Monday, November 29, 2010

Armchair auditors and their weapons in the war on waste

Last week I heard a local authority Head of Internal Audit refer to Eric Pickle’s army of “armchair auditors” as “nutters”.

I looked the term up on The FreeDictionary. “Nutter” is a slang term for:

“A crazy or eccentric person.” or
“An enthusiast; a buff” or
A part of the male anatomy.

This made me think as I am interested in issues of public finance and mental health.

I suspect that those who want to scrutinise records of public spending may be slightly eccentric. Perhaps this is only a matter of degree – these armchair auditors choose to do their stuff for free unlike professional auditors.

I do think that there is potential in “armchair auditors”. Look at the creation of a huge encyclopedia online from the crowd-sourcing endeavours of those who right and edit articles using wiki technology.

Technological mashups might offer them an impressive arsenal. In the UK Mysociety introduced a range of tools for improving democratic accountability: They work for you; FixMyStreet; Whatdotheyknow. These got taken up by the last government with its No 10 petitions site.

In September Dan Herbert in Public Finance surveyed what the current government’s “data-sharing revolution” had prompted. It is worth looking at some of the tools he refers to. Some – like - provide interesting information for tax payers on how public funds are spent but this is not really raw material for armchair auditing. Others set out more detail – such as Spotlight on Spend and Armchair Auditor – but not really enough to give any armchair auditors scope to drill down to provide either comfort or concern.

As the Reluctant Armchair Auditor on The Guardian’s Datablog noted last week:

For this to work in the way envisaged, councils must put out a lot more information and in a format that can be used by anyone. There has to be sufficient context to enable anyone reading the information to understand what is being bought and why. Then you can have a sensible discussion about whether the spending makes sense or is value for money. We can then deal with the material figures not the trivial ones which cause most of the negative publicity.

Of course, it is early days. The army of “armchair auditors” may have a long march ahead of them. But it is vital that government – local and national – provide assistance in terms of useful data in helpful formats.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The how and when of the YPLA's replacement

Tucked away in yesterday's Schools White Paper was the announcement that the Young People’s Learning Agency will be “replaced” by the Education Funding Agency. Perhaps re-badged would have been a more accurate description – the staff of the YPLA will be brought in-house into the Department for Education from being a standalone Non Departmental Public Body.I expect some other DFE staff will be included as the EFA will have a role in relation to schools which are not (yet) academies.

There was some uncertainty about the date of the change but according to the YPLA website the transition is assuming April 2012.

It is worth noting that Michael Gove has backed off from the idea of a direct EFA-schools relationship seen in an earlier draft of the White Paper. I suspect that this is a tactical retreat. You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.

It is ironic that the survival of the Skill Funding Agency and the (de-quangoed) YPLA/EFA were not advocated in either manifesto of the Coalition parties for the post-16 funding landscape.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The government's changes to social rents and tenancies

The government’s announcements yesterday about rents and tenancies in social housing are complex and part of what can be seen as a somewhat contradictory policy agenda (cutting housing benefit and pushing up rents in social housing).I would therefore recommend the Chartered Institute of Housing’s fair minded Briefing on Social Housing Reform (pdf available).

The briefing clarifies what the new types of tenancies being proposed actually involve: (1) the fixed-term flexible tenancies lasting as little as two years and (2) the affordable rent tenancies set at a maximum of 80 per cent of local market rents.

The latter is intended to generate finance for more affordable housing at a time of much reduced capital spending on housing. The affordable rent tenancies will initially be offered by housing associations rather than local authorities. It will be offered on a proportion of re-lets from April 2011 and on new stock later. The CIH point out: “in high value markets 80% would not be an affordable product for consumers and it would create problems around housing benefit”.

As the flexible tenancies and the affordable rent tenancies may account for an increasing proportion of local authority and housing association tenancies, the shorter tenancies may well mean that Right to Buy never recovers from its current low levels. Maybe we are seeing a Conservative prime minister effectively abolishing Right to Buy while it is being retained in theory.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Government U-turn on a national funding system for schools and 16-18

Today the FT Westminster Blog reports that that the government is backing down on a national school funding system. It quotes Michael Gove on the Andrew Marr Show as saying:

The Financial Times ran a report of what they thought was going to be in the white paper, fair play to them, journalists often anticipate events, but the truth is that we will be funding schools through local authorities as we do at the moment.

The Westminster Blog says that it had a copy of a draft copy of the white paper and the details of their story were confirmed by civil servants at the Department for Education.

Where all this leaves the Young People’s Learning Agency is unclear. The draft seen by the Financial Times included this paragraph:

The Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) will extend their current responsibility for funding Academies and Free Schools to funding all schools becoming the Education Funding Agency from April 2013. It would administer the national funding formula to all schools directly as well as post 16 funding ensuring that the maximum amount of money goes directly to schools in a fair, transparent and equitable way. Local authorities will pass the national funding formula allocation directly to maintained schools until the Education Funding Agency comes into existence.

I suspect the YPLA will carry on even though the government has U-turned on the broader reform. Sadly this may mean that the inequalities in 16-18 funding between schools and colleges persist.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bribery, corruption and trips

On the Third Sector website I was reading that the Oxfam Finance Director was concerned that charities might be tripped up by the new Bribery Act unless sector guidance was issued. The Act creates new offences including one which relates to businesses that fail to take sufficient steps to prevent bribery involving their employees or agents.

The Bribery Act might well affect the education sector too. Colleges and schools take learners to fascinating and exotic places. Some destinations have endemic corruption. For example, students sometimes visit Russia – 154th out of 178 in the Transparency International league table.

I have travelled widely in the former Soviet Union so have had bribes extracted from me directly or via taxi drivers. On one holiday I had to cross the border of the breakaway Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic on four occasions – on three of them, I had to pay a “fine” or make a “present” to the border guards for fear of ending up in a prison of an unrecognised statelet with which Britain has no consular relations!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The YPLA and plans for nationalising schools funding

Tucked away in yesterday's Financial Times article about plans for a national schools funding formula was a clue to the fate of the Young People's Learning Agency:

Officials are preparing for the transition to a new funding system to begin in 2012, with a new independent Education Funding Agency taking over finance for “all schools and sixth form provision” from 2013.

Of course, this may not happen. Councils and councillors - not least Conservative ones - may be most unhappy about the policy which may appear to run contrary to "localism" rhetoric. The Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell has already voiced doubts on his blog. The plans would create a super quango dispensingover £30billion each year. Moreover, there are many practical obstacles to a more rational and transparent allocation of resources to schools.

School heads may welcome the move now but not necessarily when they realise that many of their schools may be losers - 60% of secondary schools according to research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the Spring (a pdf of the research paper is available).

Michael Gove may be in for another bruising battle.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Interesting times: school federations, new markets and blurred boundaries in education

Working over the years in colleges I have noticed that there has been a slightly casual use of the term “federation” – sometimes to mean merger of colleges. In schools there is a precise meaning to the term. On the Teaching Expertise website there is an excellent survey of the legal meaning and implications of the term from two education lawyers at Veale Wasbrough Vizards.

A clear and useful exposition of the legal and other issues around federations is particularly timely at a time when the education landscape is in a degree of flux. In this week's New Statesman, Dr John Dunford (former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders) surveys what he sees as the “two different, but related, markets are being created by the Academies Act 2010”:

The first is the government's push for so-called "free" schools to be created by parent and teacher groups. The second, and potentially much larger, market being created is the provision of a range of services, from human resource management to school improvement capability, to both the new academies and to the free schools.

He concludes:

Schools are being offered by the coalition government a more autonomous way of working, with the additional funding that accompanies academy status looking very attractive at a time of economic retrenchment. Some of these academies will continue to buy services, where they are efficiently run, from the local authority, but many more will look outside the authority to the new market of entrepreneurial schools and commercial providers for their human resources and school improvement support, or even for federation under a single governing body. It is hardly surprising that so many organisations are looking at providing these services in what could become a lucrative new market

The revolution is not limited to the schools sector. The financial constraints on colleges and universities – as well as the pressures likely to flow from the market model proposed by the Browne review for higher education – may lead to an interesting reconfiguration of providers plus the growth of new entrants like the new private sector BPP University College. This may see some blurring of boundaries – a recent Financial Times article speculated on whether colleges might soon own their own university.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pay and productivity: freezes and unforeseen consequences

On the Civil Society website there is a short article on XpertHr’s annual review of pay trends. It finds that for 2009-10 the highest median basic pay award was in the general manufacturing and food, drink and tobacco sectors with median pay rises of 2 per cent. However, in the charity sector the median pay rise was only 1 per cent. The median pay award for housing associations was nil.

On the Viewpoint blog of Centre for Market and Public Organisation a Bristol University there is a discussion of where public sector productivity is likely to go in the age of austerity.

Interestingly it suggests:

With the prospect of public sector pay freezes, quality decreases may arise through talented staff leaving for the private sector. Research suggests that remuneration over the lifetime is roughly similar in the public and private sector with a small public sector premium. Hence there is a risk, with public sector pay frozen, and if jobs become available, that quality will decrease if some of the most able employees go private.

This impact has been overlooked and/or ignored in the debate about public sector pay. Of course, the pay freeze is accompanied by the pension levy which will amount to a 3% pay cut for most public sector workers. Voluntary redundancy programmes may well allow some of the best staff to leave - the "muppet retention scheme" syndrome.

Whether deteriorating quality is reflecting in productivity yardsticks hinges on how accurately public sector productivity is and can be measured.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Women, diversity and board quotas

At the weekend The Guardian reported that the Lord Davies is considering gender quotas as part of his review for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills into the obstacles that prevent more women from reaching senior positions in business.

The suggestion of quotas will raise howls of protest. In the summer the Institute of Directors’ queried the way that the revised UK Corporate Governance Code highlighted gender as an important factor in making appointments to the board. It said: “By including gender in the Code, there is a risk that the Code will increasingly become seen as a tool of social policy rather than good governance.”

While I do not share the IoD’s concerns over the UK Corporate Governance Code, I do fear that quotas may lead to tokenism.

Business should, of course, work harder at finding suitable female board members. As women thin out in the higher reaches of business, maybe corporate boards should look further afield and outside the corporate sector for candidates for non-executives.

Generally changes in the corporate sector flow through to the public and third sectors. These organisations are generally more diverse at board level: for example, one-third of college governors are women compared with less than one-twelfth of FTSE250 board members.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Pensions, programmes, Paul Mason and public services

It is great that normal service has been resumed at the BBC. But the NUJ’s strike may be a foretaste of pensions disputes to come.

I was surprised to read Paul Mason – the Economics Editor on Newsnight – quoted in The Guardian suggesting a solution to the pension dispute would be for the BBC to sell assets, securitise them (as some local authorities are doing), or spend less on programmes. While asset disposal and securitization may be appropriate, I doubt the idea of spending less on programmes will be popular – will that be making staff redundant or opting for cardboard Crossroads-style sets?

I am sure that some people will be posing the issue of public sector pensions in terms of pensions versus pupils, pensions versus patients, etc but I was strange for a union activist to suggest that a trade-off should resolved at the expense of public services.