The costs of clipboards

Some local authorities spend almost a fifth of their care budget on the complex assessments and reviews required by law to ensure that elderly and disabled people receive the right support.

But other councils manage to do the same task for just over a third of the price, analysts at the Audit Commission said.

The Commission calculates that the taxpayer could save as much as £312 million a year if all councils were equally as “efficient” – enough to pay for home care for almost 20,000 older people.
But while some local authorities spend an average of more than £2,200 on each assessment, others manage it for £830 while still apparently maintaining standards.

Those councils which spend less tend to use less specialist staff to carry out basic assessments leaving highly paid social workers and experts to focus on the more complex work, the report found.

In some councils people carrying out the assessments cost the taxpayer an average of £96,000 each per year in pay and other benefits, almost twice the rate in others.

The first lesson of economics is that incentives matter. In a bureaucracy (as the Blessed C. Northcote pointed out) then incentive is to increase the number of staff reporting to you and to increase the pay of those more numerous staff reporting to you.

Bureaucracy is thus an undesirable, but alas sometimes wholly necessary, method of managing anything. The trick is to reduce the number of things run by clipboard wielding bureaucracy to the absolute minimum possible. And even then to introduce/include other forms of incentive if one possibly can. Like, for example, contracting out to market based providers if at all possible. Not necessarily do that you understand, but attempt to find some solution that overcomes the inherent problems of the incentives of bureaucracy at least.

One of the reasons we have shit and expensive public services is that we don\’t actually do this: as the Nordics do. Much of Scandinavia\’s fire and ambulance service is run by Falck AS, formerly a subsidiary of G4S. Purely on efficiency grounds: but can you imagine that ever actually happening here?

15 thoughts on “The costs of clipboards”

  1. It baffles me that “highly paid social workers and experts” allow themselves to be used for low-level form filling and assessments when they are surely much more interested in doing the more complex social work.

    Does no one stand up and say “I’m a senior qualified social worker with 25 years experience on £70k pa and it is a waste of time and money for me to spend 10 hours a week filling in forms with someone’s name, address and medical history.”

  2. Shinsei: In private, they do say that. But don’t forget, if 100 social workers do the job at the moment and 20 are pushing paper, what happens to those 20 if they admit they can be replaced by the less skilled?

  3. Form completion is a basic level skill. Get someone on minimum wage to complete a standardised form with additional pages for extra information that does not meet standardised form requirements. Get someone who knows how to decide based on the information in the form.
    Hey, thats just like what councils manage to do with some other stuff they deal with….

  4. When I first went to live in Australia, the locals couldn’t believe my tales of what British councils used their own employees for. “They employ the people who collect the rubbish? Why?”

  5. But that would mean a lot of people currently wielding clipboards and power trips would instead have to get a job changing Mabel’s incontinence pads, and that would not do.

  6. How many beds are there in each care home?
    If the average (pure guess) is 20, each (annual?) assessment costs £16,600 at a minimum. I think I could be persuaded to fill in a form for that price, though obviously I’d try to hold out for something closer to £44,000.
    How long would it take me. At a guess a couple of days (one to inspect, one to report). Hmm… £20K per day is a fair old consultancy rate.

  7. At the moment I’m trying to deal with one of these departments. The assisted living accommodation, might be suitable for my father, the ‘gateway’ is via social services assessment. Apparently, because it is a housing association.
    The experience is one of dealing with an organisation, where everything is set up for the benefit of itself. Try phoning & the council switchboard puts the caller through to an answerphone. That’s irrespective of the time/day called. There is, one is told, no number to called that will be answered. No answerphone message has so far elicited a response. Would they return an international call? No way of finding out. E-mail? Maybe. But their response time is certainly over two weeks.

    However, I have sweet talked an operator into actually connecting me to a live human via some sort of ’emergency’ route usually used by agencies. And reconnected to another one, with the help of a kind individual in a totally different department when, the first arrangement vanished without trace.

    And father has had his assessment. By a Russian (!?!?)

    Now I am confronted by an application form. An interactive online application form. I can’t get past page one because I don’t have the info to answer a question. No doubt, there’ll be other questions coming along, I’ll need information for. The guidance assesses the time expected to complete the form is 2 hours. But there’s no guide to what information’s required. Either on screen or downloadable. One help number routes to ananswerphone. Another to a person who doesn’t know anything about the subject.

    And this process costs how much?

  8. ‘Much of Scandinavia’s fire and ambulance service is run by Falck AS, formerly a subsidiary of G4S.’

    Which may be the exception that rather proves the rule. Falck seem to be an extremely unusual company, with a particular history. Scandinavian corporate governance is rather different from ours. Why did G4/Securicor divest them on merger?

    The issue is not so much whether organisations operating services are nominally public or private, but the nature and focus of those organisations.

  9. Maybe the ludicrously high costs of assessment are because public bodies try to be perfect, and we want them to be.
    Getting from 99% to 100% is hard, so costly.
    It’s also something that most people don’t do. Firms know they are dealing with imperfect information, individuals call heads or tails. Being wrong is something you expect from time to time.
    So never put bureaucrats in charge of anything that might have residual uncertainties, like, er, a country, social services, industry…

    Bloke in spain, I met our local town tattooist recently. Ukrainian bloke. Our local nubilim have délocalisé their arse cheeks.

  10. “It baffles me that “highly paid social workers and experts” allow themselves to be used for low-level form filling and assessments when they are surely much more interested in doing the more complex social work.”

    Pretty standard in the oil business, that. You have very expensive expatriate engineers with lots of technical expertise spending hours each work doing menial administrative tasks because the bureaucracy requires they do it. It’s a colossal failure of management, hidden by huge profits.

  11. Tim, I bet someone got rid of or refuses to entertain the idea of secretaties for the engineers on the grounds of costs….. 🙂

  12. Martin, it’s actually worse than that. There are whole departments of people employed to do this administrative work, but for some reason – and I’d be interested to hear if this happens in other industries – they write their own procedures to the effect that whomever needs their services must effectively do their job for them by gathering loads of information and completing the forms, which should normally be done by them.

    Here’s an example. In one oil company I worked at, there was a travel department of some 25 people, justified by the fact that there was a very high volume of business travel. However, before this department would book a flight, first the employee had to:

    1. Identify which flights he has to take
    2. Obtain three quotes from approved travel agents and attach them to the form
    3. Fill out in the form the details of the cheapest flight
    4. Obtain the cost centre number
    5. Obtain all necessary approvals/signatures for the journey
    6. Hand in the completed form to the travel department

    The travel department then merely tells the travel agency to go ahead and issue the ticket. The above steps take an engineer several days of running about and sending emails, whereas the travel department has an army of people who do little more than staple the form in the top corner and file it in a drawer. If anyone asked why the travel department is not doing all these tasks related to travel, they get told to look at the procedure, which says it is the engineer who is responsible for doing it. But who wrote and authorized the procedure? The head of the travel department!

    The above happens in pretty much all areas of support services in most oil companies: contracts, procurement, estimating, travel, etc. A few weeks ago I asked our estimator to give me a rough price for an engineering job we were thinking of doing, and he told me I had to provide him with a complete set of man hours per discipline and rates, and his job was merely to put them in a spreadsheet and add them up.

    Like I said, it’s a huge failure of management masked by enormous profits whilst the oil price is high.

  13. Tim N @13 and 11

    I suspect is is very similar in a lot of businesses, particularly large ones.

    In small law firms, there is someone whose title – “office manager”, “office boy”, “receptionist”, or, my favourite, “west clerk” – depends as much on on social status and sex as what they do. Their job is do do whatever the lawyers can’t/don’t want to/are too busy to do. The requisition process is to say “Steve/Sue can you please…” And Steve/Sue does it. The system is open to abuse, but works tolerably well (particularly if you are one of the more senior lawyers, and/or buy Steve/Sue beer/chocolates). In large firms, you have to fill out a form online for everything, and then fill out another one to say how satisfied you are.

    However, is part of the problem that a lot of us see ourselves as highly skilled people who should be doing Very Important Things, not wasting time on dull matters? Sometimes we’re right, but maybe not always (one either count).

  14. Hi Luke,

    I expect you might well be right in your final paragraph. But in my case, I first spotted this not when I found myself filling out forms, but when I found my very expensive engineers whom I managed were spending their time filling out forms. As I explained to my bosses at the time, we get these guys for 50 hours per week, we should use that time wisely.

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