Accountancy age

April 1, 2012

As my years in government IT have drawn to an early end and we’ve just had the UK budget I just thought I’d mark the occasion with a few comments upon accountancy which I have conluded from experience is one of the main reasons little in the system will actually change until that does. It is nothing personal against all the accountants I know and have known, and some I still consider friends, it’s just an attack on the dark art that obfuscates the potential for much real transformation, particularly in government.

An opinion piece in the Guardian a few years ago provides some background as to how the UK has permitted accountancy to take over the country, and to further confirm this, McSweeney, B. (2006). “Are we living in a post-bureaucratic epoch?” Journal of Organizational Change Management 19(1): 22-37. p.27, identified that the number of qualified accountants in the UK Civil Service increased from approximately 600 to over 2000 between 1982 and 2002, whilst the total number of civil servants had fallen.

But here on a lighter but (I hope) not too insulting note are some jokes I found some years ago and have made more politically correct:

What’s the definition of an accountant? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

What’s the definition of a good tax accountant? Someone who has a loophole named after them.

When does a person decide to become an accountant? When they realise they don’t have the charisma to succeed as an undertaker.

What does an accountant use for birth control? Their personality.

What is an extrovert accountant? One who, whilst talking to you, looks at your shoes instead of their own.

What’s an auditor? Someone who arrives after the battle and bayonets the wounded.

Why did the auditor cross the road? Because they looked in the file and that’s what they did last year.

How many kinds of accountant are there? Three kinds – those who can count and those that can’t.

How do you drive an accountant completely crazy? Tie them to a chair, stand in front, and fold up a map the wrong way.

If government wants to implement transformation and cost savings it only has to simplify the whole bureacratic way everything is costed, charged and calculated across government. This will be even more important if there is going to be successful implementaion of ‘cloud’ services.


Ninging up York

January 31, 2012

With all the recent debate about e-participation, tools to do it, along with the why’s and wherefore’s of whether it can actually work, it’s a coincidence that the local authority where I live has implemented Ning to do some consultation. In the sites own words “GeniUSYork is our chance to generate and develop lots of ideas around about how to make York a better place. Many brains generate more ideas.” The project is part of a nationwide project funded by NESTA, and the City of York was one of 17 councils to get to this stage. If they make it to stage 2 in April they receive support and funding to roll the best ideas out nationally.

I hope something comes of it. It’s not the only Ning community I’m a member of but like many such places they have a tendency to become talking shops with little practical resulting. It’s OK if you wish to spend your time looking into a computer rather than delivering practical change or if the suggestions made actually are implemented in some fashion, but how many times does that happen?

The operators, implementors or whatever need to consider the suggestions that were made following the discussions earlier about participating in a democracy i.e. for a start, how will the outcomes be measured, implemented or reported?

According to Heather Niven who is one of those behind it, the “main criteria are sustainable, scale able to other places, good for everyone involved, viable with resources we’ve got. Pilot length can be as long as it needs to be but a range of short-long term solutions would be good. We are flexible and open to all ideas and our forum section has a section on all things innovative. For other suggestions if people want to raise other ideas. Outcomes we want are 1. A culture change in the way the city solves its problems and develops/evolves through introducing a channel to communicate and develop relationships with the motivated creative problem solvers in our world who want to make a difference. 2. To use a series of challenges to focus our efforts and show ourselves how much better we can change things through working together and to try the process out. 3. To record and share the whole project including what didn’t work for others to learn from. All of that will be shared here too.”

My personal challenge to them is to rationalise the dark magic that is government bean-counting – if we could do away with all this cross-charging, recharging, offcharging and focus on customers, particularly where they aren’t able to deal with such bureaucracy the better! Avaunt thee CIPFA and all thy complications…


We are the CHAMPS

November 4, 2010

Whilst we were at the Local CIO Council meeting on the 3 November 2010, Glyn Evans of Birmingham City Council proudly announced the ‘official’ launch later that day of CHAMPS2.

In their own words “CHAMPS2 is a vision led, benefits driven business change method which is broad in scope and encompasses the whole business change journey. It helps you define your organisation’s strategic needs, and then provides a tailored route to ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved”.

Even better, it’s free!

If that wasn’t enough, although the consultation is over for the moment, the guidelines for open data publication are available from the Socitm, CIPFA, LeGSB, LGA, CLG group that has been working on them. So if you are in the UK, or even if you are not, you may find the LG Group Transparency Programme of interest?

Even better, we had a brief but beneficial discussion with Andrea di Maio about Clouds, G-Clouds and related matters. Nice  to finally see him in the flesh!


A lesson in efficiency

August 5, 2010

In the Municipal Journal of 22 July 2010 is a piece by Paul Bradbury of Civica entitled “budgets & efficiency – there is thinking outside of the box”. The piece draws upon public finance body CIPFA‘s survey of finance directors in April. As one can probably intuit the survey was sponsored by Civica.

Surprise, surprise that two of the bullet-pointed ‘strategic responses’ identified both by the survey and Civica were “extending outsourcing as part of a pragmatic service delivery mix, and using managed IT and related business services”, along with “re-engineering entire frontline to back-office processes at the corporate departmental level”.

No argument with the second one but advise doing it BEFORE outsourcing, otherwise you are giving away ALL the profit, however the first one should be a dead duck in the water from experiences of ten years of e-government! Strategically having ones IT managed, if one has a suitable contract in place is one thing, but you can just look back at the cases where it has been brought back in-house, or would have been if the financial penalties hadn’t been so large.

With G-Cloud looming the possibilities for managed IT are formidable, but does this require outsourcing, I don’t think so.


Channel accounting

July 9, 2009

I’d been asked a question off blog about how the various figures apparently showing the incrementally lesser costs of face-to-face, to telephone, to web, that keep cropping up, were calculated.  Since this discussion is becoming more common and seems to rely upon mythology as much as science, I thought I’d try to briefly fill out some of the blanks.

 I did a quick survey of some of the figures being quoted:

  NWEGG Lambeth Socitm (min) Socitm (max)
Face-to-face £7.81 £1.66 £4.83 £9.56
Telephone £4.00 £0.85 £1.28 £5.57
Touchtone   £0.09    
Web £0.17 £0.09 £0.22 £0.56
Payment network   £0.50    
Direct debit   £0.02    

 The methodology used by NWEGG in association with CIPFA was documented and published by the CLG in March 2008 and entitled –

Delivering Efficiency: Understanding the Cost of Local Government Services

 and can be found here:

 http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/pdf/730431.pdf

 Socitm employ CIPFA Accounting Code for Best Value as the basis for collecting costs, which should mean that the NWEGG and Socitm figures are on a par. CIPFA charge £850 for a copy – http://secure.cipfa.org.uk/cgi-bin/CIPFA.storefront/EN/product/AC073_

- must be a best seller at that price!

 I do have a slide with the Lambeth calculation and I would say that looks like common sense, too.

 So, why the differences? As was discussed at a meeting I attended with Socitm a while ago, an authority who had done their own sums found vast differences between services. This does make sense. Not all services are equal, displaying planning information on the web is easier than displaying benefits information and is likely to be accessed more often, too. So it probably depends which services one chooses to account for.

 My conclusion – get everyone to pay by direct debit wherever possible!


The Tory take

July 5, 2009

Published by the Centre for Policy Studies is a view from a Conservative councillor on the present government’s IT policy, particularly in the arena of personal data – It’s ours. The report by Liam Maxwell is a useful read for anybody working in government IT since it may be the approach subsequent to the next election!

For me it has an awful lot of sense, as can be found in earlier posts, I was never quite happy with the ‘deep truth’  that central government wanted us to seek, I never treated it as personal imformation, just a lot of mumbo-jumbo that would never help anybody. It also identifies the limited use being made of electronic government ‘services’.

In fact in terms of evaluating IT projects, one of the issues raised, Cabinet Office has already got its own rottweiler investigating – Stephen Jenner – who I met at ECEG2009, and whose book I bought, which is largely common sense and to save you the fifteen  quid here’s an interview from the CIPFA PinPoint magazine – CipfapinpointJune09 – he’s also looking for people to do a survey for him -ABRMsurveyv1.0eceg

Importantly for this researcher Maxwell does state that “Putting the citizen, and not the government, at the centre of IT design can have startling results.” (P.14)

One place I would argue with the report is on P.16, where it states that ” information acquired for one purpose in the public sector may be used for another entirely different purpose”, if that had been the case the delivery of electronic government would have been much easier and I’d argued with a senior civil servant about that being a barrier some years ago, and nothing eased.

The same applies to Service Oriented Architecture and Cloud Computing, both praised in the book and both being promoted at Cabinet Office, unfortunately the governmental monolith moves slowly and acceptance of these concepts will take time.

Having said that, I welcome a fresh political take on the frequently ignored (by politicos) area of government IT and don’t disagree with any of the conclusions, however implementing them through Whitehall may be a different matter…


Co-production – part 2

January 20, 2009

An article in the latest issue of the journal produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the professional body for public sector finance staff, who may be described as a rather traditional group, states that:

“we need to understand public services delivery as a dynamic system where organizations, services and users interact to co-produce public services. This goes beyond its comprehension as ‘simple’ inter-organizational networks. Rather, it recognizes that service technology, service users/consumers and service organizations are all in interaction in the production of public service.”

Osborne, S. P. (2009). “Debate: Delivering public services: Are we asking the right questions?” Public Money & Management 29(1): 5-7.

Which being the case, much more agile means of developing, improving and studying service delivery mechanisms need to be used.


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