“Not another” public sector productivity drive!

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO – National Audit Office – recently highlighted ‘profligate waste‘ found in the UK public sector – for example, he cited:

  • Procurement – A third of contracts worth some £100bn are not subject to competitive tendering
  • Infrastructure projects – Billions have been wasted on HS2 and building 40 new hospitals by 2030 
  • Fraud – Billions are also being lost in the tax and benefits systems 

Davies claims that, overall, there’s scope for £20bn savings across government, by such action as employing competitive tendering, updating IT systems rather than patching up old ones, employing AI across the board and ministers thinking long term for national rather than political gain

Given such claims, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt presented his budget last week and announced that his Tory government, after 14 years in power, is to conduct a productivity review of public services – his target is: “A £36bn productivity boost via a £4.2bn digital transformation plan, with most of the cash focused on digital initiatives in the NHS

Hunt expects his plan to deliver 2% annual increases in productivity (however that’s measured?) from major changes including:
  • Making the NHS App the “single front door” for accessing healthcare plus prevention and early intervention services
  • Delivering a “radically improved online experience” for patients
  • Transforming the use of data to reduce time spent on administrative tasks
  • Ensuring all NHS trusts are using electronic patient records
  • Using artificial intelligence (AI) to automate back-office functions
  • Accelerating data analytics across the NHS
Hunt explained: “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking more spending buys us better public services. There is too much waste in the system and we want public servants to get back to doing what matters most: teaching our children, keeping us safe and treating us when we’re sick. That’s why our plan is about reaping the rewards of productivity, from faster access to MRIs for patients to hundreds of thousands of police hours freed up to attend burglaries or incidents of domestic abuse” 
Inevitably, as HMG budgets are as much about politics as economics, this one has attracted its critics – they say it’s just the latest of many previous, and failed, commitments to reform technology across the public sector as a whole and the health service in particular 
One certainly has to wonder who will do what to get some significant results this time, especially when one reflects on what the famous Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson had to say about Civil Service job proliferation, and so the costs
Civil Service job proliferation

  • Civil servant A believes himself to be overworked
  • He could resign, but won’t
  • He could ask to split his workload with one other, B, but B would then be on his own level and become a rival for promotion when his boss M retires
  • So A demands the assistance of subordinates C and D, each kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion
  • Thus set in competition, C and D create work with great intensity until C complains to A of overwork
  • Happily A permits C to appoint two assistants, E and F
  • He also does the same for D, who appoints G and H
  • Thus A now finds himself sitting at the top of a department of seven
  • What does he do?
  • Well, he has to manage the other six
  • That means deciding whether G should go on leave even if he’s not strictly entitled to it
  • It also means listening to E’s application for a transfer to the Ministry of Pensions
  • And dealing with a ticklish situation that has arisen on account of D falling in love with a married typist
  • In addition, he has to read through the letters written by F
  • And delete the fussy paragraphs added by C and H
  • He corrects their English and finally produces the same letter that would have been sent out some time previously had C and H never been born
  • And so it goes on
  • Eventually A’s toils end for the day
  • It’s late in the evening, he turns off the lights and finally quits the office to begin the long commute home to Ealing
  • He’s one of the last to leave
  • Late hours, like grey hairs, are the penalties of success!

Professor Parkinson concluded:

“In the Civil Service, far more people now take far longer to produce the same result – no one has been idle – all have done their best”

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