Accountability is key to reform
The sheer scale of the fallout from the recent collapse of Carillion has raised some serious misgivings about the way large public sector contracts are awarded and managed. Predictably, we have had the usual calls for a public enquiry, lessons to be learned and renationalisation.
The problem with these, now rather clichéd, responses is that in the main they’re all talk and no trousers. A public enquiry will take ages, cost a fortune and merely produce reams of drawn out reports detailing the blinking obvious. I’ve lost count the number of lessons the government needs to learn and there’s little point in renationalisation without fundamentally addressing the root causes of the problems, as it will achieve little, benefit very few and likely cost millions transferring a large organisation from private to public ownership. So why bother?
The difficulty with society today is everyone seems to think solutions to problems have to be complicated, require vast sums of money or involve some kind of panel of experts that spout huge doses of management gobbledygook.
However, like most things, the best and most cost effective answers tend to be simple. Perhaps best explained by the US/Soviet space race adage of the 1960’s. For those too young to remember, back then America and Russia were desperately trying to outperform each other in the race to conquer space travel. If I recall, the story was along the lines that NASA spent millions of dollars trying, unsuccessfully, to create an ink pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians used pencils. Yes, it’s an age old maxim and probably not even true, but it brilliantly illustrates the point that sometimes simple solutions are often the best.
So, back to Carillion. How is it that such a mighty company, with so much public sector work, employing thousands of people was able to fail and, more importantly, jeopardise the delivery of many important public services?
The answer has always been there and, just like the Russian space pencils, really simple. The answer is management responsibility, accountability and oversight. There you go, summed up in plain English and not a mission statement in sight.
I’ve written before about the woefully inept calibre of public procurement and the Carillion collapse is just another example, albeit a monumental one. Here are a couple of others.
First up, NHS managers decided to only immunise against three of the four Flu strains this winter as it would have cost £3 more, per vaccine, to protect against the Japanese Flu strain. Guess what? We now have a pandemic of Japanese Flu spreading across the country, swamping the NHS and killing people. These are the same NHS managers, by the way, that spent £100,000 on refreshing the NHS logo. Indeed, I wonder how many patients are thinking how refreshing and attractive the pretty new logo looks as they lie choking with pneumonia in their hospital beds.
Secondly, former Army chief, Lord Dannatt, requested defence chiefs set up a 24/7 helpline for traumatised troops. The hotline, to be manned by mental healthcare experts, was to try and help stem the tide of soldiers committing suicide. Unfortunately, the wise managers at the MOD felt, at £2 million, the hotline was too expensive and, wait for it…..instead spent £1.5 million on specialist consultants to advise them on how to cut costs! You couldn’t make it up, if it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.
Whatever happened to the often quoted political quip? You know, the one that goes “…if it saves just one life, it’s money well spent…” Well, clearly not if you are at risk of pneumonia or mental trauma.
But herein lies the root of the problem, there is simply precious little management accountability or responsibility of our major institutions. A great many public sector managers are paid huge six figure salaries, along with gold plated pensions and generous expenses. In defence of this, they argue that they need such an attractive remuneration package, because they do a hard job and it’s needed to attract the best people. Well, that may have been the case a long time ago, but not anymore. Sadly, today we, more often than not, end up with too many lousy, slopey shouldered, carer civil servants with inflated egos and no backbone.
People are slowly waking up to this fact and are no longer prepared to put up with inept, unaccountable bureaucrats who blame everyone but themselves for decisions that, in too many cases, waste millions of pounds and cost thousands of lives. If this wasn’t bad enough, a large number of them get to retire on a knighthood and well-funded pension pot. By contrast, overworked, low paid, under resourced nurses, many with years of service and unpaid overtime, can be hauled before a disciplinary tribunal and face the sack over a simple paperwork error. I know who I think should face the music and it’s not the nurses.
Public sector contracts, large ones in particular, must be robustly written and properly evaluated. Most of all, though, the key performances indicators must be routinely monitored, evaluated and redressed appropriately if the supplier fails to achieve them. Carillion collapsed because these simple things were not done. The people of this country rightly demand and deserve better.
This article was first published in the Newcastle Journal newspaper 1st February 2018