Wednesday 19 May 2010

Radical inefficiency and my local woods

Sarah called Croydon Council yesterday to report fly-tipping in the local woods. Their response goes to the heart of the problem of public services over the past decade – and David Laws might do worse than looking here for a more radical and effective way of saving money.

The lady at the call centre replied: “I don’t think we can do this.”

What she meant was that our local park, and the woods attached, don’t have a street address, which means the fly-tipping incident couldn’t be entered on the council’s database. And if it couldn’t be entered, it couldn’t be communicated to those who might do something about it.

The IT problem was solved in the end – though not the fly-tipping – but that sentence is telling. “I don’t think we can do this.” As if somehow the failure of the council IT system is the definitive problem. Nothing can happen without it, but they are notvery interested in any problem which can't go into the system either.

Let’s just go to the heart of this. The first issue is the disastrous front office/back office split, which the Labour government set such store by. The staggering inefficiencies of this idea have been set out clearly by John Seddon ( so I won’t repeat them now.

The second, related problem is inappropriate IT systems.

These two issues are related. They mean that inadequate procedures have been set in concrete by IT systems which don’t work very well anyway, and which excise the crucial human element. They have been put there at enormous expense and they are steadily removing the ability to act from the public sector.

They also shift costs elsewhere in the economy. This is the real narrative of public service efficiency which we badly need to get to grips with before the cuts take place.

What’s the solution? End the front office/back office split, put members of the public back in touch with people who can help them directly, train professionals accordingly. It’s about trusting people, an eminently Liberal ideal – but also, in the medium-term, a cost saving one. Because, in the end, imaginative and committed people are more effective than systems.


Rick said...

End the front office/back office split?

How do you propose to do that?

Gordon said...

A while ago an acquaintance who is foreman of a council gang that does minor repairs to street furniture and road signs - knocked over 'Keep Left' bollards and that sort of thing told me his experience of just how disastrous the front office/back office split is.

Until a few years ago a resident or other member of the public would call in to report a problem and they would then go out and fix it. When mobiles became commonplace they started getting the messages relayed from the council while already out and about so they took to carrying common spares on their pickup and, if nearby, they could often efficiently fit in small repairs without returning to the depot.

Then it was decided by the powers that be to make the process more efficient by introducing 'proper management' - i.e. a back office to take calls, decide priorities and allocate them to jobs.

The result was a predictable disaster and productivity collapsed as messages often took days to reach the team at the coal face. Before the change most jobs were done within two days, after it they commonly took a week.

And the supposedly efficient management proved to be a farce with priorities actually set by an administrative assistant with no technical knowledge and only a shaky grasp of the geography of most of the borough.

Seddon is right - there are huge savings to be had by ending the split between front and back offices. said...

Great post, thanks for sharing. Goodluck!