When is an efficiency not an efficiency?
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.