Sunday, January 30, 2011

Government “retreat” on public sector pensions levy?

Yesterday Guardian readers who work in the public sector may have been pleasantly surprised to learn: “Treasury retreats over public sector pensions reforms”. The article went on:

The government has retreated over reforms to public sector pensions, saying it will not have proposals ready until the summer rather than pressing ahead with planned higher contributions in the March budget

In plain English: this means is that the consultation period for the *3% pensions levy on most public sector workers will end three months later than previously planned. This is hardly a U-turn. It could be seen as a tactical move to avoid industrial action on pensions before the May local elections.

More significantly this week it became clear that the extra pensions contributions for public sector workers would be the rallying cry for co-ordinated industrial action. Strikes really should start featuring on risk registers across the public sector.

* The 3% may actually be significantly more for some if lower paid workers’ contributions are kept constant.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

16-19 academies: free schools meet sixth form colleges

The Education Bill published today makes provision for 16-19 academies. Until now many academies offered courses for 16-19 year olds. But this is more radical. It is a development of the free schools policy.

I am not sure how many people were listening last week when the media was full of Alan Johnson, Ed Balls and Andy Coulson but David Cameron gave a speech on Modern Public Services. It included this:

For the first time, charities, universities, businesses, teachers and groups of parents will be allowed to establish their own academies where there is a lack of suitable education for 16-19 year olds.

Based on the same principles that underpin our Free School programme, this will widen the range of options available to young people and encouraging them to continue in education beyond their GCSEs.

Incumbents in the 16-19 market had better be aware of this new challenge.

PAC on academies: some thoughts on governance and regulation

Today is a big-ish day for education policy. At 11.30am Michael Gove published his Education Bill although the contents are previewed in parts of the media. Until then we can read about the cross-party Public Accounts Committee report on the Academies programme.

The parliamentary PAC report expresses concern over financial control in the academies sector. Unfortunately the headlines have overlooked the good news in the report’s Executive Summary:
sponsored academies… have performed impressively to date, achieving rapid academic improvements and raising aspirations in some of the most deprived areas in the country. In many cases this has been achieved through high-quality leadership, a relentless focus on standards, and innovative approaches to learning and to the school timetable.

However, the Summary goes on to make serious criticisms:

Many academies have inadequate financial controls and governance to assure the proper use of public money, and the Department and Agency have not been sufficiently rigorous in requiring compliance with guidance. In developing a new financial handbook and governance framework, the Agency should make it compulsory for all academies – sponsored and converter – to comply with basic standards of governance and financial management. This should include segregation of key roles and responsibilities, and timely submission of annual accounts.

Academies will have to consider and act on the concerns raised in relation to governance:

We heard evidence of non-separation of roles, for example the chair of the governing body also being the chair of the finance committee, the responsible officer also chairing the governing body, and the responsible officer also chairing the finance committee. All of these roles should be clearly separated. There was further evidence of a shortfall in financial assurance and challenge owing to academies not having audit committees – against Departmental recommendations and Charity Commission good practice. We also heard that not all academy finance directors are CCAB-qualified accountants, again counter to recommendations in the Academies Financial Handbook.

Quite a few academies may not like all or some of these criticisms. It is a fair point that academies may struggle to arrange their governance structures with a standalone audit committee when so many claim that they have difficulty recruiting one governor who is an accountant or auditor. If academies do not move on these issues, they will find that they are censured by the YPLA auditors.

Even without the PAC report, there was a strong case for academies to review and strengthen their governance and financial management. They are high-profile and publicly funded organisations with their reputations at risk if they do not demonstrate compliance with high standards of governance.

(I should declare an interest: I work with academies and provide Responsible Officer services – the quasi internal audit of basic financial controls mandated by the Academies Financial Handbook.)

The report touches on the nature of regulation for the academies sector:

In future [sic] there must be greater clarity about what is required as opposed to what is recommended. Too much in the current framework is permissive, and there is insufficient mandated practice to prevent individual academies adopting practices which do not comply with basic standards of good financial management and governance.

I would agree that there is a need for a clearer distinction between “must” and “should”, particularly in the Academies Financial Handbook. However, I believe that academies should be encouraged and cajoled individually and collectively to raise their standards of governance so that regulatory input can be focused rather than broad-brush and heavy-handed. For a long time I have argued for a code of governance agreed by and for the academies sector leveling-up standards with a “comply or explain” approach. It works in other sectors.

Strangely the report is out-of-date on one issue before it is published when it states:

From January 2011, all academy trusts became exempt charities. This means that the Secretary of State for Education has replaced the Charity Commission in the role of Principal Regulator, and academy trusts submit their accounts to the Department only

Due to delays, the Charity Commission is - for now – the Principal Regulator. Hopefully, when there is a new Principal Regulator (presumably the YPLA and then its successor the EFA), they will use the right mix of regulation, self-regulation and governance to strengthen internal financial control across the academies sector.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

IT, productivity and culture

On the LSE Politics and Policy Blog there is an article highlighting how the productivity of the Department for Work and Pensions fell for much of the last two decades. The explanation is not the traditional Aunt Sally of allegedly lazy or incompetent public servants – it’s more complex than that as well as relevant beyond Whitehall.

Policy churn, organisational change and personnel turnover at ministerial change partly explain the dismal performance at DWP. More significantly, Patrick Dunleavy and Leandro Carrera suggest that a conservative mindset hindered the adoption of IT for improving productivity:

Three main organisational culture problems inside DWP prevented top officials even considering a shift to digital-era governance. First, senior officials with little or no IT background themselves did not believe that the poorer households and individuals receiving welfare benefits would ever get Internet access. However, in 2008 they discovered to their surprise that 51 percent of DWP ‘clients’ were already online with broadband Internet access.

Second, for years top civil servants saw the web as merely a place for posting static billboards of information and had no conception of creating a more interactive Web experience. Third, internal organisational power over policy on IT was concentrated among officials (aged in their 40s and 50s) running the big-budget mainframe computer systems, who saw web processes as a financially trivial (and hence organisationally irrelevant) sideline.

While these issues may be particularly acute in parts of central government, some of those attitudes can be found throughout the public and third sectors.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hindmarch’s hints on college turnaround

Today's Guardian has an interview with the Colin Hindmarch - the principal credited with Harlow College's turnaround. The article includes advice on organisational recovery:

For turning around a college

• Keep students at the heart of everything you do

• Create a clear strategy for teaching and learning that is understood by everyone

• Be bold and brave and don't be afraid to take risks

• Create a culture where everyone accepts responsibility for students' successes and failures

• Always be truthful about what is going on at the college. Never deceive anyone else or yourself

Monday, January 24, 2011

A spring of disgruntlement? Strikes, pay and pensions in the public sector

Today the teaching union ATL announced that it would be balloting its members on industrial action over the proposed increase in teachers’ pension contributions. Meanwhile in colleges and universities UCU is doing likewise on the issues of jobs, pay and pensions.

Beyond schools, colleges and universities are we facing a spring of disgruntlement?

How will public sector unions respond to the austerity that is affecting their members’ jobs, pay and conditions?

Headlines may inflame matter when they highlight the remuneration packages of se senior management. The Daily Telegraph this weekend reported on pay rises enjoyed by university vice chancellors. (The paper’s survey found that three-quarters of vice chancellors saw pay packages, including salary, pensions and other benefits, increase during the year to August 2010. Eleven of the 87 surveyed benefited from rises of more than 10 per cent.)

The issue of pensions is likely to be a highly sensitive one. The Hutton Commission final report on public sector pensions is due in March 2011. The exact date has not been published but the 2011 Budget is on Wednesday March 23 – this would be an obvious candidate. The final report is likely to recommend pension entitlements based on a career average salary rather than “final salary”.

Public sector pensions are not “gold-plated” but public sector pension schemes do give workers a certainty about the timing of retirement and a level of entitlements that most private sector workers lack. I suspect that not all public sector workers recognise the full value of their pension schemes. Unions have not mobilised against the change in inflation indexation introduced last year. However, the increased pension contributions likely to kick in across the public sector from 2012 will be harder to swallow - as seen in the case of ATL members in schools - when pay is frozen for most of the public sector. Whether unions will enjoy public sympathy is another issue.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quiet zone: the public sector whispering when Twittering

Maybe it is inevitable that last week Facebook complained that social media is not used enough by public agencies in the US. Perhaps as a relative newbie to the world of Twitter, I should not criticise those who are even later to the party than me. However, I have noticed that in the world of Twitter some UK public and third sector organisations have a presence that is worse than useless.

Fundamentally too many organisations do not know who they are talking to (Users? Other stakeholders? Media? Opinion formers?). Let alone what they are trying to convey.

Quite a few organisations lose interest after setting up their Twitter profile – why have a corporate presence if you have nothing to say?

Some struggle to get any followers at all. This is hardly surprising. They forget that you need to follow others in order to attract attention. A few hashtags might encourage people to take a look.

Too often tweets do not have any links - so the content becomes a dead-end rather than a path to a corporate website or other media content. (These cul-de-sacs do nothing in terms of search engine optimisation.)

It is sad that some organisations cannot even be criticised for using social media for “broadcasting” their messages rather than engaging in dialogue. So many organisations are half-heartedly whispering rather than broadcasting.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is fraud rocketing? Even if it isn’t, what should you do about it?

Last week Public Finance was reporting that levels of fraud rocketed during 2010. There is plenty of media coverage of fraud. This week I joined in tweeting a link to a
blog about Portsmouth University and MacIntyre Hudson’s survey of public sector fraud

It is worth emphasising that the Public Finance’s report was based on KPMG’s Fraud Barometer which tracks fraud cases in UK Crown Courts. So detected fraud is “soaring” – is actual fraud up?

Recessions, credit crunches, austerity, etc have a tendency to expose financial chicanery. Just ask Max Madoff. I am sure that Bob Maxwell would agree.

To borrow a great quote from Warren Buffett and use it in a different context:

It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked.

Of course, total – detected and undetected – fraud may be up too – in line with media coverage. For example, some of the squeezed middle may resort to white collar crime in hard times. Media coverage may even have a copycat effect – MPs are not the only ones who may be susceptible to the feeling that if colleagues’ snouts are in the trough, they should no be missing out. Experts point to need, opportunity and justification driving fraud - "others doing it" offers a self-justification for some.

Organisations should treat the fraud threat seriously. They should ensure that internal audit allocate sufficient days to fraud detection using IT tools as well as addressing fraud risks as an integral part of other audit reviews.

Decisions, decisions

I am currently reading The Decision Book. It sets out fifty models for decision-making alongside some historic context to each model. I’m reading one a day – a bit like Thought for the Day.

The Decision Book even has something of interest to say about old and familiar favourites like the SWOT model of Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats. The SWOT section includes a quote from Margaret J. Wheatley relevant to our uncertain times:

The things we fear most in organisations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are he primary sources of creativity.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Colleges, Alumni and their donations

I was pleased to see on the Education Guardian website an article about colleges and alumni. Iain Mackinnon – from the governing body of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College – was suggesting that donations from alumni could become a major source of income for colleges as it has for many UK universities.

Ian MacKinnon gave examples of colleges generating income now:

Plumpton College in Sussex, for example, which has an international reputation for its wine-related training, was recently given £70,000 for research. Bournemouth and Poole College has raised over £1m in the last 15 years, from a wide range of supporters. The City Lit, London's most illustrious adult education college, raises tens of thousands every year, mostly from alumni, which it uses to help students with their fees.

I am aware of sixth form colleges seeking to generate donations from parents. This a wise move but parents are no longer when students move on – alumni are for life.

Following my earlier blog post on alumni donations, I googled to see how many colleges had alumni pages on their websites. The answer was very few. Not all of them may be using alumni to

EMA may be saved or, more likely, more than 10% salvaged. But its not likely. Students now could benefit from alumni donations and the associated Gift Aid. What is stopping colleges?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Talking about the future – what about small housing associations?

This week’s Inside Housing carries a roundtable discussion on What’s on the cards for 2011. It brings together figures from the world of social housing and its hinterland to discuss the threats and opportunities of the next 12 months.

The discussion was quite upbeat. Maybe the flexibility of the new Affordable Rent at 80% of market levels will ensure new development despite the huge reductions in public finance.

What struck me was who at the table. Local authorities and large housing associations were well-represented. Small housing associations were not there. Liverpool Mutual Homes and City West Housing Trust have around 15,000 – other soothsayers in the article many more.

The small associations will struggle to develop in the future – does that mean decline? The roundtable participants believe that associations will have to be more commercially driven. That is not necessarily something that small housing associations are well prepared to do with their limited resources and voluntary ethos.
One participant suggested: “‘Voluntary boards are part of the past now”.

Small associations – those with a few hundred or, even, a thousand or so homes - will have to do some serious thinking. Working together and with others will be vital for the associations who like to call themselves as “the smalls”.

It would be ironic if local organisations based on a voluntary ethic found themselves evicted from a future of localism and Big Society.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Academies: the significance of numbers and the future of regulation

So one in ten English schools are now academiesmarking a doubling of academy numbers. I do have some sympathy with commentator Conor Ryan’s tweet that:

It is not the number of academies, but their contribution to school improvement that matters most.

As a former advisor to the last government Conor Ryan blogs:

it is simply ridiculous to claim that the marginal governance and financial changes involved in converting an outstanding school to an academy are in any way comparable to the huge task involved in gaining secure sponsorship and leadership for a new academy in a tough area or an academy replacing a failing school.

The setting-up of academies planned by the previous government and the conversion process allowed by the current government mean that there is a significant challenge and workload associated with regulating them. (On top of that free schools are in the pipeline.) It is therefore ironic that a fog of uncertainty has descended on the future regulation of the academy sector since the regulatory changes planned for 1 January appear to have been postponed. The Young People’s Learning Agency is funding and overseeing the sector, but Third Sector reported yesterday that it has not formally been made the new Principal Regulator to replace the Charity Commission.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Bracing weather - the "double freeze": pay rises and increments

Today’s Financial Times reports on proposals from a group of NHS chief executives for a "double pay freeze" - that is, a two year pay freeze for staff earning less than £21k and a freeze on incremental rises which over two thirds of NHS staff enjoy. The good news would be a promise of no compulsory redundancies – the article notes scepticism over whether all NHS organisations could afford that guarantee.

Similar plans – whether or not the NHS proposal happens – may be seen elsewhere – perhaps in education where funding cuts for some organisations may be serious enough to require radical action but not so deep as to require compulsory redundancies.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

I am tweeting

I am now on Twitter and getting the hang of it. You are very welcome to follow, re-tweet and anything else.

I am personally finding that following others is a handy and quick way of keeping up to date.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Foretelling the future: 2011 predictions and speculations

With Christmas and New Year at the way it’s time to read the retrospectives on 2010 and the crystal ball gazing for 2011.

I have not yet listened to Radio Four’s Correspondents Look Ahead programme but Paul Mason of Newsnight makes an interesting prediction on the BBC website. He suggests that in 2011 the Coalition will fall “because everytime it tries to do something serious a bit falls off the machine”. (Interestingly Tony Benn and Dennis Healey made a similar preduction yesterday on Radio Four's Broadcasting House.) Paul Mason foresees a Liberal Democrat pull out leading to “a Second Coalition to be formed between the Conservatives, an inner core of Orange Book Libdem leaders and various Unionists, with a slim majority.” We will see if that happens and what it means for the public and third sections.

The London School of Economics blog on British Politics and Policy has a look ahead at some of the big issues that could dominate 2011. The list is far-ranging although it is a list of questions rather than predictions. While it features the Coalition and austerity, it does not mention the impact of the changes in schools and the NHS which are potentially profound and, the case of the slow painful death of Primary Care Trusts, possibly toxic.

One area which I will be watching and trying to understand is open source government, armchair auditors and some of the technology which may make this something significant. I am sure that there will be some headlines as more public bodies have to publish the detail of their financial transactions. There may even be some good to come out of these exercises.