Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Henwood Manifesto

Sir Humphrey: In fact, there are only 342 administrative staff at the hospital. The other 170 are porters, cleaners, laundry workers, cooks, etc.
Jim Hacker: And medical staff?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, none of them.
Jim Hacker:  None?
Sir Humphrey: No!
Jim Hacker: We are talking about St Edward's Hospital?
Sir Humphrey: Yes. It's brand-new and fully-staffed.
Sir Humphrey: Unfortunately, there were cutbacks, so there was no money for medical services.
Jim Hacker: A hospital with over 500 non-medical staff and no patients?
Sir Humphrey:  There's one patient.
Jim Hacker:  One?
Sir Humphrey: The deputy administrator fell over scaffolding and broke his leg.

John Henwood, writing a comment piece in the Jersey Evening Post, made some extremely good points about how little we know about administration. I don't always see eye to eye with John Henwood - for instance over the way forward in electoral reform - but on this occasion, I think he was absolutely correct.

I remember a survey a few years ago which concluded both that salaries were compatible with elsewhere, and also that there was no fat on the bone - the administration was very lean and efficient. Quite how that could be the case when no one seems able to answer what on the face of it is a very simple question, I do not know. He was simply trying to ascertain the ratio between administrative staff and front-line staff.

All States departments do need administrative staff, but looking at how the ratio has altered tells us a lot about how they are functioning, especially if the burden of the increase in employees is on administration, rather than front line staff, and that is also swallowing up the budget. A typist costs a lot less than a senior manager, and while we need typists, we may not need so many senior managers.

Actually, the wage situation often seems absurd - the trained staff with expert knowledge - teachers, nurses - are often paid substantially less than people who manage the department. The popular excuse is that unless senior managers are offered a competitive deal, they will go elsewhere, such as the private sector, although it is rare to see any senior manager to leave their cosy insulated job for life to the cold of the private sector (and forego their gold-plated final salary pension). But this never quite seems to apply when - as at present - we face a shortage of nursing staff.

Actually, anyone who has read the book Parkinson's Law knows what to do - if you get a lot of applicants, something  (qualifications or salary, probably the latter) is too high, and it is easy to reduce the salary and still get applicants - "the aim should be so to balance the inducement in salary against the possible risks involved that only a single applicant will appear."(1). The problem is in the grading, and differentials, and these seem cast in stone. Perhaps these should be reviewed.

It may be the case that - as reviews have said - these staff are needed, but unless the figures are in the public domain, and we can see how the ratios alter, we won't have any data. The "Yes Minister" extract is a satire - things are not that bad, but until we get ratios, we won't know if matters are top heavy or not.

What is of equal concern is the inability of Ministers to provide a simple answer to what is, after all, not that difficult a question. The obvious fudge can be seen in their replies - it is true that all kinds of people undertake some administrative duties, but that does not mean they are administrators. A teacher may do so, but they also teach, whereas a desk-bound manager certainly does not. That should be glaringly obvious, but to learn that "no fewer than 245 Health department employees have some managerial responsibility" is just sheer obfuscation. The slippery nature of the reply is exposed with the word "some".

Until we have some decent figures to work from, it is simply not clear how any proposed cutbacks will be made or can be made. It may well be that all the administration staff are needed, but at the moment, just listing the numbers with "some managerial responsibility" is analogous to the banks, when they bundled up all kinds of assets including toxic ones and sold these as packages. Are there similar employee assets, i.e., managerial staff who really are not needed, and who are "bundled up" with front-line staff so that they become hidden? Why has "joined up government", and the conflation of older departments under one Minister not led to administrative benefits of scale (as certainly happens in the private sector)?

Jim Hacker: Will you answer a direct question?
Sir Humphrey: I strongly advise you not to ask one.
Sir Humphrey: Jim Hacker: Why?
It might provoke a direct answer.
Jim Hacker: It never has yet.

John Henwood, rather like Jim Hacker, is still looking for a direct answer. Here then is his comment which is well worth reading in its entirety.

The views set out below have been simmering for a long time and came to the boil last week when I learned that, while our principal economic activity has seen a reduction of 400 posts in the last year, the public sector has actually grown by 40 new jobs. One has read and heard the Treasury Minister getting tough and demanding significant cuts in public expenditure; one has also heard his Council of Ministers colleagues agreeing in principle, but defiantly stating that cuts must come from elsewhere, not from their own department's budgets. At the forefront of the budget protectors' are the Ministers of Health, Education and Home Affairs, three of the top five spenders.

This public sector growth against the background. of universal restraint in the private sector crystallised for me a year of fruitlessly trying to establish some simple truths about where the money, our money, goes.

Following some public utterances. by the Education, Sport and Culture Minister, I wrote to him in February 2009 asking this question: how many children are there in education in Jersey, how many teachers and. how many non-teacher employees in the department compared with a previous time? What I was trying to uncover was whether there is any truth in the often-repeated allegation that administrative posts in the Education department had been allowed to grow disproportionately to the number of children in school and the number of teaching posts. It seemed pretty straightforward to me.

At first there was an attempt to fob me off with a combination of data that I had not requested and flannel in the form of selectively quoting from a report suggesting insufficient departmental resources. In short, it was too
difficult to answer my question.

I tried again, pressing a bit harder. This time it took over a month for the minister to reply, even more defensively. He did explain that the department employs 876 teachers and lecturers and 705 other staff, but still he did not provide an answer to my question. Getting fed up with, as I saw it, being given the run-around, I" wrote yet again, this time making it abundantly clear that my question was posed under the so-called Freedom of Information Code, the very purpose of which is to establish a minimum standard of openness and accountability by the States of Jersey; it requires States Members and departments to answer reasonable questions.

There followed a very long silence. Meanwhile, the Health and Social Services Minister had also made a public statement, which needed further investigation. So, in March 2009, I wrote posing another very simple question: what is the ratio between clinical and non-clinical staff now compared with a time in the past? I made it clear this question was again inspired by the popularly held view that the ever-increasing Health department budget had disproportionately been funnelled into an ever-growing bureaucracy.

The initial reply was remarkably similar to that from the Education Minister, some meaningless data and the suggestion that a soon-to-be-published report would reveal a degree of inter-resourced management. There was no attempt to deal with my question.

I wrote again, expressing my disappointment with the minister's evasiveness and invoking the Freedom of Information Code in the hope this would flush out an answer. No such luck.

Over the next ten months, through a change of minister, there was a game of ping-pong, largely conducted by email. At one stage I was given even a firm undertaking, by the chief executive no less, that, the required information would be provided. Of course, it was not.

Eventually, through sheer persistence, my efforts resulted in meetings. The first, around a year after I first wrote to his minister, was with the Director of Education. He was exceptionally generous with his time and very
courteous. For over an hour he explained the structure of Education; Sport and Culture, how it had changed and how challenging the environment had become. Some of it I was already ware of, but it is always interesting to listen and learn new facts, What I did not learn was an answer to my original question about the growth of administration within the department compared with teaching posts and school rolls. The nearest I got was was the frank admission that, were the director able to provide the answers I required, they would probably not look too good.

The meeting with Health and Social also took place about a year after I had written to the then minister. I was flattered to to find myself sitting around a table with the a minister and two senior departmental officers. They were keen to help and offered some interesting and detailed information from which I learned, for instance, that no fewer than 245 Health department employees have some managerial responsibility. They stressed that today's standards of governance require much more form-filling and box-ticking, about which they were powerless to do much. They too were courteous and expressed a willingness to be open, but the bottom line was they still could not answer my question about how much of the budget was spent on direct patient care and how much on administration.

It had been my intention also to ask questions of the Home Affairs Minister, but there is only so much one individual can do when trying -through innumerable obstacles - to get meaningful information out of States
departments. Had I asked a question of the Home Affairs Minister, it would have been about, growth in the Probation Service. Some little while back. I was talking to a former chief officer of the Jersey Probation Service who told me the total establishment at the department on his appointment had been three. Today it is about 40.

Presumably the caseload has grown in the Intervening period, although he doubted it had gone up by much, and it certainly has not grown by a factor of 13 So what is the justification for such an increase? I don't know the answer and, on the basis of previous experience, probably would not have got one had I asked; but I wouldn't mind betting that the number of administrative posts accounts for the largest increase.

If the biggest-spending departments don't know in detail how, their budget is apportioned, how can their ministers put up any sort of .meaningful argument that they are not able to, accept budget. cuts? How do
they know they can't make cuts when, at Health and Social . Services, for example, they don't know, how much of their vast pool of financial resource goes into direct patient care and how much to administration? How can
departments draw up meaningful business plans when they, make no attempt to track vital trends? When Education Sport and Culture doesn't know how the balance between children in school and departmental administration has shifted over the years how can they assess whether or, not their resources are being deployed deployed effectively?

(2) John Henwood's Comment is in the public domain (published the the JEP 12.04.2010, but has not appeared on the on-line edition. I think it should have a wider audience.

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