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.