Acareo Ltd

Focusing on the main thing!

Keeping you focused

cropped-NewLogo_smlbg.jpgWith change inevitably comes uncertainty. Organisations are concerned about their finances, especially costs; staff about their jobs, customers about the quality and availability of services or products. Technological change is happening all around us; businesses see savings, opportunities for new markets and but are they geared up for the pace of change and the challenges that presents? Right now Acareo is all about improving efficiency and effectiveness in your organisation; understanding the needs of stakeholders and translating those into functional, user-friendly applications whilst sustaining (and, wherever possible, improving) service to the customer AND smoothing the path towards your goals. We focus on the main thing and trying to keep it the main thing; it’s not just about delivering products; it is about benefits – the best software ever is useless and therefore worthless if no one is using it and you didn’t stop the old ways of working. Our aim is to provide you with the capacity, tools and skills to help with the business change challenges that managing change present. Change can be scary but it needn’t be if it is managed properly.
Find out more about us then look at our services to find out how we can help you through the conundrum of improving delivery whilst simultaneously reducing costs.


User Stories and/or Use Cases?

There is often confusion in the mind of the business analyst about the need for or application of user stories and Use Cases, especially if the organisation hasn’t been exposed to these tools and techniques in the past.

User stories (syntax: as a <who>, I need to <what>, so that <why>) are useful to define the boundary of a functionality such that the required functionality can be designed, developed, tested and deployed. A good user story can improve tractability when properly aligned with the wider business requirements. Developing user stories is not difficult but, all too often, is done badly or, worse, is not done at all! The business analyst could set up a workshop with the project team to chalk out the bare bones of a few stories from the requirements such that each one of these is a small piece of functionality in itself that can be delivered independently. The idea is similar to divide and rule. Instead of putting the whole cake in the mouth, we cut it to small pieces that can be chewed

User stories are different to use cases – there are dozens of Use Case templates available using a Google search. As long as the business analyst understands the logic and purpose of the Use Case templates the concepts are not too difficult to grasp. A Use Case may be or relate to a collection of user stories and will describe the triggers, actors, preconditions, flow of events (primary, alternate and exception) and the post-conditions (or outcomes). A good user story moves the focus from writing about features to discussing them.

Frequently the business analyst (or even other stakeholders) may be writing use cases or user stories right now and unaware that they are doing so. At the end of the day, user stories and Use Cases do not have a structure the first time you write them down (even if they do, they will rarely be right first time). That’s where the conversation comes in.

When looking for user stories and Use Cases the business analyst must consider the whole organisation as an open and adaptable system. The environment interacts with the organisation and to best understand that interaction Use Cases and user stories are the best tool for communication of requirements to stakeholders.

Being a good business analyst is much more than any way of documenting the requirement. If you are able to express why a certain change is needed and what’s the desired business outcome and then collaborate with business users and the development team to come up with the right solution, then learning a new way of presenting the requirements is not a necessary solution. Where these two techniques/tools come into their own is when you are struggling to communicate the business requirement to stakeholders, be they the business or the developers or testers. In my experience use cases can end up being more solution central (especially if “the system” is portrayed as an actor) whereas user stories accompanied with acceptance criteria are a neat way of expressing solution neutral requirements.

Crucially, as long as the systems analyst can understand what is needed and the business is happy with the outcome, then the how is not really important. Don’t agonise over methodologies and forget the no 1 thing – listen to and understand what your customer wants (of course strictly speaking that’s a no 1 and a no 2 thing to ensure that the requirement is binary!). If in doubt, try it, see if it adds value and move on.


Taxation, austerity and small business – life or death?

So, with effect from 1st April the flat rate VAT Scheme is changing.It seems our business is now caught by what HMRC term as a “limited costs business”.  Essentially, because our costs of goods is less than 2% of turnover we will have to pay an additional 2% VAT. This coupled up with a reduction in the dividend tax threshold from £5000 to £2000 and increases in national insurance contributions alongside changes to IR35 in public service contracts compounds the onslaught by the government on contractors and interims. The workforce of the UK is changing, of that there can be no denial; there is a huge swing from PAYE single job employment to self employment/single director companies and that this has had an adverse impact on the total tax take. However, to punish those who are entrepreneurial enough to take the risks associated with branching out alone whilst allowing the big beasts and the wealthiest to avoid tax or negate liability whilst never increasing their share of the pie is taking the biscuit!

UK Tax take 2016-17 per the Office of Budget Responsibility

UK Tax take 2016-17 per the Office of Budget Responsibility

 

That tax need to be raised is not denied and willingness to pay doesn’t come in to it – without adequate taxation we have no public services – but if only the government were prepared to raise the tax threshold more in other areas of the economy (and indeed increase the total tax take in order to limit the impact on public services). Instead, their strategy seems to be to pick off small groups – the self employed (although that has now been back-tracked), the disabled (recent changes to PIPs criteria will ensure that thousands of otherwise eligible claimants will no longer receive their mobility or care allowance elements of PIPS (formerly DLA). Why always prepared to take on the little guy but never the multi-nationals? Maybe because we are easier meat, less likely to resist in a coherent fashion, fewer allies in the media etc etc. Whilst the unemployed and disabled can be labelled scroungers, contractors can always be labelled tax dodgers and neither group have a loud enough collective voice to argue to the contrary. But what is really disconcerting is that whilst the government is struggling to provide basic public services to the elderly, the infirm, the ill and to our children we never seem to fail to raise the finds necessary for fighting wars. I don’t recall cost being an issue with wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – government just found the money. Likewise, with the continuous bombing of Syria costing us billions whilst our public services wither on the vine. Why is this possible? Why is it that we can always find the money to take life but never to save life or improve the quality of life of those least able to help themselves in our society.

As a small business we don’t begrudge paying our taxes – but we do begrudge the government wasting it on wars we should have no truck with and wasting it on inefficient services. But equally we are aghast at the government not spreading the load more directly across the corporate world so that the burden is more on the bigger businesses, especially those who take their income from the public sector. How is it ever right that a shareholder dividend for a large business can be made from public service contracts (i.e. HP, CapGemini, BT, G4S, Capita, Virgin Healthcare and many, many more taking billions of pounds of tax revenue as profit – HP alone took £1.9bn out of the UK treasury in just one year in 2014!) but a single director company providing services to a public sector body now has to be treated as an employee for tax purposes because we are somehow considered to be fiddling the system? Whilst no formal analysis has been done I’d wager that the top 3 or 4 companies by value of public contracts make far more in profit than all of the single director company contractors in the sector combined.


Downtime – the bit between contracts

We’ve just finished a great 6 months with a mid-size legal practice in Manchester and are now looking for the next contract. Every time a contract comes to an end there is a period of uneasiness coupled with expectation:

  • Uneasiness because
    • you don’t know when the next contract will start (or where) and you still have bills to pay – the reserves hopefully built up for such a “rainy day” will only last so long after all. We’ve had gaps varying between “next day start” and 4 months. Our ideal is somewhere in-between but nearer the “next day start” than the 4 months!
    • if the phone isn’t ringing regularly then self doubt creeps in – are we still cutting it? Does our vast experience in the BA world must count for something?
  • Expectation because
    • theres the thrill of the chase – where will that next role be?
    • will it be in the comfort zone of a favoured/seasoned sector or will it be in a whole new world where a client sees your potential and gives you the opportunity to prove yourself with a short lead contract?

Our MD, Andy Oddy, says that he will never get used to the uneasiness:

I miss working and the need for income to provide for my family will always be there. The worry about what comes next is only natural but the down time presents opportunities, lots of them. It is not a time for sitting round doing nothing, thats for sure and the expectation builds and more than makes up for any downside.

So, what happens at Acareo when a contract comes to an end? Andy summarises that “downtime” as anything but:

First off is brushing down the CV and posting it widely on recruitment sites alongside scouring the job/industry sites for those new opportunities. Ideally this will have been done a month before the end of the previous contract but I am constantly tweaking mine for roles that arise. Equally I take the time to refresh this site – it is my front window after all. Then I make a few calls to agencies who have used me before – I have made some of them a lot of money over the years so I like them to know I am available and looking. Next is hooking up with former clients via LinkedIn or email – there’ll be a select few who are now friends on Facebook but not many as I like to keep work an pleasure separate). All of these are leads to whatever might come next.

Once all of the seeds are sewn I turn to reflect on our last role. What have we learned, what could we have done differently – invariably it hinges around SME engagement – you simply cannot get enough exposure to subject matter experts – but how they will react/engage with you varies enormously depending upon whether you’re there as the “hatchet-man” or the “saviour”:

  • The hatchet man role is where there is a lot of time and therefore cost to be saved, efficiencies mean job cuts in most stakeholder eyes even though this isn’t strictly true.
  • The saviour role is where the business is expanding and there is new work/new products or new customers and the organisation needs to change rapidly in order to meet demand/expectations.

Then of course there is continuous professional development. The time between contracts is the time for going back to school. I always try and get in at least one course to brush up on some aspect of the business analyst toolbox/skill-set (and there are so many!)

For me I also take time to invest in my local schools where I am Chair of Governors at one (an  outstanding primary school) and a parent governor at another (an outstanding high school/academy). Education is my passion.

Lastly (but by no means least) there is the family – it’s time to make up for all of those late nights/days away and spend some quality time with the people that matter the most. A holiday isn’t always possible (if only contract end was always aligned with the school holidays eh?) but there are other ways of making a difference. Lunch out with my better half, Taxi service for my daughter – I used to help with homework but now it’s A-Level Chemistry/Biology and Maths that’s a bit beyond me other than moral support. Indeed the taxi service used to be local but nowadays it seems to be wider afield for gigs in the big cities! Then of course there is catching up on all those jobs that just seem to appear out of nowhere – the garden, decorating, odd-jobs…

All in all there is no such thing as downtime between contracts – different roles and activities, yes, different value streams most definitely but downtime it is not!


Localism – democracy and the dangers of referenda

With the Localism Bill to be published imminently there is already talk of it being a “Nimby Charter”; a world where the vote of the majority on a single issue is the only vote that matters, no matter how un-informed or self-interested the electorate might be. The pro-localism lobby are citing the likely introduction of neighbourhood referenda to decide planning and other decisions as being a means of restoring decision-making powers in the people, giving people power to determine the key decisions that affect where they live. Those who advocate the use of referenda argue typically that referenda:

  • restore democracy to the people
  • allow the people to tell the “establishment” to be responsive
  • restore “the people’s will” to the democratic decision-making process

These supposed benefits – which perhaps can be summarised as the seduction of the masses – are falsehoods based upon major misconceptions. The arguments put forward in the case for referenda stem from a series of unfounded assumptions.
The people’s view is all that matters
In a modern and complex society such as those found in the western democracies just who are “the people”? The term implies “all of us” or maybe it is all of us who are not elected to office or maybe the term should also exclude public officials or volunteers or anyone who is capable of making a decision that will impact on “the people”. The fact is there are millions of us from multiple different backgrounds each with different motivations, values and beliefs. Each of us exercises our own judgement in how we wish to participate (or not) in our democratic processes; be it with a club or society or in the mainstream electoral process or just in our daily lives. We vary in the degree to which we choose to stay in ignorance or as to how and when we get information that helps to inform us. How is it possible that such wide variation can be squeezed into a single shoebox labelled “the people”?
For the purposes of mainstream democracy we associate into groups that more readily reflect our own ideas and beliefs, behind leaders that we feel can deliver a vision of a future that we aspire to. That association may only be a X on a ballot paper to entrust our opinion by way of a mandate in another person or group or it may be that we are so passionate in our belief that we participate more actively – or it may be that we are so disillusioned or disinterested that we do not participate at all. Whatever our level of participation, it is our individual choice. In some circumstances we may be so disillusioned that we protest. Such protest may be through a good moan or may be a protest such as has been seen waged by students of late or, in extreme situations we may actually rise up in revolution.
So how can a referendum help democracy given such widespread diversity amongst the plebiscite? To vote “yay or nay” on a single issue cannot be any more than an expression of popularity only slightly more democratic than the awful closed shop voting systems of reality TV. Referenda may, on occasion, have a purpose in sorting out a complete blockage on opinion where opinion is totally polarised between two viewpoints, such as in determining the democratic process itself; devolution or centralised government; first past the post or proportionate representation. But can it be right for popularism to be the fundamental lynchpin of democracy?
Referenda make decisions simple
Since when was life simple or the decisions required for better governance of our lives simple either? If they were so simple we would not need the mass of bureaucracy that goes hand in hand with democracy. Complex issues cannot be simplified just by making the vote one of “for or against” – decisions need to be made from an informed position with an understanding and insight into all of the arguments, the benefits and dis-benefits, who will benefit and who will suffer, what will the consequences of the decision be? Democracy is about weighing up all of the available evidence and making a decision based upon what is in the best interests of key stakeholders. Would slavery have ever been abolished on the back of a “slave owners only” referenda? In addition, making the vote a simple “yay or nay” dumbs down the voters by conning us into thinking any decision is so clear-cut. We elect people to do most of the detailed understanding for us; through scrutiny in committees and reports our elected representatives get into a level of detailed debate, informed by subject matter experts, that the rest of us cannot hope to achieve through a referendum. When it comes to them making a decision it is usually on a basket of measures that provide balance and their decisions are, hopefully (although not always) made based upon an informed judgement.
The view of the masses is the only relevant view
In years gone by we had mob rule, witches were hunted down and burned at the stake; a posse could string up the accused without fair trial, homophobic attacks are still incited by the arguments of he who shouts loudest, regardless of the validity of the argument. Over the years the growth of a civil and fair society has diminished the role of the mob; it can be argued that our democratic processes exist primarily to avoid the rule of the mob. I find myself looking to history again – the birth of our democracy at Runnymede in 1215 was down to the representatives of the masses stating quite unequivocally to the King that his form of legitimised mob-rule was no longer acceptable and that if he wished to stay upon the throne he had to make certain concessions. John needed the patronage of the barons more than anything and recognised the need, albeit begrudgingly, to limit his arbitrary powers. Lord Denning, when head of the judiciary, described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. Everyone wants the decision-making process to be easy but regretfully, an understanding of the complexity of the issues comes with the territory of being empowered to decide upon those issues. The old adage “act in haste, repent at leisure” could very reasonably be extended to cover ill-informed electorates deciding matters via referenda. In a like manner, referenda can suppress public speech and smother pressure groups or lobbyists since only the voice of the majority matters. Minority groups would be left without a say, and potentially even without a hope. In a democracy the views of all are listened to and the needs of all are catered for. By their very nature referenda are the instruments of the will of the majority and eliminate the minority view in their wake.
Referenda give empowerment to the voter
On face value this statement could be accepted as a fact. However, whilst people may vote for a proposition, they will not be accountable for its consequences. Those who vote not to have a new low-cost housing development in their community do not have to address the homelessness problem in the borough; those who don’t want a half way house in their street do not have to concern themselves with reducing repeat offending in the district. Those who axe social services budgets may not see the consequences until it is too late for a victim of abuse or a vulnerable adult. Similarly ad-hoc coalitions can arise where a common enemy is perceived with the outcome being that fear and hate may join together such as happened in the Lisbon Treaty vote in Ireland. There the catholic right (including the press) and the euro-sceptical left-wing minority parties joined forces to vote against the two main political parties, both of whom advocated supporting the treaty. The irony of such events is that the ad hoc coalition need not be bothered with the responsibility of the consequences of such single focus decisions – those elected and in power have to sort that out.
In Summary
Referenda have their place – but I submit it should be a limited place with strong checks and balances against perverse decisions. The risk of unintended consequences cannot be overlooked and must be mitigated against in the forthcoming bill. We cannot be forced down an alley whereby the role of the “nay” voter is made simple merely by the application of strict conservative principles of “if in doubt, say no”. This would leave the pro-change lobby with the untenable task of having a higher burden of proof ; a stricter and more compelling evidence base. Remember, “no campaigns” are here today, gone tomorrow; they evaporate when the vote is won. Those who want change have to stick around, implement it and be accountable for the consequences. If not implemented with these caveats in mind the government risk intensifying the democratic gulf between the “engaged and informed” and the “disenchanted and ignorant”. The role of government is to govern and serve all of us, not just a select few who happen to be able to voice and mobilise their opinion.


Big freeze shows how big society might work – or not?

So, a few inches of snow and the country grinds to a halt – again. “Chaos” cry the news papers/channels; a inquiry will be held into the performance of the Highways Agency and local authorities to establish just why our motorways ground to a halt, even when we knew the snow was coming.

Chaos as lorries queue up for the night

Lorries queing in South Kirkby

Myself, I was caught up in the chaos having departed Gainsborough in Lincolnshire for my now regular 38 mile drive to my sister in law’s in Yorkshire. What is normally a 45 minute commute became a 5 1/2 hour adventure and having left the office at 16:45 I finally arrived at my destination at 22:15; relived and extremely tired. But why does it happen? How is it that we can’t keep our major routes working on days like this? My mind cast back to 1993 when I lived in Harrogate – the last big snow in November and Harrogate was hosting the RAC Rally. That day the snow fell in the early afternoon and by 3 o’clock colleagues who lived afar were departing for homes in the Dales, Leeds, Bradford, York and the surrounding villages. By 3:30 the town was gridlocked and many people spent up to 6 or 7 hours trying to get home. That year I was lucky as I walked to work and went home on foot via the pub – a good night was had if memory serves me right!

On Tuesday the story was repeated in Gainsborough – the snow had coated Lincolnshire overnight but by early afternoon it was snowing heavily, very heavily. Many people decided to head for home early; the office has people who commute in from Pontefract, Doncaster, Grimsby, Nottingham and Sheffield as well as Lincoln and the rural villages of the County and most of the staff who lived outside of Gainsborough had left by 3 o’clock. Deja vu as within twenty minutes the town was gridlocked.

The problem you see, is that by everyone leaving early at the first sight of snow, the gritters have no chance of  getting out and treating the surfaces. It’s all well and dandy if it snows in the night – we sleep and the great unung heroes – lads and lasses who keep our roads clear – move out under cover of the night and presto, we wake up to decent road surfaces. They simply can’t grit roads covered in stuck cars, lorries, vans and coaches – we are victims of our own panic, merchants of our own doom. By our own actions we are left stranded in the snow.

Despite this I succumbed in the panic and I eventually set off at my normal time wondering if I was making the right decision or whether I should have sought a hotel in town. I had appointments later in the week in the North West and didn’t want to be stuck in a Gainsborough hotel, if as predicted the big freeze followed the snow ensuring it stuck around for days.  When I eventually got out-of-town local radio was telling me Lincoln was gridlocked too as was Sheffield. No mention of the roads in Nottinghamshire being problematic so I carried on. About 8 miles west we ground to a halt as the first incline on the road lay ahead .  After no movement for 15 minutes I decided to get my case out of the boot and change out of my suit into my winter gear  of walking trousers, thermals, fleeces and thick socks and boots along with warm outer wear including hat and gloves ( I was well prepared to walk out if necessary). We waited another 15 minutes before people started to get out of their cars and talk to each other (how often do drivers talk to each other on their commute?). We soon realised there wasn’t much traffic behind us – only four cars on a busy commuter route to the A1 – and nothing coming in the other direction. Some of us walked forwards to see what was causing the hold up. We groaned – three 18 wheelers stuck going up the hill and two skewed across the road coming down. We were discussing options eg turning around or waiting when a local farmer with his tractor arrived. What could one tractor do with all those lorries? Well, it was a revelation and a big testament to John Deere tractors. He made it look simple driving up the slope, hooking up the first lorry facing downhill and towing it down until it could gain its own traction once more. Then the next, then he was joined by a second tractor. Ok so they can pull heavy lorries down a snow-covered road – how were they going to turn around those facing up hill? Oh ye of little faith! Why turn them around when those awesome tractors could simply tow 38 tonnes of HGV uphill on snow! In less than hour all the HGVs had been cleared and we were on our way again. Still no traffic behind us.

A few miles down the road in the village of Everton there was a police road block facing traffic in the opposite direction. It turns out the police had been summoned by locals who had closed the road themselves to prevent further risk of stranded motorists. I asked why there were no vehicles behind us and was told again that the road had initially been closed by conscientious locals near Beckingham and that we were the last vehicles through. It was now officially closed to traffic.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9LI6PURbdo&fs=1&hl=en_GB]
By the time I got to Bawtry I had helped to push three BMWs and two Mercs out of snow drifts – rear wheel drive really is hopeless if you don’t know how to drive in snow. The last couple of miles to the A1 were strewn with rear wheel drive cars that had left the road. Blyth Services was packed with HGVs, – a local advised me not to even think about the Holiday Inn Express – it was full. I struggled onto the A1 north – it was surreal but passable with care. It was like Star Trek Warp Drive. A car in front (what is it about BMW drivers?) ventured into the second lane – I eased off fearing the worse – sure enough he lost the back-end and spun. Luckily he had plenty of room and no traffic around save for me; he recovered and sheepishly crawled back into the inside lane. Leaving the A1 at J38 I thought my journey was nearly over – only 2 or 3 miles to go. I hadn’t bargained for the amount of HGV traffic that heads in and out of South Kirkby. The village was gridlocked at 9:45pm with stranded lorries. The hill outside the local high school was nose to tail lorries; lots of them with no chance of getting up the hill out of the village. Back at Hampole a similar story of stuck lorries. By the time I arrived at my destination the snow was starting to freeze. Lorries could no longer get into the large industrial estate they were bound for; they now queued up down the main road through the village, literally dozens of them. A different community, a different culture. Very much the kids coming out to laugh at the chaos and grown ups blaming the authorities for not “sorting it out”. No one even taking a flask of tea to the poor drivers without whom their favourite goods would not be on their local supermarket shelves, in whose factories or warehouses they were bound for many of them worked. It was the council’s job to sort it, not theirs. Their role appeared to be to bemoan the lack of action by the authorities. Around 1am a council gritter arrived to grit the highways – he wasnt supposed to grit the industrial estate (it was private and therefore the owners responsibility) but he succumbed to common sense and, seeing the carnage of vehicles blocking the highway he spread his grit. Within 20 minutes the wagons were rolling into their depots. Had he refused the lorries would have stayed out all night and possibly longer until the landlord had arranged for the roads on its estate to be cleared.

Over two feet of snow fell in Lincolnshire, Notts and South/West Yorkshire that night – most of it inside 2 or 3 hours. It was treacherous, yet in such a remote rural area it was the local citizens who reacted first and who helped stranded motorists get on their way again. Without those farmers many cars and lorries would have been stranded, possibly all night. On the whole journey I didn’t see a single gritter or snow plough until one turned up at my destination. The contrast between the two communities couldn’t have been more stark – one couldn’t wait to dive into action and help, the other totally dependent upon the state and believing clearing the roads and helping stuck vehicles was the job of the authorities and “nowt to do wi’ us – we pay us rates and taxes”.

Snow the mroning after

The morning after…serene and VERY white

So Big Society can work but even in extreme circumstances it can be derided by society itself. I make no comment on the profile or political persuasion of the two communities other than one is probably very self-sufficient and the other very welfare dependent. I’ll let you decide which is which – but next time it snows during the working day, stay in the office until the gritters have done their thing and maybe we’ll all get home quicker!


Green Buying – is it really that simple?

Freelance journalist Michael Cross, founder of Free Our Data campaign, is one of the first, and no doubt not the last, to ask “11 years after Gershon, government is still dismal at buying stuff. Or is there more to it than that?”. Sir Phillip Green has now reported to government on public procurement and basically he says it is a mess.
I am by no means a procurement expert – but I do know some people who are and I was involved in establishing one of local government’s first online “marketplaces” and also the first reverse e-auction in local government which saved Preston and Chorley Council’s £25,000p.a. on white A4 paper alone back in 2004. Subsequent uses of e-auctions have saved the public purse considerably more. However, my point is one that many people, especially inside the public sector fail to grasp the rationale for;  that procurement managers were always keen to build up “framework agreements” for a basket of goods. By this I mean you would be presented (perhaps via a series of online or paper catalogues) with a list of prices for just about anything that local government might want to buy – from a paper clip to a street lamp. There would only be one supplier for each commodity which made life easy. However, their price for the item you were interested in might not be as cheap as you could get the item down the High Street. “Why should I pay that for it when I can get it cheaper down the road?” was the cry from budget holders and someone would be dispatched to a local store with petty cash.
What they failed to gasp was that the procurement team had negotiated a complete basket of goods based upon typical yearly or even longer periods of spend. The TOTAL aggregated cost of those goods would be significantly cheaper than if they were ALL purchased in isolation from different suppliers. However, the discount only works if minimum spend on basket items was achieved so when year end comes around and the reckoning is done, if budget holders have gone off and spent maverickly on paper clips at the local stationers this could have a seriously adverse effect upon the cost of big ticket items such as paper or ink toner where much larger discounts have been agreed. The end result would be that the maximum potential reduction in price would not be achieved. Through good training and comms this message can be hammered home but one thing it will have an effect on is the actual ticket price of items in the basket. Sir Phillip points out that one department is paying several times more than another for the same item. It may well be the case that department A doesn’t use (and therefore buy) as much as department B but Department A did get a much better discount on another commodity than Department B when negotiating its overall basket of goods. That aside, there will be an interesting debate on whether there should be total central control over procurement across government, let alone the wider public sector. Green’s key points about the lack of management information on spend could be echoed for just about any morsel of MI that a businessman would want to know about his own business. The public sector simply does not do management information very well be it buying habits, unit costs of delivering services, volumes of customers using services or their preferences for accessing them. If you’re lucky they may have some KPIs or customer satisfaction data. Unfortunately all too many public sector managers consider such MI to be an anathema; more effort than its worth – rather than a significant tool in an armoury of efficiency tools that could be far more effective than an axe.


Another History Lesson – Poor Laws

This week Iain Duncan-Smith will launch the Coalition  Government’s White Paper on Welfare Reform. It has been widely leaked that the paper will include an element of making the “long-term” unemployed undertake some form of work tasks or “mandatory work activity” for their benefits – perhaps as much as 30 hours a week.  The unions and the charities that support people on welfare are up in arms with cries of “cheap labour” and “undermining the value and efforts of manual workers”. The very idea of post-graduate students and middle class professionals who can’t find work in the current climate being required to litter pick or clear out canals in return for the meagre payment of a combined “universal credit” sounds almost like a return to 19th century Dickensian values.

The Government says that this forms a new contract with the 1.4 million unemployed. The government’s side of the bargain will be the promise of a new “universal credit”, to replace all existing benefits, that will ensure it always pays to work rather than stay on welfare. They want to get people out of the habit of not working, to show that it doesn’t pay to live off benefits and that it is unacceptable to expect the state to keep you forever (or even beyond 12 months in the expected proposals). Opinion is and will remain divided; mostly polarised views between those who have never been unemployed for any significant period of time, and those who claim to represent those who are long-term unemployed. We are unlikely to hear much from those who are actually long-term unemployed; the NEETs and the “scroungers” that the Daily Mail et al so loves to berate.

But is what is being proposed really new? I would suggest, probably not. Indeed if we look at the history of welfare in England the idea of working for welfare dates back to the turn of the 17th century.  The Poor Law of 1601 saw the commencement of state welfare for those in poverty. The Poor Law, of itself, did not bring about the workhouse but it did place a duty on each parish to look after parishioners who, either because of age or infirmity, were unable to work. The Act proposed the construction of (social?) housing for, inter alia, the elderly and chronically ill, but most assistance for the poor continued to be in the form of money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish (income/property based council tax?). The workhouse “solution” evolved over the next 100  years or so as a way for the parishes (then the main form of local authority – Big Society?) to reduce the cost to ratepayers of providing poor relief (efficiencies/benefits too expensive?). The Workhouse Test Act was brought in as early as 1723 as a means test to prevent (or at least reduce) irresponsible claims. Anyone seeking poor relief could be obliged (note ‘could’, not ‘must’) to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually without pay, in return for food and shelter. Many parishes established workhouses during the 18th century, and by the 1830s most parishes had at least one. The Gilberts Act of 1782 allowed the parishes to form unions to further reduce costs  of building and maintaining workhouses (shared services/assets?).

Perhaps the key lesson from the Poor Laws and workhouse ethics of working for benefits was that by the 1830’s the system was on the brink of collapse due to the major increase in numbers of people who required poor relief due to an economic collapse leading to significant rises in unemployment – quite simply there wasnt enough money coming in to support the system. Sound familiar?


From Little Acorns…

Today I landed my first contract as an independent. A small contract but a contract nonetheless; one that will see us through until the next financial year, even if nothing else materialises. With all the doom and gloom surrounding the public sector at the moment I have found a ray of sunshine, albeit a small one that may not shine for ever. However, it is very positive that the public sector hasn’t given up buying in expertise altogether. Associates of mine all report an upsurge in interest in their services since the Comprehensive Spending Review. Principal areas of interest seem to be:-

  • Shared Service strategies – at senior team level and support services, customer contact and, in some ambitious areas, frontline service fulfilment
  • Harmonising and standardising IT systems/platforms/networks
  • Understanding needs of citizens so they can be the focus of resources
  • Place/Community budgets – how are they going to operate?
  • Smart procurement – either there is a lot of bad advice or the good advice is simply ignored but it beggars belief that procurement is not nailed down yet. Then again, it’s only last month that Phillip Green told us it was so.

All in all, I am a glass half full type but even my glass was starting to look empty of late. Right now though, despite the howling wind and torrential rain outside, I’m off down to my local to toast the future – and pray my acorn gets a chance to grow enough to resist the well honed blade of the axe.


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