Thursday, April 30, 2009

If swine flu can't be arrested, can colleges carry on regardless?

The World Health Organization’s latest upgrading of threat level for swine flu and the public information campaign run by the UK government as well as the media coverage means that many organizations will now really treat the issue seriously as one of risk management.

Colleges have for some time had guidance from central government. I suspect not many managers or governors have read it. It is useful about the basics about communication strategy, infection control, etc. It is less good at promoting imaginative thinking about continuing to deliver teaching and learning:

Consider whether resources and materials can be prepared for students to work independently from home. Consider what arrangements might be needed to support such working.

That's not much of a steer.

I hate the over-use of the word “innovation” but there really is a need for some innovation here. Colleges have to start thinking about how they can respond to disruption and even closures by carrying on with podcasts, blogs and other technological responses.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The housing market: gloom and green shots?

According to today’s Financial Times house prices fell at the lowest monthly rate for a year in April. The latest Hometrack survey found that house prices fell by 0.3% in the month taking prices down by 10.1 per cent over the last 12 months. Hometrack report that buyer interest and sales are up too. The website have designated the Hometrack survey as Pointless survey of the week – although that might be premature at its only mid-morning on Monday.

The May issue of the excellent housing magazine ROOF includes the journal’s 2009 Affordability Index. It finds affordability has hot a five year high.

Of course, (more) affordable house prices are essentially theoretical until prospective buyers can access the mortgages which they need. Here there is gloom rather than green shoots. The BBC is reporting today that the number of mortgages approved for house purchases fell to 26,097 last month - down 6.8% from February and 25% lower than a year earlier.

It looks like more of the same for the moment. That means challenging times for housing associations as well as families, builders and developers.

Social enterpreneurship in the news

Those involved in the social enterprise movement - and those who may have been prompted by the recession to think of starting something up – may be interested in the set of articles about the movement on the Timesonline website.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The swine flu threat: how prepared are we?

There is a lot of uncertainty this weekend over the significance of the pandemic threat posed by swine flu from Mexico and now reported in the US, New Zealand, France, Israel, etc. (The spread is being mapped on Google Maps.) However, the World Health Organisation is concerned.

While parts of the UK public sector have been preparing for a pandemic for some time, other organizations in the public and third sectors are less advanced – or even asleep to the threat. (When I have raised the issue of pandemic preparedness, I have always sensed that these issues are seen as a bit of a joke.)

Hopefully the spread will be contained. If not, this poses a real test of organizational risk management. In the aftermath of the First World War over 100 million died in an pandemic flu outbreak.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Biting the bullet: campaigning against bullet points

Ever since I was a teenager I have been a bit of an activist for all sorts of causes. I have just learned of a new campaign which may lack the idealism of the elimination of nuclear weapons or the end of world poverty, but could transform our working lives. It’s the Campaign for WiT at Work.

The writer and trainer Jon Moon is a valiant fighter against the excessive use of bullet points. He argues that “bullets almost seem to encourage poor writing”:

Many bullet lists are incomplete, inconsistent, in the wrong order and grammatically jumbled

His Campaign for WiT at Work aims to replace many of these bullets with what he calls Words in Tables. I would recommend you have a look at Jon Moon’s website or even buy his book, How to make an impact, to find out more about WiT. He has even re-formatted the Cabinet papers that ministers carelessly display to photographers outside No 10.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Public spending growth: there are bad times are just around the corner

While there is some good immediate good news for further education and social housing, the FT is warning of "one of the longest and sustained squeezes on departmental spending since the second world war" with real terms reductions".

From April 2011, current spending will rise by only 0.7 per cent in real terms - a li ttle more than half the plans for 1.2% growth announced five months ago in the pre-Budget report.

KPMG are warning against false optimism:

The message for the public sector is stark. All public sector organisations need to take a cold, hard look at where they spend their money and make difficult choices about priorities; they need to implement radical new approaches in the delivery of public services.

Budget: Good news for colleges shock

As well as £250m in extra funding for Sixth Forms, the Budget Report has tucked away on page 120 some good news on helping to resolve the Building Colleges for the Future crisis:

The 2008 Pre-Budget Report brought forward £442 million in total from 2010-11 to 2008-09 and 2009-10 to accelerate the Learning and Skills Council’s (LSC) Building Colleges for the Future programme, to support Higher Education (HE) building projects and to bring forward the development of scientific research facilities and improvements to universityresearch infrastructure. In 2008-09, over 100 Further Education (FE) college building projects were completed as a result of nearly £550 million of investment, of which £110 million had been brought forward as part of the fiscal stimulus. Building on this, Budget 2009 announces an additional £300 million of capital funding for investment in Further Education colleges in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period. This will enable the Learning and Skills Council to fund a limited number of further projects through the Building Colleges for the Future programme starting in 2009-10, based on prioritisation criteria to be agreed with the LSC and the sector.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Balancing the books – efficiencies, no-frills and co-payment

According to the media today, Wednesday’s budget will include £15billion of efficiency gains in 2010/11 to assist in balancing the public sector’s books. While any impetus to get more out of public spending is welcome, we need to remember that there are allsorts of issues with how efficiencies are measured. Moreover, if it is not possible to get “more for less”, we will all get “less for less” – the kinds of cuts seen so often through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Perhaps “no-frills” public services are inevitable – even if they are no one will admit it this side of an election. One thing that I am fairly sure about is that we will see more “co-payment” – that’s the jargon for users paying something towards the cost of services. (There was discussion of this as part of the Blairist approach to public service reform but it largely faded away with the arrival of Brownism - apart from in the NHS where the issue developed its own momentum due to NICE decisions.) We’ve got co-payment in higher education already. Where next? Or rather, where after the next election?

Risk management “a must” – not least for social housing

Today’s Financial Times has a Special Report on Risk Management and how it is “a must for decision-makers during uncertainty”.

The lead article on Difficult decisions on how to stay safe surveys key business risks in this recession. It struck me how many of the risks have a particular salience for social housing providers: supply chain, fraud, remuneration, cashflow.

Last Sunday’s Observer had an article about housing associations being ripped off with “soaring losses” and “rocketing fraud”. The sensationalism aside, there is a need for social landlords to be awake to fraud risks, including those associated with development.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A bad week for building societies

It’s not been the best week for building societies. Mid-week the ratings agency Moody's downgraded several societies to near junk-bond status. Even Nationwide go downgraded from B to C-. There was also the news coverage of allegations about the robustness of the FSA’s regulation of building societies.

This is not entirely news. The building societies movement has for some time been rescuing its weaker members. While the Treasury stepped in with the Dunfermline Building Society, generally building societies have not needed huge bail-outs from the taxpayer.

Now is certainly a time for building societies to remember that they should not try to mimic banks.

This week does not disprove the argument made by the FT’s Financial Adviser in 2005:

Mutuals add value to the efficiency of the financial services market by giving more choice and a measure of integrity, value and transparency that is not often experienced by consumers. They are a reminder to plcs of corporate objectives over and above maximising returns for investors, including addressing the concerns of consumers.