Thursday, 14 October 2010

Public Sector Waste

I just came back from a short trip to Italy's Marche region (food, beautiful and historic cities, beaches) to find I had missed Sir Phillip Green's announcement on public sector waste; so I am catching up. Of course, he's right and he's wrong. He's wrong because much public sector procurement simply can't be aggregated. The specifications of computers or paper or printing quality really are different. So the headline figures of half of expenditure of £191bn being wasted is plain silly. Still it caught your attention. But he's right on two counts; firstly much of the uncoordinated and inadequately overseen expenditure could be coordinated and controlled much better; and secondly, public sector expenditure is often astonishing in its waste and incompetence. Examples...

The government's Building Bridges to Work initiatives are designed to help the long-term unemployed  get back to work. After two years of unemployment, people are required to attend a centre full time for 13 weeks, where they receive help and advice or must take up work placement opportunities (unpaid). It is laudable to try to break people out of the cycle of dependency and despondency. But does this particular scheme work? The private sector firms who administer these schemes think so. It works for them. A highly qualified HR professional of my acquaintance volunteered (unpaid) to help out at one of these centres. He found himself chatting to these people but actually unable to offer specific help. The participants are mostly obliged to sit around doing little they could not do at home - just a bit more like a daily version of the workhouse. But those private sector firms get paid and the government claims it is doing something. But who collects the data to show it works and what data do they compare it with? My understanding is that the firms themselves provide the data to demonstrate what good value they provide. Hmmm.

Or someone who worked at an outer-London local authority who told me they paid/pay a firm to provide and maintain computers- £1,000 per machine per year, which they don't do very well. Blimey, I'll do it for half that...less if necessary. Does the authority have any idea how little computers cost nowadays? Good business if you can get it.

Or experience of computers provided by Barnet council to assist the educational needs of dyslexic young people at university. Another great scheme... except that the computers often did not work properly and (literally) years of continual complaints got nowhere in persuading the external provider to sort the problem. The local authority, councillors, central government were all chased, only to find that it appeared to be nobody's job to check that the provider was actually carrying out the service they were paid for. And no, they were not doing what they were paid to do. To be fair, a different scheme is now available centrally through universities rather than local authorities and does work much better; but how many millions of pounds were wasted in the old scheme that was nobody's responsibility to check on?

So yes, Sir Phillip is right, there is lots and lots of waste in the public sector...and that it is all before we even consider overmanning (try comparing numbers employed in human resource departments with private sector norms) and unecessary jobs.

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