advocacy and campaigning and those focusing on delivery. There will need to be a response from the Third Sector to critics and cynics on these concerns when they are aired.

More doubts on efficiencies - MOD and Gershon

There is now more evidence to suggest that much of the Gershon "efficiencies" being claimed by the public sector are not entirely robust - as I have suggested here before.

Public Finance reports that the Public Accounts Committee's recent report on the MoD’s major project spending examined claimed savings of £781m on 20 of the ministry's largest projects. But the Committee found that only £242m of this represented genuine savings.

I fear that many of the savings in local government and social housing are (and will be) disguised cost-cutting and/or plain creative accounting.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Between a Northern Rock and the NHS

The new report from Derek Wanless rings warning bells on the productivity problem in the NHS. There is an executive summary and an interview on the King’s Fund website. The report repeats some of the critique from think tanks like Reform although it does not go so far.

It is unfortunate that Wanless is a board member of Northern Rock. The NHS isn’t the only organisation a bit short of cash at the moment.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The NHS: gifts and markets - the need for both economies

Life has been busy so I have only just got round to reading last week's Society section of the Guardian. It carried an interesting article, Gift rap, by Paul Hodgkin about the role of gift economies in the health service.

I agreed with the main thrust of the article that altruistic and collaborative enterprises (such as support groups) have a vital role in NHS. Hodgkin is chief executive of Patient Opinion which is itself a good example of such gift enterprises. “Co-production” is likely to be a growing part of NHS activity in the future too.

What I disagreed with Hodgkin about was his casual rejection of "markets" in the NHS. He commented:

there are a number of reasons why the search for fully functioning markets in healthcare has little likelihood of success.

He went on:

First, markets within the public sector are zero sum - more hip replacements here means less chiropody there. Or put another way, the foundation trust's surplus tends to mirror my PCT's deficit.

But there will always be a choice between hip replacements and chiropody - unless resources are unlimited. Love it or loathe it, but the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is a way of making those decisions by setting entitlements. The market (or call it choice for patients and competition among providers) is a tool for resolving whether those treatments are at hospital A or hospital B or polyclinic C.

Hodgkin continued:

Second, the "goods" the market is trying to allocate are usually not desirable - unlike a holiday in the Maldives. No one aspires to go to hospital for a mastectomy. As consumers, patients can call some shots in a market. But their fears and anxieties are easy to exploit by suppliers (read doctors) inducing demand for ever "better" care.

I think that medical treatment is very desirable when you need it - even major surgery. The point about professionals over-treating is valid although incentive structures can be developed that address that risk. So doctors and/or hospitals are rewarded for healthy outcomes rather than simple throughput of treatments.

One of the biggest obstacles for markets is the imperfect information that patients have about alternative doctors, hospitals, etc. But Patient Opinion and similar initiatives are tackling that.

I believe that Hodgkin's article reflects are cultural weariness of "markets". We hear the word and imagine Del Boy selling three legged tights or City traders yelling "Sell, sell, sell" into their mobile phones. Perhaps there would be less prejudice against "markets" (and associated hostility to reform) if we spoke about decentralised decision making by patients (or parents or service users or whoever) rather centralised decision-making by planners and politicians.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Road signs - lessons for regulation

There is sometimes a case for regulation. For example, oversight of the governance and finances of housing associations means that lenders reduce the interest of loans as the HAs are seen as lower risk. But regulation and regulators tend to grow beyond what is strictly necessary.

Government politicians and civil servants cling to regulation as a safety blanket. Opposition politicians promote regulation ask why regulation didn’t stop each and every unfortunate incident. The auditors thrive on regulation. The regulators can justify every lengthening of red tape. There is always a case for doing and regulating more – without little time to consider the compliance costs, let alone the unforeseen and unintended consequences.

So it was great to learn today that a town in Germany is abolishing road signs. So often denigrated as lovers of regimentation, the Germans are showing that the way with this – allowing pedestrians and motorists to self-organise, take responsibility and negotiate amongst themselves. It’s a theory of “shared space” already being tried elsewhere in Europe and supported by Eurocrats of all people. There is even a variant in Kensington involving the decluttering of streets.

(If you don’t think it will work think about car parks. They don’t generally need traffic lights and the rest.)

Let us hope the lessons of Bohmte – with its bonfire of road signs – are learned elsewhere – not least in the UK’s public services. We need a bit less regulation and more anarchy.

Police, customers and targets

Its not news that target-driven policing doesn’t work. But it is good news that the government has admitted this.

We might even see the police service adopting an ethos of customer service. My local police station might even open at the stated time. When shut, the buzzer to the duty station may even work.

Perhaps not given uncertainty over the 101 pilots – where citizens could report non-emergency incidents without clogging up 999 lines and without being trapped in labyrinth-like never-ending call-waiting. These lines are showing customer satisfaction of 90%!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

House prices from £10: supporting Shelter

It’s not often that people can buy a house for £10. Shelter is building a city in cyberspace. By buying a house, a shop, a skyscraper or whatever, you can help support Shelter’s campaigning for those suffering most from the shortage in affordable housing.

Deed Consulting has a shop in Shelter’s city. (Although the logo doesn’t seem to show.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

"Mass fatalities" - planning for the risk of pandemic flu

It is never very jolly to get back from holiday. It was particularly depressing to see that the Mass Fatalities Unit of the Home Office (I never even knew that they had one) had issued draft guidance on Planning for a Possible Influenza Pandemic (pdf available).

The report includes interesting planning assumptions. It also gives scenarios such as:

The reasonable worse case scenario could produce around 650,000 additional deaths across England and Wales, based on a clinical attack rate of 50% and a case fatality rate of 2.5%.

Nevertheless we should be cheered that central government is taking the risk of a flu pandemic seriously. Are other providers of public services doing likewise.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Another disruption in service - back next week


I'm on holiday in Prague. (I fear that Charles Bridge may be busier than this.)

NHS targets - waiting for change

Apparently an investigation has been launched into waiting list figures at a Lancashire foundation trust. The case at Royal Preston Hospital will be an interesting one to watch.

Managing the public services by target is hazardous as I’ve noted here before. Hopefully the new regime will continue the moves away from targets. However, some experts, such as Professor Colin Talbot in Public Finance, are rather doubtful that a cull of targets will actually occur.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A new university league table - plus some thoughts on carbon and public services

The campaigning group People and Planet have published an interesting league table showing the greenest (and dirtiest) universities.

I do a lot of work with the further education sector. It would be interesting to see how colleges would perform if subjected to such an examination. Hopefully the Association of Colleges' Green Colleges initiative will build and extend some good practice going on. (I must confess to being a bit skeptical about how representative the colleges were in the AoC's quite positive survey on this issue.)

It is worth remembering that almost all universities and colleges (and many other organisation in the public and third sector) are entitled to a free energy survey by the Carbon Trust.

Before we all get too smug - as individuals we can count our carbon on the excellent Act on co2 website.

Social housing - time to give consumers some clout?

It is disappointing to read in Inside Housing that fewer than one in three of social housing residents in a National Consumer Council (NCC) study said their landlords took on board tenant suggestions for service improvements.

It is noteworthy that residents said local authorities were less likely to provide a flexible housing service or foster a sense of community than housing associations. (Something for the "Defend Council Housing" campaigners to ponder. How about campaigning to "Transform Council Housing"?)

There is a real need to give consumers clout in social housing. That can be done in all sorts of ways. Hopefully we will see a national voice for residents as recommended by the Cave Review. But new forms of accountability and governance are needed with a key role for community gateway housing associations and co-operative housing. Interestingly, the NCC has suggested an approach based on “markets and mutuality”.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Working in Sarajevo


Apologies for the lack of postings. I am working in Sarajevo. (Excellent timing as its the Sarajevo Film Festival this week.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Charities and bureaucracy - time to cut the red tape

Today's Financial Times reports that the National Audit Office has found that the “baroque complexity” of government funding is jeopardising plans to give charities a bigger role in delivering public services.

The NAO study of 12 large charities found that on average, the charities estimated they each spent £381,000 a year simply managing these multiple funding streams, which include Whitehall departments, local authorities and National Health Service bodies.

Each charity had between 95 and more than 4,000 separate funding relationships with public bodies.
If the big businesses of the charity world are entangled in red tape, just think how the smaller charities struggle.

When auditors think that red tape is unreasonable, something should be done.

Friday, August 03, 2007

College mergers: an interesting experiment

August 1st always see a few mergers of further education colleges. This year there seem to be a few more than usual. Maybe the legacy of the Learning & Skills Council, after it has been stripped of its funding roles, will have been more college mergers.

One particularly interesting merger this week was the take over of the struggling Skelmersdale & Ormskirk College by Newcastle College. This is certainly a controversial merger.

While both Skelmersdale and Newcastle are both rather northern colleges, they are 160 miles apart. I’ve worked at colleges where campuses as far apart as nine miles seemed such a long way. During college merger due diligence studies, I’ve raised issues where potential merger partners were an hour apart by road.

Making campuses separated by 160 miles can work will be something of a leadership challenge. (And the hostility of the lecturers’ union UCU is another one.) It will perhaps be complicated by the new localism in further education with the role for local authorities in funding 16-19 learners that is emerging from the changes in what was the Department for Education and Skills.

While the emergence of regional colleges has become increasingly likely, Newcastle College aspires to be more than this – according to the Guardian it has a strategy for becoming a “multi-region college”. This raises some of the issues of big as beautiful discussed on these pages in relation to mega housing associations straddling large parts of England.

It's definitely an interesting experiment.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Retreat from reform? Gordon Brown and public sector reform

The public sector reform think tank Reform have produced a challenging analysis of the initial policy decisions of Gordon Brown's government.

Retreat from reform (pdf available) concludes:

The new Government has presented itself as an agent of change. Its initial policy decisions do represent a real change from the previous Government. Alistair Darling’s brave statements on taxation are a positive change, since they give greater prominence to the idea of competitiveness. But for the spending departments, the change is negative and represents a reversal of reform.

It identifies the themes of the new Government’s public sector policies as:

an inputs-led approach. Ministers have praised increases in public sector spending and costs for their own sake. Their key attack on the Opposition has been over putative reductions in spending.

central intervention. Ministers have pledged to intervene in detail, from the maths curriculum in schools to the buildings of the London NHS to the numbers of houses in different regions. This is at odds with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of a decentralised, “people first” policy approach.

the producer interest. The NHS review, for example, gives much greater prominence to the views of health service staff than to patients.

I was pleased to read that I am not alone in my scepticism about the huge efficiencies (claimed and forecast) underpinning much of policy in public services (both the public sector and the third sector eg housing associations). The report notes:

The Government has indicated that these extra costs will be funded by efficiency savings. But the recent record on efficiency savings is very weak. However, judging by the experience of previous efficiency drives, it is unwise for the Government to fund new spending commitments through the promise of efficiency savings.

The report is well worth a read.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The private sector and the NHS - some unreported good news

I can't recall any coverage in the media last week when the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection published its report on the work of the Independent Sector Treatment Centres (pdf available). Given the controversy associated with a mixed economy in NHS funded care, it would have been useful if this Healthcare Commission had been given a wider airing.

This week there was a mention in the
Guardian focusing on the data issues raised by the report:

Last week, a report by the Healthcare Commission, which monitors NHS and private health services, criticised the £5bn ISTC programme for failing to provide information that would allow the clinics' work to be compared with similar services in the NHS.

Interestingly the Guardian didn't highlight the fairly glowing feedback from patients.

The report found that of the 33 issues explored in the patient survey, patients assessed ISTCs consistently better than the NHS on 28 of them.

In some areas the ratings were substantially better.


  • 98% of those surveyed said the toilets and bathrooms were “very clean” or “fairly clean” in ISTCs, compared to 92% in the NHS
  • 65% of those surveyed said they were given a choice of admission date in ISTCs compared to 27% in the NHS
  • 96% of those surveyed said they were told who to contact if they were worried about their treatment in ISTCs compared to 76% in the NHS
  • 98% of those surveyed said that there were enough nurses on the wards in ISTCs compared to 92% in the NHS

This is not to say that ISTCs (or the private sector more generally) is better. ISTCs were to some extent set up as treatment factories without complications such as emergency cases disrupting operating theatre scheduling. But the feedback does indicate that ISTCs (and the public sector) can deliver in a mixed economy.

Hopefully the report may contribute to ending some of the prejudice surrounding reform of public services. If so, it may be too late as the government seems to be turning against private sector involvement in the NHS.


Monday, July 23, 2007

The Housing Green Paper and the need for action

Today’s housing Green Paper will make interesting reading.

There was coverage in the Financial Times yesterday on the broad outlines of the Green Paper. The Building newsletter suggested that the "comeback for council housing" will involve Special Purpose Vehicle partnerships being developed between councils and either private developers and housing associations. I hope it will create opportunities for the ALMOs and new forms of social and co-operative housing like community land trusts.

The need for action on the housing crisis was further highlighted for me by an article about young people renting space in empty commercial property. It is an interesting and more mainstream variant on the squatting movement’s use of empty housing.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Board remuneration: over-laden pack animals on public and third sector boards



I won’t make a habit of quoting the accountancy press, but an article in Friday’s Accountancy Age did make me think. It asked who would be a non-executive director?

It suggested that it was “disconcerting” that NEDs were expected to have expertise and knowledge from accounting to law as well as bear the burden of multiplying risks like “over-laden pack animals”.

The article was mainly concerned with FTSE NEDs, yet according to the Independent Commission on Good Governance in Public Services there are over 450,000 people in the UK who hold governance positions (excluding local government councillors). They are governors in schools, hospitals, police authorities, housing associations and national public bodies.

Many – probably most – of those huge army of board members and governors in the public and third sectors are unpaid. This is a credit to British civil society.

It is inevitable (and often desirable) that the larger boards and governing bodies of larger organisations will move towards more professionalised governance – in the sense of “board remuneration”. However, it would be sad if the voluntary ethos was lost.

The over-laden pack animals – loaded with more and more risks to think about - will increasingly expect carrots.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Boardroom battles - lessons for governance and appraisal of chief executives

Boardroom battles - with the resignation of both a chief executive and a Chair (ex-MP Kerry Pollard) at William Sutton Homes - have recently raged within the Affinity Sutton group, one of the largest housing association groups in the country. Such problems aren’t very helpful in terms of reputation, partnerships, etc.

If you are curious about the publicly known (and complicated) details, I’d recommend a look in Inside Housing or the Borehamwood & Elstree Times.

More importantly, I think all organisations – whether housing associations, third sector or whatever – should have a quick look at their procedures for chief executive appraisal. (I fear that internal auditors don't often review this area - something for audit committees to ponder.)

Chief executive appraisal appears to be at the heart of the Affinity Sutton problems. It is not unusual either – before now, I’ve been asked to review the problems arising chief execs leaving.

Generally, I believe that the performance review of chief executive is a critical but neglected function of governance. It is easy to forget the basic but easy things like documenting appraisals and ensuring board members are aware of the results of appraisals. Of course, appraisal arrangements have to be well thought through and clear to all concerned where there are parent and subsidiary organisations in a group structure – as with Affinity Sutton and William Sutton.

Let Affinity Sutton be a lesson to us all.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The future of ALMOs - through the community gateway?

It was interesting to read in this week’s Inside Housing that some arm’s length management organisations are looking at the community gateway model of stock transfer pioneered in Preston.

As I've said before, I am a big fan of the community gateway model as a form of mutually owned and led housing association committed to supporting and working through resident involvement. The community gateway was designed to reassure residents doubtful about stock transfer and traditional forms of housing association.

If some ALMOs move towards stock transfer into community gateways that is good news for ALMO residents. However, I hope that we continue to see ALMOs surviving and prospering beyond their contract contracts to manage council housing. ALMOs are keeping council housing in municipal ownership while introducing new and better management than what went before.

Of course any change in the status of ALMOs must be with the consent of residents. (Defend Council Housing would love to see any evidence of the "two-stage privatisation" that they have sought to scare council tenants with.)

Changing charities and delivering public services

This week’s Society supplement in Guardian had a balanced and thoughtful article by Adam Sampson, the chief executive of Shelter. It explored the issues faced by increasing involvement of voluntary organisations (aka the third sector) in bidding for and delivering government funded work as part of the government's reform of public services.

Sampson concluded:

Rising to the challenge being dangled by the government is not the problem. It is finding a way to deliver more without compromising what makes us unique in the first place.

The article contrasts with some of the thinking coming from Nick Seddon at Civitas (an “independent” but pretty traditional right-wing think tank). Seddon advocates denying charitable funding to charities that deliver government funded services.

Some of Seddon’s analysis got an airing on the BBC’s recent Analysis documentary on Changing Charities (the transcript is still available).

While there are organisational dilemmas and challenges for the third sector in delivering government funded work, I believe that much of the third sector is up to it and can make a vital contribution to a mixed economy in public services.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A new word to learn: over-policying

On today’s Business Daily on BBC World Service, there was reference to over-policying in the USA. Over-policying is having a policy for everything. Sounds familiar?

Anyone in the UK public sector and many outside will be conscious of over-policying – and often ground down by it. Sometimes it is a requirement of legislators and often regulators. With initiatives and fads, the canon of policy accumulates at an incredible rate.

I am a believer in the policy governance model developed by the American organisational guru John Carver. In this model, governance is largely about setting ends and determining certain prohibited means – with the title “policy” used sparingly to refer to these ends . (Probably best to read one of his books for a proper introduction!)

Too many organisations use the words “policy” and “procedure” interchangeably. And then give the board members or governors shed loads of paper at every meeting to give them the illusion of being “in control”.

Little time is spent on consolidating policies. Even less on making them consistent. (When I do work on governance with FE colleges it is usual for “whistle-blowing” policies to be inconsistent with - or even contradict – anti fraud policies.)

More generally, rather than delivering change and improvement, the focus is on writing new policies which will gain dust on the shelf.

Sometimes Orwellian technology is introduced to make sure staff read policies, sign-up and then get pass marks in a little test.

I probably sound cynical, but I’m not. Surely it doesn’t have to be this way?

While organisations cannot avoid the demands of legislators, funders and regulators, they can try to avoid over-policying. Instead of rushing to introduce a new policy, perhaps they could think first:

  1. Can this policy be integrated into an existing one? If so, consolidate them
  2. Is this policy consistent with an existing one? If so, make sure.
  3. Can this policy be made clear and concise? Of course, you can try.
  4. Is this really a policy at all? If not, call it a procedure or whatever, which management can adopt without bothering board members or governors.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New council housing - welcome but ...

While the commitment to dealing with the housing shortage was evident, it was unclear from Gordon Brown’s not-the-Queen’s-Speech whether we are to see a revival of council house building.

There has been much speculation about council house building. I welcome the prospect (with caveats) although I am wary about the “Fourth Option” advocated by Defend Council Housing. I favour linking reform and investment in social housing as much as elsewhere in public services.

If there is to be more council housing, we need to be sure that:
  1. There is no return to the mono tenure estates of yesteryear. Any new council houses should be in a mixed and sustainable communities.
  2. There is capacity in terms of design, build and project management generally. As council house building has not happened for a couple of decades, council may be lacking some of the skills required. That will mean councils teaming up with partners such as housing associations.
  3. The new council homes will be well managed – the obvious candidates are the high performing Arms Length Management Organisations. (These organisations are hated by the Defend Council Homes campaign but are proving great for their tenants as shown by so many good and excellent inspection reports.)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The red tape cutting challenge: regulatory reform and public services

In the last week of the Blair era the Cabinet Office published Cutting bureaucracy for our public services (pdf available). Hopefully this document will not be lost in the reshuffle and “change”.

It is easy to mock a document talking of Simplification Plans and targets for reducing targets as well as bragging that “the Department for Communities and Local Government has pledged to cut 800 Local Government targets to 200”. (I’ve seen “bureaucracy-busting” in the FE sector - and not much red tape was blown away.) Nevertheless the strategy should be welcomed as it recognises:

So targets and inspections have a critical role to play. But as we move into the next phase of public sector reform, it makes sense to look to see what unnecessary bureaucracy there might be and what more we can do to empower the front-line to respond to the wishes of the public.

This shift was evident in
the late-Blair thinking on public services and reform. The strategy promises:
The commitment to better regulation in the public sector will be led from the very top. Lets hope it still is.

One novel element of the strategy is the commitment that:

everyone [in public services] has the opportunity to suggest ideas for reducing burdens, including those on the public sector through the
www.betterregulation.gov.uk website.

The strategy commits Whitehall to respond to ideas or suggestions within 90 days, outlining whether they have been taken forward and explaining why a particular decision has been made.

Those on the front line in public services (and their unions and other representative bodies) should take up this challenge.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Maintaining trust: PIs, partnering and housing associations

According to the BBC, the Housing Corporation has launched an investigation after 5 Live Report alleged that it had uncovered evidence that a leading housing maintenance firm had falsified performance figures.

The case does raise some questions on how housing associations can be sure that performance information is reliable. I would certainly suggest that associations:

  1. Periodically commission external validation of performance indicator systems whatever the future of social housing regulation is. (I declare an interest - I do PI system validation.)
  2. Ensure that their audit committees (and, hence, their internal auditors) do consider the robustness of PI information - including PI collected by contractors and used to monitor partners

The alleged problems do make the case for associations (and other not-for-profits) creating a culture that stresses ethics both in within the organisation and in what is sometimes called the "extended enterprises" - not least suppliers and partners. Whistleblowing policies are a key part of this.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Profile of a fraudster - internal controls, financial loss and reputational risk

I do applaud the work of the KPMG sponsored Audit Committee Institute. It provides a useful resource for audit committee members in the private, public and third sector (and those involved in corporate governance outside audit committees) even if a lot of its work is focused on big private sector entities. In the latest Audit Committee Quarterly published by the Institute there is an interesting article on the profile of a fraudster.

Based on a major study of fraud cases by KPMG International, the research finds that 85 percent of fraudsters are male. The typical fraudster is aged between 36 and 55. By the time he starts enriching himself by illegal means, he has usually been employed by the company for six or more years. He typically works in the finance department and commits the fraud single-handed. In 86 percent of cases he is at management level – and in two thirds of cases he is a member of senior management. Greed and opportunity are his motivating factors.

Some of that isn’t new. But it is a useful reminder of how tighter internal controls, more widely publicised fraud reporting mechanisms and an anti-fraud culture are important. They are normally worth it. Total financial loss caused per fraudster was more than 1m euros in almost half the cases in the study.

Amongst the cases KPMG analysed, in Europe the highest proportion occurred in the public sector (29 percent of cases). That is fairly in line with the rest of the economy given the size of Europe’s public sector. It shows that the professional ethos, caring professions, the relative absence of "profit motive", etc can't entirely innoculate the public sector from fraud and the less desirable aspects of human nature.

The article doesn’t refer on reputational damage but that can be significant - perhaps potentially outwearing financial loss, sometimes aggravating it. An American accountant at a large not-for-profit was convicted of fraud associated with funding a dominatrix. No one likes to drop their coins into a collecting box if it will end up in an accountant being whipped or walked over in stilettos.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Parliamentary scepticism on efficiency gains

Last week the Treasury select committee issued its report on The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review: prospects and processes.

Interestingly the report noted the National Audit Office’s concerns about the robustness of measurement processes for efficiency gains. The Treasury committee addressed these issues in its conclusions:

We recommend that the Government ensure that a clearer performance measurement framework is established for the efficiency programme from 2008-09 onwards, including a greater role for external audit of service quality than hitherto.

It also recommended a coherent framework for the verification and reporting of savings on a consistent basis as part of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. (It also qureried the value of the fairly arbitrary head count targets that have been adopted.)

I would personally have recommended a healthy scepticism to almost all fanfares, reports, etc on the size of efficiency gains being delivered. I'm all for efficiency (better procurement, lean processes, more productive time and the rest) but I suspect that too many figures are affected by wishful thinking and sloppy measurement.

Getting rid of consultants - NAO launch toolkit


Everyone (or at least many people) hate consultants. There has been plenty of discussion and media coverage about the numbers of consultants (Blair’s barmy army”) and the cost of them to the public sector. So it is interesting to see that the National Audit Office is trying to help central government departments to secure efficiency gains in this area.

(I should declare an interest as I work with FE colleges, housing associations and other organisations delivering public services on governance and finance - the clue is in the heading to this blog.)

The NAO has launched an interactive toolkit for use before commissioning consultants. It is meant to provide an analysis of areas of weakness, guidance on how to improve value for money and good practice case studies. Presumably the toolkit is just as relevant to other public sector and not-for-profit organisations outside Whitehall.

The NAO toolkit is available at
www.nao.org.uk/efficiency. Unfortunately when I tried using it, it didn’t work.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Interest rates - the pain for some public services (but not all)

Today the Financial Times is predicting a quarter point increase in interest rates next week. The Bank of England may be setting interest rates at 6% by Christmas.

As I’ve noted before, this is not only bad news for families with mortgages or other debt – but it adds to the pressures on many providers of public services such as further education colleges and housing associations. Hopefully some of the pain will be eased by finance directors thinking ahead and managing these risks.

Many general further education and sixth form colleges are now borrowing as an integral part of property strategies aimed at transforming tatty buildings into “world class” places of learning. Interesting school sixth forms don’t have to borrow as their capital needs are met 100% - not a very level playing field!

It goes without saying the providers of public services will have to raise their game on finding efficiencies. Otherwise we’ll be back to a world of cuts.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cave Report - the single regulator and resident scrutiny panels

The Cave Report on social housing regulation (a pdf is available of the full report as well as an executive summary) has arrived at last! It is a pity that the government appears to be lukewarm on the recommendation of a single regulator for social housing. Surely Cave was right to query the silos in social housing regulation - why should ALMO or council tenants be regulated differently from housing association tenants?

Many of the Cave recommendations were perhaps heralded in advance.

My only initial criticism would be that the idea of resident scrutiny panels as a form of accountability is supported but does not feature very prominently in the report. I would argue that such panels can be more effective forms of voice for tenants than one or two tenant board members - especially for the increasing number of large social landlords.

Third Sector - the DCLG's strategy and the NAO's findings

The Department for Communities & Local Government’s heart is in the right place. Its Third Sector Strategy discussion paper (mentioned here when it was issued) does propose practical ways of making the department more Third Sector friendly as well as developing community asset ownership.

Whether or not the Third Sector Strategy will be enough to protect community and voluntary organisations from the tightening of public finances (and the associated Efficiency Agenda) is more doubtful. Moreover, small Third Sector organisations face many of the regulatory burdens of any other small business.

Last week the National Audit Office issued a report on Local Area Agreements and The Third Sector: Public Service Delivery (pdf available). This noted that the new LAAs which cover an increasing amount of local government funding have not been used to create for “a level playing field” Third Sector organisations competing with other suppliers. Thankfully some of the recommendations are already in DCLG’s Third Sector Strategy document.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Social enterprise in the NHS - not tilting at Windmills

The Kings Fund and several other key players in the debate about NHS reform ran a a two-day simulation event of a health economy model from 2008 to 2011. The publication Windmill 2007: The Future of Health Care Reforms in England (pdf available) draws out the main findings from the exercise involving more than 100 participants including clinicians, managers, policy-makers, regulators and analysts.

On the subject of the role for social enterprise, Windmill 2007 queried whether this was "a missed opportunity". It noted:

The government has supported the development of social enterprise as a means of combining commercial rigour with the benefits and values of the third sector. However, within the NHS, the model is poorly understood – by both commissioners and providers – and it is questionable whether social enterprise will operate on a scale that will enable it to become the model for mainstream service providers.

Let us hope the government, NHS employers and the representatives of NHS employees read the report and act on the recommendations. These include PCTs preparing their directly employed staff to work at arm’s length or outside the NHS and the Royal Colleges and other representative bodies enabling their members to understand and prepare for change.

Social enterprises (and through them professionals, patients and communities) playing a leading role in healthcare in a post-monopoly NHS is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Regulation of social housing - the Dutch model

The Cave Review on the regulation of social housing is due to report soon. It was due in “the spring”. (Spring must have been officially postponed.) It is unlikely to favour the kind of self-regulation favoured by the National Housing Federation and some (definitely not all) of its housing association members.

For some time Dutch social housing and its self-regulation has engendered much enthusiasm among some housing circles. (Perhaps understandably when you visit the Netherlands and housing seems so much better there than here.)

Interestingly the Dutch housing associations have come in for stick recently. The director of the Dutch government's bureau for economic policy analysis said that there was too little supervision of Dutch housing associations. He argued that they were building too few houses and putting their money instead into other things.

Friday, June 15, 2007

RSL efficiency gains – too good to be true?

Reading the Housing Corporation’s recent thematic review of Efficiency (which, to be fair, does include a handful of good practice casestudies), I was reminded of the breathless triumphalism of Soviet Weekly greeting the over-achievement of grain targets:

The 2005-06 gains reported by associations reflect savings well ahead of CLG’s interim targets set for the year. The actual recorded savings of £81 million for capital works, £130 million for management and maintenance and £27 million for commodities exceed the respective targets of £2 million, £35 million and £10 million by a total of £191 million.

While many housing associations are working hard to improve, are they really generating efficiencies of 4% of total expenditure – an average £162 per year per home?

I’m not entirely convinced that a world of burgeoning efficiency is reflected in the Housing Corporation’s own Global accounts of housing associations for 2005-06 – even allowing for other cost pressures. The global accounts show that costs are rising with turnover with operating margins reducing rather than increasing.

Perhaps I sound cynical, but I fear that there is a lot of cynicism out there. (Personally I don’t view the requirement for annual efficiency statement as a joke – I think it should be treated seriously and seized as an opportunity to drive change and promote efficiency.)

I’ve also seen some claimed efficiency gains. One housing association that I know claimed an increase in tenant satisfaction as an “efficiency gain” but without identifying any action leading to this gain and without factoring in any costs incurred in delivering the gain.

If housing associations are over-stating their efficiency, they will be the ones paying the price. Local government is now facing a funding squeeze as its been so successful in over-achieving its ability to do more for less.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Need for third sector to respond to the DCLG strategy

The Department of Communities and Local Government has published a discussion paper in preparing its Third Sector strategy.

DCLG says that it wants to hear from the third sector about the proposals in the discussion paper.

The Third Sector needs to engage with this consultation. Alongside the traditional consultation process, there is a web forum on the issues.

A quick skim read of the discussion paper suggests that DCLG has not taken on board the possibility that the Third Sector may be a casualty of the “efficiency agenda” and tightening public finances at local level. Likewise there is no direct reference to the burden of red tape on small organisations in the Third Sector.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Good news on waiting lists - but lets not forget the flaws of targets in the NHS, housing, etc


It was welcome to read some good news about the NHS on Friday.

The NHS is on target to achieve the "historic goal" of eliminating long waits for treatment. By the end of 2008, no patient will have to wait more than 18 weeks from GP referral to hospital admission.

The chief executive of the King's Fund observed that the NHS had made "huge strides" forward. (Of course, it should do given the huge injection of resources.)

The Health Minister Andy Burnham was quoted by the Independent as saying: “I don't believe there should be further national targets for the NHS." (And certainly No 10 was thinking in terms of shifting the balance of public sector reform away from over-reliance on central targets.)

Let hope this is so. Targets have perhaps been a necessary evil – but they have harmful effects. They focus on what is measurable to the detriment of others concerns; they have unforeseen consequences (as with GP appointments); they encourage can encourage manipulation of data; they often centralise power in the hands of the target-setters rather than the customers etc.

One effect that I believe is often overlooked is a threshold effect. Where targets are set in terms of triggers or thresholds – as in waiting times less than 18 weeks – there is effort to get cases just over (or under) the threshold with cases failing the target getting relegated on To Do lists.

The classic case for me is responsive repairs waiting times for housing association. Generally emergency repairs are completed within 24 hours, urgent repairs one week and routine repairs one month. The average repairs times will be just inside the thresholds for the later categories. For the repairs that miss the target, the completion times will often be very long. If you are a housing association board member and don’t believe me – ask the managers at your housing association for the data.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Trades unions, mutualism and public services

Just when it seemed like enthusiasm for the third sector was universal, it appears that the General Secretary of the TUC has not heard of it. Brendan Barber writes in Public Finance magazine about "public value" and reform of public services simply in terms of the public sector and the private sector.

The trades union movement should be encouraging new mutually owned forms of public services which empower both those who work in public services and those who use them. After all the trades union movement and the co-operative movement grew as comrades in the nineteenth century.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Jerks and the public sector

The McKinsey Quarterly carries an interesting article on jerks in the workplace and building a civilized workplace.

In the article Robert Sutton argues for zero tolerance of harassment of workers. A “no jerks” policy as adopted by the software company Successfactors.

The article lists the “dirty dozen” seen with workplace jerks:

1. Personal insults
2. Invading coworkers personal territory
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, verbal and nonverbal
5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery
6. Withering emails
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate victims
8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they were invisible

The article discusses calculating a Total Cost of Jerks. It quotes one company where one star salesperson—generated additional costs of $160,000.

Jerks are a problem in all sectors of the economy. How much do they affect productivity in public sector organisations like the NHS?

FE colleges - the cinderella of education policy

My curiosity about the post-Blair future for public services led me to start reading Over to you, Mr Brown by Anthony Giddens - the guru of the Third Way.

It is a fairly interesting read supporting a move away from state monopolies in public services.

What disappointed me was that Giddens started to write about “universities and colleges” in the section on public services – but as you read on, it was clear that he wasn’t at all interested in further education colleges. He was only referring to higher education.

For him “universities and colleges” is all about universities teaching degrees courses. (Like at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics - where he worked.) What about the FE colleges that do so much to give learners skills for citizenship and for the workplace?

Giddens isn’t unique – the parties and the media often overlook FE and the hundreds of thousands of young people and adult learners in colleges.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Gordon Brown and public sector reform


The Brown government’s views on public sector reform are somewhat hard to discern although the pace of change in the NHS may soon be slower. However, there is an interesting debate on reform going on.

The Society section of the Guardian website is carrying both an article by a former Downing Street adviser and a selection of views on the role of choice in changing public services.

Although I see choice and competition in public services as a driver for improvement and efficiency, the cartoon above does amuse me.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

NHS under-spend - "boom and bust" lives on

It was depressing to read this week that the NHS had under-spent £500million as a result of a starvation diet in the latter months of 2006/7. (The under-spent was achieved in some areas by a sharp change of gear with the temporary introduction of maximum waiting times despite the minimum waiting times so central to NHS objectives.)

The diet was required to avoid the political embarrassment of the NHS £90billion budget being overspent by a pound.

Isn’t this one of the strongest arguments for the NHS being considered a set of healthcare entitlements rather than a nationalised industry?

In January the Reform think tank published an analysis on NHS developments that policy that policy was marked by “stop-go” (NHS reform: the empire strikes back, pdf available). It’s a pity that the NHS is still infected by “boom and bust” in contrast to a wider economy marked by stability and success.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Juries, boards and diversity


While recently traveling on crawling Russian trains and decrepit ex-Aeroflot planes I have been able to read some books. My holiday reading included the book by James Surowiecki on The Wisdom of Crowds. It is an interesting set of essays on the effectiveness of collective wisdom - collective wisdom even trumping individual experts. (He does explore when and how groups don't work as in stock market bubbles.)

I would recommend that you read the book if you haven't already. (Its been out a couple of years.)

I was particularly interested in the chapter on Committees, Juries, and Teams. Many of Surowiecki's comments have a bearing on governance and management.

Surowiecki argues that juries are either verdict-based (starting with the verdict and working back) or evidence-based. He also points to the influence on group decisions of the status and talkativeness of individual group members.

In making small groups work better Surowiecki stresses the importance of diversity of group members. This militates against "groupthink" and improves the chances of a "devil's advocate" emerging who can challenge and test the evidence and recommendations being put forward.

I see Surowieck's arguments supporting the case that boards and governing bodies should have a real social, gender, ethnic and skill mix. This isn't "political correctness" or just "tokenism" (although it can be, if done badly) - it is a vital contribution to making decision-making more effective.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Police, performance indicators and customer service




The claims from the Police Federation that Performance Indicators are distorting police work is hardly surprising.

The stress on PIs seen throughout public services is perhaps accentuated in the case of the police due to its peculiarities.

When I last visited my local police station (a minor motoring offence, I hasten to add), it wasn't open at the advertised hours and the bell/link to another local station that was (also) meant to be open just rang and rang. When I phoned to complain later, I discovered that the local constabulary had no mechanism for complaints unless it was about bent coppers. (Perhaps I was misinformed - if I was, thats not too impressive either.)

What other public service would consider normal or reasonable the absence of a feedback loop in the form of assessing and addressing complaints? Housing associations aren't only expected to have complaints processes - but they are meant to have one that does feed into performance improvement through organisational learning.

Surely there needs to be a focus on building a culture of customer service rather than just focussing (and perhaps manipulating) a set of PI "metrics".