Sunday, April 29, 2007

Apologies for the scarcity of postings

I’m not able to log on much at the moment. Normal service will resume soon.

Maxwell: the "Bouncing Czech", leadership and public services

(To be precise Bob Maxwell was a Ruthenian from the borders of modern Ukraine and Slovakia rather than a Czech.)

I am disappointed to be missing this week's BBC2 drama about Bob Maxwell.

Maxwell was living proof of the saying (from Russia or Scandinavia or Japan – you choose) that “the fish rots from the head”.

According to the management writer John Argenti, corporate collapse is associated with:

- One-man rule
- A non-participating board
- An unbalanced top team
- A lack of management depth
- A weak finance function

The public and not-for-profit sector has seen its share of collapse and scandal – and in deed many of those symptoms (and causes) listed. Not long ago there was the Barnsley College trial which highlighted some of the problems.

While public services reform is ongoing (and vital), there remains the need to strengthen governance in public services.

Public services need strong leadership – but not the all-powerful strong Leader.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rising interest rates and public services

Naturally the discussion of interest rates focuses on the impact on families with mortgages, credit cards, etc – especially if there are suggestions that interest rates of 7.5% might be required.

But interest rates have major implications for public services.

For example, many Further Education colleges have embarked on (or are proposing) ambitious “accommodation strategies” driven by the Learning and Skills Council’s commitment to “world class buildings” – if interest rates rise on the loan finance required, life becomes much harder.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Toilet paper, efficiency and sustainability

While I have several Sheryl Crow CDs, I do not agree with her call for eco-rationing of toilet paper.

Having said that, I do think that public sector and not-for-profit organisations should be linking the efficiency agenda with the cause of sustainability.

How many housing associations, FE colleges, charities, etc have sought advice from the Carbon Trust or similar organisations on reducing waste in the consumption of energy?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Affordable housing and "Key Workers"

The Financial Times this week criticised the government's investment of resources in housing to help a few thousand "Key Workers":

For the price of the average London home, you could get a brand new Ferrari 599 with enough left over for a passable second-hand yacht. For nurses and police officers in London and other parts of Britain - so called "key workers" - stratospheric house prices are a problem. Government housing subsidies only make the problem worse: if houses are to be affordable, the only answer is to build a lot more of them.

I share this sentiment.

I must say that I also have a problem with the whole concept of "Key Workers" - what about the rest of us? Teachers, nurses and other front line public sector workers are vital (and for a long time they had worse pay than other similarly qualified professionals), but I'm not convinced that non-Key Workers should be treated less favourably in the housing market.

If those deemed to be "Key workers" are leaving their professions because they can't afford to buy in London and other high demand, wouldn't it be better to pay them more? And if necessary, have local pay settlements that reflect local conditions?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Controlling pandemic flu in 1918 and business continuity in public services now

I am a bit doubtful about the preparedness of much of the public sector and not-for-profit sector for a pandemic flu outbreak - as I've already mentioned on this blog.

Recent American research on the 1918 pandemic (which killed more people than world war one) has considered how different cities responded. Using mathematical models, they reported that large differences in death rates could be explained by the prevention measures, particularly their timing. Cities that instituted quarantine, school closings, bans on public gatherings and other such procedures early in the epidemic had peak death rates 30 percent to 50 percent lower than those that did not.

Are our public services ready for the kind of business disruption likely to result from pandemic control measures – let alone any outbreak itself?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Social housing regulation - tenants' views

Recently the Department for Communities and Local Government published the output of the tenants’ focus groups for the Cave Review of social housing regulation. (The document can be downloaded.)

As you’d expect from a series of focus group meetings there were a variety of views expressed. Important themes can be found in the key findings:

- local management arrangements in organisations of a “human scale”;

- a common framework and regulator for all housing organisations – including the private sector;

- removing benefit dis-incentives that discourage tenant involvement on boards;

- a national organisation giving tenants a voice alongside the Audit Commission, National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing; and

- more choice for tenants – including choice of landlord.

I agree with all those – and have argued on this blog for them!

Hopefully the Cave report will reflect the views of tenants.

The radical, critical and thoughtful contributions of tenants to the housing debate contrasts with the empty rhetoric and anti-housing association stereotyping in this month’s Red Pepper Housing Special (I’ll be cancelling my subscription) or on the Defend Council Housing website.

NHS independence day - coming soon?

Today’s Financial Times carries an interesting article about plans being prepared for greater independence for the NHS.

I am a sceptic about proposals for an NHS constitution and “independence” unless such moves enshrine and promote choice and voice for patients and communities.

The idea of less central interference from politicians and Whitehall is welcome. But can politicians sit on their hands when they get the blame – rightly or wrongly – for everything that goes wrong anywhere in a £90 billion business?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Efficiency, annual savings and the CSR07

Tucked away on the Treasury website among the pages about the 2007 Comprehensive Spending review (CSR07) there is the comment that:

Through this work the Government has identified scope to deliver annual savings of 3 per cent across departments over the CSR07 period, together with cuts to administration budgets of 5 per cent per year in real terms, thereby releasing resources for reallocation to frontline services.

Is that really possible?

I have my doubts. There is work throughout public services on leaner processes, smarter procurement, cost reduction, etc. But is there enough?

In February the National Audit Office cast doubt on the robustness of some of the existing efficiency claimed against current targets of 2.5% annual savings. The NAO could be certain of about a quarter (£3.5bn) of the savings claimed by the government. But queried the rest.

The Local Government Association has just issued various documents on the CSR07 including a factsheet on efficiency issues. It points out that the easy savings have been made and not all spending can be made more efficient due to long-term contracts. The LGA conclude that the 3% annual savings are “undeliverable”.

The new annual savings in the CSR07 will be vital for maintaining and improving public services in a more bracing environment for public finances. Unless public services can deliver on these savings and work a lot smarter, we could be faced with cuts rather than efficiencies over the rest of the decade.