I caught the film Deja Vu the other night. Somehow I missed it on its cinema release. I struggled with two things when watching it: the plot; and, how Top Gun’s Iceman (Val Kilmer) had got a little stout. (Him and me both before you ask.) The reason I mention this filmic moment is that I had a strange deja vu experience today.
Professional people working in the public sector are sadly familiar with being sidelined when expertise is sought. It’s very frustrating and very wasteful. Everything you need to know about how to manage value (cost and outcomes) is already there in any service you look at. The trouble is that it’s locked up in the heads of the folks running the thing and they rarely get asked.
Instead leaders will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid asking for help from the people with the knowledge. Mrs RPS refers to this as Male Directions Request Disorder. I have it. I would rather drive 20 miles in the wrong direction, claiming I know where I’m going rather than simply stop, roll down the window and ask the way.
But why do political administrations at national or local level exhibit alarming levels of MDRD? It’s a mystery to me.
I was set off on this train of thought on the way home this evening as I heard reporting of Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review published by the Cabinet Office today. The Observer and Guardian’s Secret Diary of a Civil Servant mentioned the review on Sunday so it was interesting to hear and then read what had caused the commotion.
And here’s where I had the deja vu thing. The essential message of the review is that government is bad at procurement and fails to exploit its buying power and concentrate its expertise.
‘Wait a minute,’ I said to myself, ‘this all seems familiar.’
So when I got home I looked up some notes I’d made about a report issued by the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission in May this year. It’s called A review of collaborative procurement across the public sector.
Let’s play guess which report said what.
“Public bodies are paying a wide range of prices for the same commodities, even within the existing collaborative arrangements. There was a 116 per cent variation between the lowest and highest prices paid for the same broad specification of paper. The difference was 169 per cent for LCD computer monitors and 745 per cent for black toner cartridges.”
“There are significant price variations across central departments for the same product. Example: office supplies
The total annual central Government spend is £84m.There are five principal suppliers and 83 individual contracts for office supplies.
Box of paper – Highest price: £73: Lowest price: £8. Differential: 89%
Printer cartridges – Highest price: £398: Lowest price: £86. Differential: 78%”
Well the first was the NAO/AC report in May. The second Sir Philip Green’s review in October. Well, at least they were consistent.
Or were they? The Green Review cites the highest cost of a box of paper as being an eye-watering £73. Yet the NAO/AC report found the highest price across 291 public sector organisations they surveyed was £14.79 (see Fig 4 on page 14). Curious isn’t it? I had a look on the Cabinet Office web site but wasn’t able to find any detail underpinning the Green review so resolving that conundrum will have to wait for another day.
Now I don’t want to appear nit-picky. There’s nothing much to disagree with in the Green Review. But then there wasn’t much to disagree with in the NAO/AC report either. Or indeed the umpteen other procurement, supply chain analyses etc., etc reports I have seen during my career. Gershon anyone?
All have said much the same thing. ‘Improve the way the public sector buys things and you could save the taxpayer some serious money’. So why doesn’t it happen? Well here’s the thing that the Green Review missed.
Most of the inefficiency is a function of political commission or omission. Procurement reviews always rightly lambast duplication of effort. But duplication is a function of departmental working that starts right at the very top of government.
A department will strike a deal it thinks is great and insist that the bit of the public service its responsible has to use it. Now it doesn’t know or care that if procurement was handled locally and joined up a far better deal could be struck.
Departments like having control over the way money gets spent. They like being able to cook up their own specifications. Ministers like to have their own way. Politics generates waste as one set of beliefs get substituted for another. In the aftermath of every change of government there’s the period of washing machine repair man-like critiques of what went on before.
What does that look and sound like? Well, it’s characterised by the loud sucking of air through the teeth accompanied by a sad rhythmic shaking of the head till the reviewer says over his or her shoulder, ‘You should see what those cowboys have done here.’
But its public servants that seem to cop most of the blame for this though. But will this still be the case in the future? The government has said that it will push decision-making down to the lowest possible levels. The ones closest to where services get delivered.
That’s fine and greater transparency over local spending over £500 will maybe keep organisations focused on thrift. But the thrust of the Green Review seems to be an argument for greater centralisation of effort not less. How will these tensions get resolved in the perennial departmental feuding and jostling for advantage? Will national and local politicians like having their decision-making so closely traceable to their costs?
Meanwhile, public servants may well be wondering why having a review done by a retailer (a very good retailer I should add) should carry more authority than a review carried out by experts? Of course we live in times where actual knowledge carries far less weight than an ability to emote about a subject. That waste of knowledge and its loss to the public good through the widespread redundancies now underway are deeply depressing. Even the satisfaction of saying, ‘I told you so’, pales after a while.
But even so I would put a little money on there being another report in a few years that says more or less the same things all over again. Deja vu? Or oops I did it again?