Boys from the black stuff the story goes on…

If you read the first instalment you will already know that the council came to resurface a road nearby where I live. It’s a road that I travel on at least once a day. It’s a busy road. It took them over a week to get the job done. The work was packaged into discrete components that obviously suited the work schedule and the works order, but singularly failed to deliver a good outcome for local people. Not least because six drains were left blocked by the ‘expert’ work of the team on the ground, whose job it was to remove and re lay the top surface. So, I decided to log the issue of blocked drains using the on-line e form and wait to see what happened. I would have called them, but it was going to cost me money to call them and help them do their job. Why would I bother doing that?

It was not easy to find the form on the web site. You had to know your way around local government departments to find it. Anyway, a few minutes after logging the call  I get an auto response back saying that the ‘aim’ to respond in 48 hours. An hour later another email arrives. A speedy outcome I can hear you thinking. Sadly not! A note to say that the call has now been logged in the highways system and passed to a Highways Inspector who will inspect and decide upon the action required, and that this will be planned and prioritised as seen appropriate. I am then advised that if I want an up date on this matter then I can call the contact centre after 10 days and they will advise me of progress.

Having taken breath, I dropped them a line back to say that the drains did not need inspecting –  they needed clearing! Needless to say they have not as yet responded to my comment. The saga goes on..

But it does not end there. In the local paper at the weekend I read an interesting article “Streets like a minefield’. It talked about the dangerous obstacles faced after the surface had been left pitted and potholed. Apparently three people had been injured as a result of falling over on the poor surface. A local Town Councillor was quoted as saying ‘it’s ludicrous’. Unsurprisingly, no one from the Highways Department was available to comment.

Good job well done?

The councillor is right, along with the resultant insurance claims that will surely follow the cost of this job will rocket as lawyers and bureaucrats from different parts of the council come together to defend their corner. And for what?

The chaos comes down to the design and management of work. Budgets, targets, inspections, specifications all prevent the workers on the ground from doing the right thing. The contact centre operation has so far added only cost into the process, keying data into a back office system, generating pointless emails and doing their level best to dissuade me from contacting them again. I could show them how to save a bob or two.

The clock is ticking on the blocked drains. Poor weather is forecast and even more problems will mount if action is not taken quickly to sort out the failures caused by the work done so far.  Watch this space….

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Boys from the black stuff

Good job well done?

I have been walking a long a road on my way in to my local town for a few years now. The surface has been getting worse over time. The occasional botch job has put ‘chewing gum’ in a couple of holes, but as we all know this does not last a winter. A waste of time and money: a temporary fix that ought to fixed properly the first time. The madness of inspection and scheduling of work on the basis of arbitrary priorities made against a limted budget.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived home one day recently to find a road  machine ripping the surface off the road for a stretch of about 200 metres. So far so good. Obviously the road then lay in its temporary state for a week with raised inspection covers and signage on the pavements, blocking access and causing confusion for road users. Organising the job as a continuous flow would make a lot more sense.

Then it was all systems go! The road workers and machinery arrived and by the end of the day the road was complete. Bingo! At face value the job looked a good one. The resurface was well finished sealed to the existing surface. But then oh no! I walked down the road a few days later and happened to look down a drain cover. I was shocked to find it full of road chippings. On my way back I decided to look at all the drains on the road, and guess what all of them were full/blocked by road dressing. So a great job on the face of it had turned in to rework. A further job for a different team to return to site and unblock each drain. More inspection, rescheduling and prioritisation; not to mention cost.

Given the weather this year I decided to take action and logged on to my local county council web site to see how good their on line service was. It took me a while. I decided not to ring the hot line number as the council has decided to charge me for the priviledge. So, having navigated the web site I found the section I needed. Not that easy to do. I have an advantage because I know what I am looking for because I understand how council departments organise themselves. I started to enter the detail in to the web site: a tedious process. I got an acknowledgment on the site and advised that I would get a response within 10 days! This was followed a few minutes later by a standard email saying my request would be dealt with soon! More duplication, and a confusing series of messages.

Let’s hope that it does not rain too hard before the work is scheduled. The damage caused by blocked mains drains is obvious; and all caused because the job was not done correctly at the time. Bad system or sloppy workers? Ironic really that the council faces a financial crisis, and by taking sort cuts based upon unit cost it has increased its costs! Madness.

As I write the saga goes on. Watch this space.

Data data all around, but not a bit that’s useful

It’s that busy time of the year for people in finance in local government –  ‘close down’.

A magical time when every last ounce of energy goes into the exercise.

There is a target date to meet and everything must add up, balance and be filed for inspection by the dreaded external auditor.making efficiencies

Life and death for accountants: like watching paint dry for everyone else.

During ‘close down’ it’s very difficult to get any useful information out of accountancy, as they are ‘too busy’.

So whilst the business goes on spending millions of pound a week managers run blind on what’s actually happening with cost, until they get an update at the end of the quarter. That’s when the fun starts again.

One persons view of a budget and spend profile is different to another. As the manager of the budget you often have limited say in what get reported to the many meetings that purport to scrutinize the detail only to nod it through.

It’s claimed that only the accountants really understand what the figures mean. In practice I wonder if even that it true.

The slight of hand that goes on to churn money in the system means that it’s difficult for anyone to know what the true picture is. By the time it gets reported, and audited the game has moved on.

Every year as a manager you do you best to manage and profile your spend to get value for money.

Now let’s not get started on VFM that will come up in a later blog.

A while ago in quarter two I was told that I was going to over spend by the end of the year by £2M (I was naturally quite worried) at the end of the following quarter I was going to underspend by £550K (now I was even more worried, did anyone know what was really going on?)

You could not make it up. What are you supposed to do!

Experience says keep your own information, so most of us keep our own spreadsheets just in case. They obviously sit outside of the main financial system, possibly even on memory sticks, but don’t tell IT as its against the policy to stick anything dodgy into your USB port.

At least having your own records gives you something to argue with when the accountant tries to manage your codes and your budget for you, and gets you in to hot water.

Ironically the latest accountancy system was introduced to remove the need for all those spreadsheets, but I am really glad that I secretly kept mine. It’s duplication of effort, but you cannot be too careful.

Another thing that bugs me is that fact that you are accountable for the budget and its spend, but the accountants mysteriously have secret powers to enter the system and move numbers around, seemingly at will, to balance things out for that all important financial report.

Overspends of course remain the managers problem.

This can be hugely frustrating when the overspend is cause by a cock up in accountancy when a Zero or the comma in the wrong place. Opps sorry these things happen!

Can you give me an explanation of the reasons for the overspend, and what you intend to do about it for the Management Team report. Oh and by the way the Director of Finance needs it by tonight.

The irony is that the budget is pored over and used as some amazing tool that informs our decision making.

In truth it’s a lagging measure, historical information regurgitated at various meetings to show everyone that we are in balance for the year against the agreed allocation of spend.

This whole exercise is an arbitrary judgement made largely on the basis of rolling forward previous years spent plus or minus a percentage.

It has little relationship to community or customer need, and gives us little if any information about true end to end operational cost of the services being delivered.

Why?  Because budgets are apportioned to hierarchical structures and further subdivided into functions and cost centres causing the system to sub optimise.

In practice this means that individuals manage the money that they have been allocated and spend it on the part of the organisation for which they have responsibility.

Simple really.

The issue is that each of us looks after our bit and has little, if any, focus upon the impact this has upon the customers that we are all here to serve. This in fact drives massive inefficiency and therefore cost into delivering essential services.

The result is that the organisation runs very inefficiently, but few people realise that this is the case because they are focused on their bit. The drive for efficiency only compounds the problem faced by many organisations.

Salami slicing or prioritisation of spend via a lottery causes individuals to act in a territorial way to protect spend in their area. It’s human nature.

The true cost of the system is in the flow – how things actually move around the organisation, not in unit cost.

Only by studying the organisation as a system can you begin to understand where and how to act to improve service and reduce operating cost.