When is an efficiency not an efficiency?


A bright idea in an efficient age...

I had an eventful day last week and for some reason it has taken me ten days to process it into actual thought. I was being trained as part of our council’s commitment to identifying waste and delivering efficiency within services.

The word ‘efficiency’ here is the important one. When most people us the word efficiency they usually mean doing the same thing with less inputs. This common understanding allows the Government to constantly claim large ‘efficiency’ savings without the public asking the question; ‘if services are £25 billion cheaper what are the Government not doing any more?’

George Osborne announced £4 billion worth of savings in central Government administration as part of the CSR. I’m sure most neutral observers thought ‘Hurrah, more money for the NHS’ or something similar.

The problem with all this ‘efficiency’ is that the sheer amount of it tends to devalue the term a little. No-one really believed that Gordon Brown’s pre-election efficiency commitment and to be honest I doubt that many people believed George Osborne with his £4 billion.So, to return to my training session: Our friendly training consultant was explaining the sort of ‘wastes’ we should be identifying as part of our efforts to make our authority more ‘efficient’. She also expected Osborne like efficiencies and very soon into the training session I discovered just how this piece of ‘efficiency’ alchemy was to take place.

In the methodology we were being taught there are seven identified ‘wastes’, including things such as transport (moving things in between parts of the process), motion (moving people with stuff), inventory (leaving 100 e-mails in your inbox each day) etc. So far, so typical management consultant speak.

However, two of these ‘wastes’ are ‘over-production’ and ‘over-processing’; both of these could be better characterised as cuts than ‘efficiencies’.

Over-production is basically defined as providing more service than the most basic needed by a ‘customer’. For the sake of an example this might mean two social care visits per day when the client or ‘customer’ could survive with one and would not pay for the second one (presumably because they are poor and relying on council services???). Over-processing is the provision of more service than necessary, such as the Doctor doing an overall health check when you visit with a sprained ankle.

In the private sector we would be providing more service than the customer has paid us for (like bread rolls at a fancy restaurant). In the public sector we are providing a public service. Any reduction in this is a cut in that service.

I have no ideological problems with reducing the level of some public services. If we are delivering two visits per day to someone who doesn’t need them then someone else might be denied a service they really need… Or not. Likewise, my doctor giving me a thorough health check might give me a better service but equally it might lead to him having less time to deal with my next door neighbour who might need a service more than I do. Or not.

In the time of austerity we need to make real decisions about what services we provide and think seriously about the scope of them.

However, let’s not kid ourselves. These are not ‘efficiency’ savings, they are cuts. We are reducing our services in the name of ‘efficiency’ and residents will feel these cuts.

My friendly consultant, and maybe George and Gordon as well, would argue that any service that is producing more than the absolute minimum required is wasteful. On this logic, dumbing down all services to the absolute minimum would be an ‘efficiency’. Others might call it a race to the bottom.

My fear is that instead of making rational decisions about which services to cut and expand we’ll just succumb to the siren call of ‘efficiency’ and forget that these are real life public services we are discussing not just the price of widgets.

I can’t help feeling that there is something a little dishonest about pretending to make the State, or our council, more efficient when one of the key factors in delivering these ‘efficiencies’ is reducing the quantity and quality of the services we provide.

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6 Comments on “When is an efficiency not an efficiency?”

  1. localgov Says:

    So you’re not talking about doing the same with less, but doing less with less and being more honest about it?

  2. localgovaswell Says:

    Exactly the point… Efficiency means doing the same with less; anything else needs a different word for it!

  3. citizenr Says:

    I too have endured the delights of LEAN training (perhaps we work for the same LA???)and spent an afternoon making paper planes in order to demonstrate our inefficencies. Well I’ve definitely been leaned on…by being made redundant.


    • Citizen R; Really sorry to hear you’ve been made redundant. Hope you’re in the process of finding something more satisfying to replace your old role.
      Am interested that we might be from the same authority but as I’ve yet to have any paper planes put in front of me it might just be an unhappy coincidence (or maybe paper planes is for advanced training?!?)

  4. J.G.Harston Says:

    I’ll just peer through Molly’ss letterbox and make sure she’s still alive. Done! 59 minutes saved!

    Or, I’ll knock on her door, go in, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, which she made because she was expecting me around, and have a non-target-directed natter, during which she happens to mention a damp patch on the bedroom wall, which a couple of minutes prodding reveals to be a slight leak in the airing cupboard, which can be fixed by a ten-minute visit by a plumber before it got so bad it leaked into the electrics.

    Oh, and it keeps Molly mentally active and cared about. But that takes 60 minutes…


  5. […] starting way back with our first pick of the litter.  Do you even remember when the word ‘efficiency‘ wasn’t intrinsically linked to ‘cuts’?  We’ve also tried to reveal […]


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