April 2010

It’s obvious what efficiency is, isn’t it?

But none of them say what it is.  It’s a bit like Lewis Carroll’s Hunting the Snark:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care

They pursued it with forks and hope…

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark…

For Scotland (where I live) it’s surely fair to turn to the Scottish Government for a clear statement.  Their Efficient Government Programme 2008/09 – 2010/11.  Efficiency Process & Guidance says

Efficiency is not about making cuts.  It is about raising productivity, enhancing value for money and improving public service delivery.

There are two types of efficiency:

Cash-releasing efficiencies are achieved by delivering an actual resource efficiency because the organisation or function delivers the same service at a reduced cost which might be demonstrated by delivering the same outcome(s) or output(s) for a reduced input (e.g. costs, people, procurement, assets etc) or delivering a reduced unit cost allowing an increased volume of service for the same cost. Cash efficiencies release financial resources to be used for other or increased public services.

Time-releasing efficiencies are defined as efficiency measures which do not release cash but allow frontline services to deliver better services with the same money (for example, through workforce reform or better support).

 So we’re sort of getting there even if it’s long-winded.  We could start by using two simpler definitions.

And for public services:

  • inputs = money (mostly yours), staff, buildings, IT equipment, materials
  • outputs = services (occasionally products).

 So we should be trying to use the least inputs to produce a given output.

 Fair comment?  Part 3 to follow…

Professors invention for peeling potatoes

Heath Robinson via coolpicturegallery@gmail.com


UK general elections sometimes seem to proceed according to an elaborate choreography, with party manifestoes launched in a co-ordinated sequence and a feeling that “If this is Tuesday it must be [say] immigration”. 

Last week efficiency savings held centre stage with each main party vying to talk (apparently) big numbers and saying why the other parties’ big numbers wouldn’t work. 

Underlying most of the claim and counter-claim was a sub-text of “waste”, “bureaucracy”, “mis-management” and low hanging fruit just ripe for the plucking. 

One question has been entirely missed: 

  • what is efficiency?

 And another has never proceeded beyond the “it’s blindingly obvious – cut x” of political claim and counter-claim:

  • how – genuinely – can efficiency savings be made?

These questions beg other deeper issues and notwithstanding that better men (and women) than I have pondered them my next two posts are going to have a go at answering them.

Years ago when private prisons were introduced in the UK I remember thinking (naively as it turned out) “Are there no limits to a public service that can be privatised?”

Well on a short break in the Republic of Ireland I came across a new example for me that may be difficult for Brits to get their heads around.

The council empty the bins.  Right?  I mean they may do it themselves or they may contract it out, but they’re responsible.  In Ireland, wrong.

Driving through the rolling green countryside of Wicklow I was struck by the number of bright green and lilac wheelie bins at road ends.  “Well the green’s obviously recycling” I said, “but why lilac?”

I was wrong.  The green bins belonged to Access Waste Recycling, the lilac (slightly perversely) ones to Greenstar Ltd.

As a householder, you contract with one company to have your bin emptied weekly.  You can pay per kilo or per lift, by an annual fee or buying a tag each week to fit on your bin.

Now, anyone dipping into this blog will come to realise I’m not advocating a particular course of action but you have to admit it’s a different model than the one we’re used to.  And if I’ve understood it correctly (Irish readers’ comments welcome) the service is a commercial one without subsidy.  The workers are certainly not on the public payroll.

In the beginning there was…a blank page.

Well, a business – HelpGov Ltd – and a blank page.

And a wish to find somewhere to write business-related stuff that was more speculative and discursive than makes sense on the HelpGov web site.

A wish to stimulate my own and other people’s thinking about improving the performance of the public sector and its partners.  It was always needed but Lord alone only knows, it’s desperately needed in these hard times (UK election and promises of a better tomorrow notwithstanding).

I want to actively seek ideas for improvement that could be implemented.  And, let’s be upfront about it, underlying much of what I believe could help are the principles of continuous improvement – call it lean thinking, kaizen, systems thinking or whatever.

At the moment my feelings are that the site should cover five topics:

  • what’s wrong
  • what could be improved
  • how it could be improved
  • innovation
  • other off the wall and (I hope) fun stuff.

My audience?  Well, I suppose my aspirations are anyone who’s interested in improvement in the public sector in the UK, anyone who’s interested in improvement anywhere and, well, anyone!

I’m doing this because I believe more creativity and sharing is needed to cope with the crisis of resources that faces the public sector in the UK.

It may all be a bit ragged at first but I’m just following the WordPress advice (they should know) – just start and learn the technicalities later.  So here goes…

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