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.

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A facelift for the pig

September 12, 2010

E-government will now be accepted by many as having provided “lipstick on the pig” (a favourite expression of mine indicating that whist you can apply lipstick to the pig, it still remained a pig), in other words sticking a web front-end on many government services has still left the applications and processes limping along in a back-office somewhere, without process or regulatory improvement.

However, the new 69 page report from the so-called Network for the Post-Bureaucratic* Age (nPBA) entitled “Better for Less – How to make Government IT deliver savings” is much more of an encouragement for a face-lift for the pig, and a cheap one at that! I’d mentioned another paper from Liam Maxwell in July 2009,where I  supported some of the proposals and  suggested that it might indicate a future government’s policy and similarly this document, in my opinion, is just as good again (in parts).

The paper has many good points, but despite Mr Maxwell’s exposure to local government ICT, this strategy still falls down where e-government did 13 years ago. A pig is still a pig, despite lipstick or facelift and the nominal attack on bureaucracy is not necessarily a good idea, as McSweeney explains in the paper* on the post-bureaucratic age. It’s the wasteful parts of service processes that need sorting out, and they are frequently as a result of legislation or central government demands.

As described by Paul Henman in his analysis of “New Conditionality”, ICT has facilitated complex and frequent changes to legislation and regulation, these in turn add to the complexity of the ICT solutions and the cycle continues ad infinitum developing the complexity of government ICT. This is where the change needs to occur – simpler regulation and legislation.

Rather than auditing ICT, what we need in reality is a proposal, by some authors with an understanding of what makes good services delivered by central and local government, of how we audit end-to-end government services and in the process identify areas of true regulated bureaucracy that can be removed. Further, any attempts at rationalization should account for multi-channel service delivery. Many of the applications in the “new conditional” world link together and off onto web sites or corporate applications, this could provide some of the open data desirable for the commonweal, which whilst not of general interest will still have value to the local community.

Further, in a couple of instances, Mr Maxwell examines and compares the costs of ICT in local and central government, which can be a very misleading practice. Even with the amount of regulation, financial accounting in government is a dark art with the use of on-costs and recharges varying from authority to authority to the extent that costing for IT services is not straightforward and one can easily be comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps, another area to standardize?

*If anyone wants to know what “post-bureacracy” is,  there’s  an excellent critique of the Cameronesque “post-bureaucratic age” concept in a recent revision of an earlier academic paper by Brendan McSweeney entitled “Is a post-bureaucratic age possible?” As a summary, Mc Sweeney states “as a reaction against the authoritarianism of the previous UK government’s (New Labour’s) neo-conservatism, David Camerson’s sentiment is a welcome one, but as a programme for comprehensive transformation it is not achievable.” Which I’d say applies to the nPBA’s report also.