I’ve touched before on the UK government’s spending challenge, their dialogue which invites citizen turkeys to vote for how they would prefer to be dispatched for Christmas – roast or microwaved, stuffed with chestnuts or sage & onion, basted with oil or butter.

I exaggerate of course.  The exercise was an attempt to seek people’s ideas on how to save money in the forthcoming spending cuts.

I last posted about this on 13 August, when I said Watch this space as HM Treasury prepared to knock the 40,000+ suggestions into some sort of shape and get the public to vote on them.

Well, I took my eye off that particular ball while other stuff (it’s called work) intervened.

Now the Spending challenge web site is back up with the results of the vote.

They offer a fascinating insight into both the imperfections of the exercise and the recesses of my fellow citizens’ minds (or at least those that take part in this sort of thing).

Order has been given to the suggestions by classifying them into 18 categories, with the number of suggestions made listed against each:

  • 6227 – Civil service
  • 5975 – Central government
  • 4192 – Local government
  • 3633 – Health
  • 2416 – Education
  • 1926 – Defence
  • 1609 – Police
  • 1282 – Quangoes
  • 733   – Benefits
  • 639   – Private sector
  • 561   –  Charities
  • 474   – Tax
  • 449   – NHS
  • 401   – Gem (no, I haven’t got a clue what it means either)
  • 378   – Bureaucracy
  • 332   – Transport
  • 122   – Prison
  • 99     – EU.

Each category then includes lists of suggestions by (1) the number of votes the most popular suggestions got and (2) the highest rated suggestions (1 – 5 stars) regardless of the number of votes.

The exercise must have been done with either some sort of software and/or an imperfect human intervention

  • the most popular suggestions listed under Civil service and Central government are exactly the same
  • apart from that overlap, some suggestions appear in more than one category
  • the odd rogue proposal is still there, like the brilliant suggestion that monocoles be prescribed by the national health service for people with a problem in one eye only, not only saving money but also reintroducing a certain style from a bygone era.

The ten most popular individual ideas (my summaries) are

  1. migrants should work for at least 12 months in the UK pay tax before they are entitled to claim any benefit
  2. the London-Birmingham high speed rail plan should be reconsidered
  3. foreign road hauliers should be charged a rate for every mile travelled on UK roads
  4. reduce foreign aid
  5. rather than make DWP civil servants redundant and using credit agencies to identify benefit cheats, redeploy them into a department charged with identifying fraud
  6. scrap Trident or any other similar weapon
  7. reduce the burden of health and safety legislation
  8. adopt the system used in the Middle East for newcomers of compulsory medical tests and having a job, health insurance and enough money to support themselves
  9. do not go down the route of parents running schools
  10. raise money, reduce landfill, protect the environment.

Some of these suggestions have more than a whiff of organised voting about them.  And some sound more like hobby horses than attempts to save money.

Even so, it’s interesting to see what people came up with given the chance.

Of course as with other things in life size isn’t everything and it may be that some truly brilliant stuff lurks in suggestions that hardly anyone voted for (like the heartfelt minority – me included – that proposed wider use of lean or systems thinking throughout government).

And with the Conservatives the larger partner in government, it’s salutary to see how few people had any suggestions about the EU, and one of those – hugely practical of course for short term savings – was no more than “Leave it”.

So now we grit our teeth and wait for the pain of the autumn budget.

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That’s just about the message from the UK Treasury on their web site of the same name I’ve blogged about before.  You’ll remember

  • it (the site) was up with, as some would say, full functionality
  • it was subverted by mean-spirited citizens, some plain nasty, some with creative suggestions from the Comedians’ Book of How to Save Money
  • it appeared with most suggestions marked “unavailable”
  • it went down
  • it reappeared in modified form, now the child of the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury, with not much than the option of sending in a suggestion – no viewing or commenting on other people’s bright ideas.

A mixed track record at best.

Now the site says

Over the last month, you’ve submitted more than 44,000 suggestions [although another page claims 31,000 – must keep it up to date guys!] to help us get more for less. To ensure these ideas are considered in time for the Spending Review and that you, the public, get a chance to consider and rate them, the Spending Challenge website has now closed.

We plan to re-open the website shortly. We’ll post suggestions we’ve received and give you the chance to vote on them.

So that’s success, in their eyes at least.

I hope they’ve got some whizzy software to make sense of all the suggestions in a few days (“At the end of August, we’ll take the best ideas and investigate them in further detail…”) and run some meaningful online poll so a grateful populace can vote on them. 

Given what it’s all about I assume that making sense of the magnificent 44,000 isn’t occupying an army of civil servants or outsourced at major expense to the private sector.

Today comes news that entrepreneur/retailer Sir Philip Green has been asked by the British Prime Minister to lead a review of government spending that, like the Spending Challenge, will feed into the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review due in October.

I do hope the two exercises are linked, although presumably Sir Philip will not be burning the midnight oil over the 44,000 suggestions

The words “up” and “joined” come to mind as do “pants” and “flying by the seat of”.

I think I might be returning to this one again.


Big Society, 25%-40% budget cuts… 

One way or another UK public agencies need a radical response to the pressures from the economy and the coalition government. 

When the recession first hit in 2008 Japanese motor manufacturers in Britain seemed to do everything they could before they actually made staff redundant, if they ever did.  Toyota, Nissan and Honda were all good examples. 

Regular readers  know the importance I assign to employees in driving improvement in an organisation – see for example my post on How to improve government (and keep improving it).

But how can you say to people “Your talents are key to improving this place” and then hand them their P45? [non-UK readers – a government form people are given when they leave an employer] 

From the USA comes advice from author Gregg Stocker on his blog Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral (named after his book of the same name).

 He starts with the memorable words

 When a ship encounters rough waters, the captain does not consider throwing crew members overboard to protect the ship’s owners 

From a North American and private sector perspective he lists seven steps to avoid layoffs.  This is my take on each, in the order Gregg lists them. 

  1. Shortened Work Week:  Although akin to a pay cut, a shortened workweek forces everyone to participate without the loss of jobs.  Also, receiving time off helps compensate for the reduction in pay.  Sounds sensible – better to earn even 60% of your former wage than 0%.  The sums to produce any saving needed should be easy to do.  I’m not aware of this happening anywhere in the UK public sector.
  2. Unpaid Holidays:  Similar to the shortened workweek, implementing unpaid holidays allow more flexibility in choosing the extent and timing of the cut back.  Again, I’ve not heard of this happening anywhere 
  3. Hiring Freeze/Attrition:  Although an obvious step, I have worked with companies that laid off in one part of the company while hiring in another.  Any positions that are critical to fill should be done by transferring and training existing employees.  Fairly widely used but how effectively?  “Transferring and training” is critical but how creative is the public sector in moving people around and supporting them in those moves?  And since everyone’s urged to work in partnership with other agencies, what about transferring people between organisations?
  4. Elimination of Bonuses:  Nobody should receive a bonus during a period that people were laid off.  I was in a meeting several years ago with a large division of a Fortune 100 company where managers decided to implement a layoff in order to protect their bonus accruals – a totally unacceptable action.  A very mixed public sector picture.  Performance related pay is entrenched in some public organisations, entirely absent from others.  Personally I’d eliminate it entirely, not to save money but for all sorts of other good reasons (see for example Alfie Kohn’s now classic Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes)
  5. Elimination of Dividends:  In spite of what many people believe, the resulting damage to the organization caused by a layoff does not protect shareholders.  By protecting its workforce, companies are actually actually protecting future returns for shareholders.  Studies have shown that companies that resist deep cuts during downturns recover much more quickly than competitors (in terms of earnings and share price).  Stocker’s only step not directly relevant to most of the public sector.  But the ethos could apply to agencies required to make a set return on capital for the government.
  6. Focused Kaizen Activity:  Improvement activities should be focused entirely on reducing costs (while improving or maintaining existing quality levels).  Kaizen activities focused on cost reductions will prevent employees from being idle during downturns and assure that the savings achieved will be sustained once business returns.  Something like this should be in the organisational DNA, not a response to a crisis.  Stocker says kaizen.  Others might say systems thinking or other structured improvement.  For this particular purpose it matters not.  I have recently seen an example of a local authority function where careful measurement proved that 26% of the total cost did not add value for customers and could in principle be eliminated.  The challenge, which many wrestle with, is the ungainly named benefits realisation, which in this example would mean eliminating 26% of the budget.
  7. Pay Cuts:  As a last resort, pay cuts should be implemented to save jobs from being eliminated.  I believe in implementing across-the-board percentage cuts with executives being asked to volunteer a larger percentage.  Of course pay cuts and pay freezes need to be in the mix as that “last resort”.  And senior managers taking a larger cut sends the right message.  But without all the other good things Stocker mentions this inevitably goes down like the proverbial lead balloon.

Of course some of these actions imply less work being done and so less service being delivered.  But that’s going to happen anyhow.

And some would need a major culture change in the UK – amongst politicians, senior managers and trade unions.  Put to the point could they all make the leap?  I have my doubts.


Both this week’s Municipal Journal and the polemical Liberal Conspiracy web site have thrown more light on the Treasury’s Spending Challenge– see my various posts on Vote for lean thinking in governmentIf a  web site gives up is it a sign of success?, Bad practice in government, and HMG web site in transition (thinks – am I getting obsessed with the subject?).

I didn’t know whether to tag this entry under lean thinking, off the wall, or two new tags I’ll resist adding – weird and sad.  I think the story could qualify under all four.

This is the essence of it.

The site has been reined in because it has been bombarded with a mixture of ideas, many of which were at the plain nasty end of the spectrum – how to “deal” with immigrants, un-married mothers, benefits “scroungers” etc etc.

Rather more amusingly our fellow citizens seem to have come up with a number of creative ideas to save taxpayers’ money:

  • a windfall tax on people called Steve [or Dave, Nick, Eric…?]
  • sell the unemployed after six months on benefits
  • force cats to spend one hour per day on electrical treadmills [on the basis of our cat’s daily routine that would produce zero energy]
  • MPs’ housing allowances to be replaced by tents.

It does all suggest the creation of the site was a bit of a rushed job (shouldn’t have been since public servants had already had six weeks to contribute to a similar site before this one went public).  Perhaps HM Treasury also need to learn a bit more about moderation of public forums.

Once they get rid of the vicious and weird let’s hope the serious suggestions do emerge in public.  Otherwise the whole exercise will have failed even the most basic test of consultation standards.


On 9 July I mentioned the UK government Spending Challenges web site and my own proposal there for lean/systems thinking.

While my plea was not exactly “Vote early, vote often” as supposedly popular in Northern Ireland elections of many moons ago, I did urge you to get on over there and vote (once) and comment.  Thanks to the anonymous reader who’s given my idea 4 stars out of 5 (yo!).

So I thought I’d check today to see how things are going.  Here’s the answer:

  • the web site was down for much of the day because the level of traffic was too high – it’s now coming back live after maintenance to improve page load times
  • the good news is that a search now shows 19 suggestions with the word lean in them, up from 9 yesterday – so when someone does the sums at the end of this exercise they may say, “Oh, maybe there’s something in this”
  • the less good news is that some pages are only giving the title of the suggestion  and then saying We’re sorry, but that page doesn’t exist when it clearly does
  • some overlay two sets of text, the suggestion – presumably – underneath, and on top screeds of meaningless code, making both illegible
  • some correctly state the idea followed by the suggester’s comments on  how it could be implemented, then followed by the screeds of meaningless code.

Well, it all mirrors comments I made a while ago under the title Government web sites can be bad for your health about the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) and dreaded DirectGov sites.

Let’s hope it’s all a sign of success and a result of unexpectedly high levels of traffic because if and when the site settles down it’s worth returning to some of the adverse comments made by government employees about lean/systems thinking – they give classic examples of how not to do it.

I’ll report if I can get access…

PS – tucked away at the bottom of some pages is the legend Dialogue App by Delib Ltd.  Let’s hope you’re working on this one guys.


The British government wants ideas on how to “cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible”.  They’ve even set up a web site called Spending Challenges for people to suggest how this can be done.

Search for “Lean” on the site and as of today you’ll find 9 suggestions.

Which is the best?

Can I humbly suggest the one entitled Implement lean/systems thinking across government

It’s based on my blog post yesterday How to improve government (and keep improving it) [why didn’t I find this government web site before I published my post? – mutter.mutter…].

It’s certainly the lean suggestion on the site that is the most comprehensive and most closely matches what lean/systems thinking is all about.

More importantly on Spending Challenges you can:

  • comment on existing suggestions
  • rank suggestions with 0 – 5 stars (OK not quite in keeping with systems thinking but we live in the real world)
  • make your own suggestions. 

I’d love it if readers felt able to dive in, give my suggestion 5 stars and tell the world it can’t be bettered.  But in any event, get in there and one way or the other add to the volume of material that gets lean/systems thinking up there as the top idea government need to think about. 

Interestingly, some of the suggestions – from existing government employees – are anti-lean and offer a great insight into how lean should not be implemented as well as supporting my contention that a short sharp review of the use of lean/systems thinking in public service should be carried out.


Is it magic to say that government can make things better for its customers and save money at the same time – continuously?

Government has customers – call them citizens, clients, taxpayers, whatever.  As this blog, my own HelpGov web site and many other worthy organisations (but you hunt them down – they might be my competitors!) will tell you, not only is it possible, the two things go together naturally – if you work the right way.

Here’s how to do it.

Understand and apply 10 principles.

  1. Work is a system
  2. The purpose of the system is to meet the needs of customers
  3. Anything that does not add value for customers should be eliminated
  4. Work flows through the system from suppliers through the organisation to customers
  5. Flow can be expressed in processes, which should be made as efficient as possible
  6. All unwanted variation should be eliminated in the delivery of services
  7. Use all the relevant tools and techniques that are available
  8. The people who do the work are the best to improve it because they know it best
  9. The role of managers and leaders is to enable improvement in the system
  10. Be self-aware (not always easy).

This will be old news to some readers but a  foreign language to many in government.

 Am I right or wrong?  Feel free to add your own comments.  I’ll say something about each over the next few weeks.