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An Exchange of Ideas

Written by Rob Jackson on . Posted in Our blog

Christopher, Of Honour and House Paradiso are all very notable things to put before or after the word 'guest', but none comes close to making us as happy as being able to put the word Post after it. Today we have the chance to do just that with this excellent guest post from Rob Jackson, which takes a look at just one of the many claims made about how local government could keep doing more than it already is. Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, but not before having a good read...

Local government is ‘blessed’ to have many wise people orbiting around the sector who write lengthy, eloquent  and solemn reports, describing bright ideas which will *absolutely* reduce costs by billions of pounds across all councils. I’ve always been sceptical of the numbers bandied about by some of these reports, and a recent example appeared on my Twitter feed while I had the time to dig a little deeper…

FutureGov recently wrote a blog discussing a report by Policy Exchange (PX), and they introduced it thusly [1]: ““Local authorities could save up to £10billion by 2020 through smarter and more collaborative use of technology and data.” Quite the eye catching headline from a new Policy Exchange.” PX have used this figure of £10bn as click bait for their report, and it’s interesting that many organisations have repeated it. The PX report runs through a list of ideas which could contribute to £10bn of savings and I’m going to use this blog to explore three with the largest indicative savings to quickly demonstrate that this number could politely be considered optimistic:

  1. Developing more shared capabilities…could save £1 billion over five years.

This could be achieved because the “NHS online recruitment service…has already generated savings of over £1 billion since its launch in 2003”. This stat came from a book, but it seemed large when compared to the other figures in the public domain (£240m is mentioned here and here; £5m savings over the first 2-3 years are mentioned here: and the original aspiration was for £24m over five years). So I asked the author via twitter for more information and I was directed to a detailed case study produced by the organisation who delivered the website. The £1bn was mainly calculated from eliminating advertising costs using the following sums: A study found it costs, on average, £800 to advertise for a teacher [2]. There are 200,000 jobs advertised for free on jobs.nhs.uk every year; if all of these jobs had similar advertising costs to teachers the total saving would be £160 million per year. So in twelve years since launch they conservatively estimate the savings would be a billion quid [3]. In summary: the £1bn figure is taken from the costs of recruiting teachers, applied over 12 years to jobs.nhs.uk; and then onto local government for achievement in five years. Anyway, regardless of where the numbers come from (and how appropriate it is to apply them), a free local government jobsite already exists.

  1. Expanding shared services could plausibly increase savings to more than £500 million each year.

The PX report makes the unarguable point that shared services could generate more savings with better data sharing and more co-procuring of the right technology. The £500m figure looks to be an extension of the LGA data on shared services saving (£165m in 2012, £278m in 2013 and £357m in 2014). However,PX quote the LGA report stating that “two thirds of councils believe that efficiencies will be running out by 2015/16.”  Can it be safely assumed that the total savings generated will increase further as a result of improved processes?

  1. Putting in place data-sharing arrangements to make a success of Whole Place Community Budgets across the country could save the public sector between £9.4 billion and £20.6 billion over 5 years          

This enormous savings figure was calculated and published within a report produced by Ernst and Young. They came to this figure by assessing the business cases of the four pilot areas and not the actual outcomes of the projects. They aggregated up the predicated savings and projected them onto a national scale [4]. But as a National Audit Office report states the “true scale of potential benefits will become clear only if projects are implemented and evaluated robustly”. So why are people still using the figures in the 2013 EY report? Probably because the DLCG end of pilot review, focused on the processes to successfully develop a community budget, rather than detailing any actual savings and no further reviews have taken place with the political focus quickly moving onto pooling/integrating budgets via City Deals and the Better Care Fund [5].

Finally, and this is a point not specifically about PE or the author of the report but we need to be aware that think tanks, despite proclamations of independence, often have political leanings which will be reflected in their policy campaigns [6]. This doesn’t mean the opinions/views/ reports should be dismissed without consideration but we need to recognise and understand where the report is coming from as part of the discussion. PX has longstanding links to the Conservative Party:  PXs own websitewas happy to report that in 2014 The Times described them as “David Cameron’s favourite think tank”.

This small example is indicative of a wider issue: local government is being bombarded with suggestions on how to remodel our services but we can’t allow policy ideas to emerge without thoroughly exploring the evidence base. Initiatives like the What Works Network will help by giving people access to systematic reviews of policy initiatives so we can use this to inform strategic and service planning. Perhaps there is also a need for a local government equivalent of the brilliant NHS Beyond the Headlines so we can really cut through the hype and challenge policy ideas at source.

Rob Jackson is on the Twitter.

Footnotes:

1.    I want to emphasise that I am a huge admirer of FutureGov, they are genuine innovators in the public sector who are passionate about improving services

2.    I can’t find the study but this figure actually seems pretty reasonable when you look at advertising costs on Jobs Go Public and The Guardian.

3.     The full quote: “Savings of well over £1bn thus far have been generated” My emphasis. I find the unequivocal language a bit odd – there are lots of reasons why this might not be the case, just a few are:

·         We are not comparing cost of advertising before and afterwards

·         The dynamic of the teacher labour market will differ from many of the professions within the NHS

·         The cost of advertising will vary through time

·         NHS jobs (especially senior roles) continue to be advertised on other websites.

4.    They did accompany it with a helpful (if largely ignored) warning:  “It should also be noted that net financial benefits do not necessarily translate into budget savings and there is a lot of work to do before this potential can be realised on a national scale.” 

5.    This clearly illustrates the inherent flaws of government pilot schemes that Ben Goldacre has criticised

6.    http://powerbase.info/index.php/think_tanks

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(More) Reflections on #UKGC15

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

This is a late post – over the past week the attendees of UK Gov Camp ’15 have been posting their thoughts and reflections. Glen did his last week (he’s more ‘on it’ than me).

This is traditional; part of the joy of a govcamp is everyone talking their time to summarise their version of the event. Glen has provided a decent summary of a govcamp but the one thing that I always forget in advance is that everyone’s experience is entirely different. As such, what follows is a summary of one person’s experience of UKGC15.

Before providing a few thoughts I should say that I find govcamps difficult. I’m an introvert at heart and have always found the group discussion element of things a difficult forum to operate in. I usually leave the event feeling a bit frustrated and yet unable to put my finger on exactly why but over time I have come to believe that this is an evolving thing. As such, I find that my experience of Govcamp evolves as I spend some time in the bar, chatting to people, and then reflect on the conversations over the next week or so.

Now onto some reflections:

1)      There is a new challenge caused by our increasing recognition of the need to design services around the customer

Ben Taylor's introduction to a session on the challenge of customer services in a more enlightened age will be the one that continues to make me think for a while. Ben posed the question, in more depth than I plan to – if we design services that are individually designed around the customer then how do we create a level of organisational structure around these interactions?

There was some really good input from other campers about what they are trying to do in their local authorities (yes, a session about service delivery was dominated by localgov folk – some stereotypes stick) and this topic will be one that sticks in the back of my mind percolating for a while yet.

2)      We’re all socialists now

I’ve been in local government for 6 years now and in general have come to the view that councils should do the jobs that they are best at and then get others, who know better, to do the things we aren’t. For councils this means, for example, getting other people to design the IT systems we need to use – as a local authority I think we’re just too small to have teams of people designing, coding and maintaining systems. And with over 400 councils this makes a lot of sense – a company working with even 10% of these councils is bound to have more resilience and capacity (not to mention skill) than any single council can.

And yet, as I toured around Govcamp loads of people were very sceptical about the idea of asking the private sector to do these things and a belief that it was far better to manage them ourselves. I think there were three reasons for this:

1.       Scale: Some of this comes from a central government perspective, where there is the scale to actually sustain this level of in house resource.

2.       Market Failure: One camper suggested that the private sector was also sceptical as selling the same thing to lots of local authorities was making them too much money.

3.       There is another way – Collaboration: The final, and possibly more compelling, reason was that many people saw an alternative in collaboration and sharing that would be better than everyone doing their own thing AND better than leaving it to the market.

There are counter points to all of this but the latter is one that sticks with me – especially due to my well-known love of shared services as a way to save money without outsourcing.

I do worry that collaboration leaves us fully at the mercy of one set of collaborators and might not allow for the flexibility we need in the future but I shall be pondering local government and capitalism a little more in the coming weeks.

3)      Continuous improvement relies on people

A session on continuous improvement was fascinating and there were lots of thoughts of how to build on initial projects (including the use of astro-physicists!); however, I think it all came back to people.

4)      Re-inventing is inevitable – and perhaps right

A session designed to find out why we keep reinventing the wheel and what we can do to prevent this instead led to a discussion of all the reasons we might want to keep reinventing things. I particularly enjoyed the parts where campers who were talking about not re-inventing things then set about explaining how things could be easily reinvented!

I imagine the answer is that not reinventing things requires a lot of compromise from those receiving those things whilst simultaneously not leading to any progress. Probably, we are all just a victim of the human need to constantly improve – and perhaps that’s not really a bad thing. It’s not as short term efficient as perhaps it might be but sometimes that’s not everything.

5)      Democracy is in a lot of trouble

Most people in the democracy session seemed pretty disengaged with politics, political parties and the political process. I don’t think twitter is going to save us here.

6)      IT moves far quicker than I do

I’m not an IT person; I’m not against computers and I try hard to keep up with what’s going on as I know how important it is – however, I just have other priorities I guess. Visiting Govcamp this year and listening to a lot of pitches that I didn’t necessarily understand made me realise things are moving even quicker than before – new efforts will need to be made on my part or else I’ll become one of those ‘back in my day’ merchants!

7)      I’m more lucky than I perhaps realise

Over the years I keep hearing stories about how many people feel frustrated by the narrow mindedness of their senior managers. I’ve rarely had experiences like that despite working with a number of these types of people in local government. This makes me think that either I’m very naïve or just very lucky. I’m feeling positive so I’ll go with the latter.

 

Govcamp is a funny beast – I love nothing more than spending a day talking about the public sector and how we can make it better and yet equally I do find the camp experience a little on the stressful side. Nonetheless, when I read back the above, and reflect on the multitude of other stuff floating around the back of my mind somewhere, it’s obviously a day well spent.

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Reflections on UKGC15

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Photo credit @Sasha_Taylor (http://bit.ly/1BwVDP5)I’m a big fan of tradition. Watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on Christmas Eve, always booking my birthday off work, never wearing an away shirt to a home football match; tradition has a great place in my life. Okay, that last one was superstition rather than tradition, but it still counts.

It’s a tradition that after a Camp of any kind I, along with other campers, produce a few reflections on the event just gone. Some of these have been short bullet points, others more detailed treaties on life, the universe and everything; this is somewhere between the two.

Here are my own reflections on UKGovCamp15.

I didn’t miss the introductions

Long-time campers will have been slightly surprised to see that there wasn’t the usual obligatory round of audience introductions, where everyone in the room says who they are, where they are from and something they are hoping to get out of the day (or words to that effect). This can take the best part of an hour (there are a lot of people there) and can result in some classic moments of humour or insight, as well as helping put some faces to some twitter names in time to set up later conversations.

However, no matter how much I might enjoy having people look at me and be forced for those few seconds to be aware of my existence, I’ve never been convinced that they are all that cost-effective in terms of time. A sizable portion of the audience dread it (not everyone is extroverted after all), a sizable portion spend most of the time thinking about what they are going to say rather than listening to anyone else, a sizable portion go on for far too long despite being told to be brief, a sizable portion say something really boring while a sizable portion work hard on saying something funny and unique which turns out to be neither.

I quite liked the first hour or so being effectively enforced networking, and meant I managed to catch up with people I’d have not done if we’d all dived straight into sessions.

It’s getting less vague

We seem to be moving away from discussions about “should we be doing this?” and “why can’t we do this” on to “how can we best make this happen?”. It might just have been me, but I didn’t hear a single person saying that they were banned from using the internet or social media. I’m not saying that all the battles have been won of course, only that those resisting are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I left with some wonderfully specific information to follow up and find out more about, from Verify to work being done by Parliament to how to fit rubbish chutes to the outside of buildings; in some ways some of the sessions are feeling a little more like micro-hackdays than talking shops. I like this.

It’s still VERY digital

GovCamp sprang up with a digital focus, and digital has played a key role in its evolution over the years. However, Gareth pointed out to me that digital seemed to be the default solution for just about every conversation had that day, and he was right. Every issue seemed to boil down to either a need for more open data, the need for some sort of software or the need for GDS (or its local government equivalent – more on that another day…).

The way these things are set up means that the conversation is created and had by the people who attend; I’d love to find a way to get some less digital people to come along next time though.

The rule of thirds

There were a few people I spoke with who felt that the audience was changing slightly, which got me thinking about its make-up and where a happy balance might be. To me (and I’m sure there are proper stats which can prove or disprove this properly), it seemed that about a third of the audeicne were hard-core campers, with years of t-shirts in the wardrobe. Another third were those who had been to one or two events and were somewhat involved in the wider community, while a final third were new to it all and taking part for the first time.

I think this is about right. Too many of the first group and it feels like you are talking about the same things with the same people all over again. Too many of the middle third and you have to wonder where all the experience has gone. Too many of the final third and the group memory disappears, dooming them to repeat previous mistakes all over again.

The other side…

I have to admit; attending GovCamp after leaving local government was a little bit different. It has changed the way I think slightly; not in terms of who I spoke with or what I said, nor the values to which I hold dear; rather in what conversations I actually had.

Twelve months ago I would have jumped at the session on developing digital skills in leaders, but this year I went to a session on continuous change instead. This is neither the right nor wrong thing to do, but is a change which personally I found interesting to note, and makes me wonder whether this is a temporary focus on different areas as I adjust to life outside the public sector or a more permanent situation.

Overall

I thought UKGovCamp15 was a great success. In no way to put down previous events (which were all fantastic too), this one took advantage of a perfectly suitable venue, a tried and tested formula (with a few tweaks) and a macro conversation around digital which is maturing significantly.

 

It will be interesting to see if and how these follow through into other camp events (I’m particularly looking forward to LocalGovCamp); if they are all of a similar level then I won’t have a massive task convincing my office to offer a little more sponsorship in the future.

(Photo credit @Sasha_Taylor - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sashataylor/sets/72157650059186610/page4/)