Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Incompetence Central

Exercise Books
Exercising Tiny Minds
For the past week there have been almost daily stories of the government backing down on policies announced just days earlier, using dodgy figures to mask the failures of their existing ones, or the wholesale adoption of Conservative material to fill the gaping void in their own vision.

It's really hard to pick which one has been the most humiliating for Brown and his team. I suspect that many would opt for the admission over the statistics on migrant workers, though my favourite was the climb down over plans to claw back surpluses in school bank accounts.

I delighted to see much of the embarrassment falling on the narrow, in terms of personal courage, shoulders of Brown having being skewered effectively on the issue at PMQs by Cameron. Moreover it demonstrates once again the type of ludicrous thinking that still permeates government. In the private sector the once common practice of punishing departments that have spent their money wisely and run a surplus by cutting their budget in the following year is now universally treated as a joke. Who knows what improvements we could see in the value obtained for we taxpayer's money when one day, and it could be still some time away, similar inanities are swept away in the public sector.

Cameron's most widely reported jibe at the Prime Minister was the "…what makes you think you know better how to spend the money?" line. I'm sure that Brown does think he knows better, as his well known arrogance would allow no other thought to pass his mind. The history of the centralisation of government spending decisions though tells a very different story.

As it happens, the other reason I liked this particular story is that I do have quite an interest in education. In no small part this is because it is the family trade. I'm the black sheep, the only one of my immediate family not to work, or have worked, in the state education sector.

My father was the headmaster of a large comprehensive school before he retired and had one story that illustrates well what happens with excessive centralisation of spending power in education.

Many years ago some bright spark in local government came up with what on the surface of it seemed to be a pretty sensible idea. Centralise the purchasing power of all the schools in the county for most day-to-day needs, and this combined negotiating power and the simple economies of scale could bring enormous cost savings. It makes sense put that simply and indeed in the private sector such effective use of a central purchasing function can, if well managed, deliver good value. This though was local government, which should have set alarm bells ringing, but nonetheless an organisation was born along with an edict that it was obligatory for all schools to use its services.

I won't name the organisation as I think it was mercifully and quietly strangled before the growth of the Internet so facts are hard to check, but I can remember its logo proudly stamped on every exercise book I used while I was going through school and on every pencil and every textbook.

The remainder of the story could be filled in by anyone who has seen what happens with any one of hundreds of similar initiatives. The organisation needed a bureaucracy and not a lightweight efficient one, but a big one with suitable levels of political oversight for pompous councillors and jobs for their offspring and doubtlessly a nice office too.

The result was inevitable. I think it was at a meeting in London that dad went into the WH Smiths at Kings Cross and picked up a single simple exercise book, functionally identical to those that he had to buy from the central purchasing organisation. This being before the widespread use of barcodes the price sticker made the point quite starkly, with the purchasing power of a whole county's schools resulting in a price half as much again as that single over the counter purchase in a London railway terminus.

It turned out to be in no way an isolated example.

The point is for me that, until the public sector can achieve the efficiency levels that can be achieved in the private, very similar schemes that sound good in theory will continue fail to deliver. It seems to be in the nature of government that centralising failure tends to compound, not mitigate that failure. Until Brown has a coherent answer to this as well as understanding that not targets, but the way those targets are set are part of the problem, no, he does not know better.

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