Archive for the 'Public Services' Category

Proceeds of privatisation

I was a little surprised to hear talk of privatisation on the Today programme this morning. With the iconic sales of British Airways and the utilities well in the past, it’s easy to forget that there are still many public corporations and that long after the downfall of Mrs Thatcher, and throughout the Blair years the government has continued to privatise state owned enterprises. Only last week it was finally announced that the government would go ahead with a trade sale of the Tote.

I don’t disagree with privatising companies that no longer need to be owned by the state. It’s good for both the state (the realisation of capital tied up in the public corporation which can be put to better use) and the company (the opportunity to flourish without the constraints of public ownership). Nevertheless, I was a little disturbed to hear that there are concerns in the Treasury regarding a shortfall of funds as a result of privatisatons being cancelled/postponed due to market conditions. Source: Brake put on £6bn UK sell-offs [FT.com].

Why on earth is the Treasury dependent on income from privatisation? I can see some ideologues might argue that the nature of the state is that over time it will expand and incorporate unnecessary components; and so a concerted effort towards continual privatisation is needed to keep it in check. There may be something in that but even so, we should not see privatisation as a reliable source of future income. Surely the income from the sale of state assets should be saved as a fund for the future, not on annual expenditure. This is no worse than Nigel Lawson’s use of privatisation proceeds to fund tax cuts.

I’m sure the government would argue that they are spending the money on schools, hospitals, etc. and so are investing for the future. I consider that sloppy accounting. The cost of putting aside a little every year to fund future renovations should always be included in the education, health, etc. budgets. Otherwise we’ll always end up in a position where after 20 or 30 years we find buildings crumbling apart and in need of repair. Proceeds from one-offs such as privatisation should be additional to these basic requirements.

Resigning is not taking responsibility

Perhaps it’s because I’m an engineer. Whatever the reason I’ve never quite understood the popular media mantra that somehow equates "resignation" after a cock up as "taking responsibility". To my mind taking responsibility for a problem is to deal with it, not walk away.

I was somewhat incensed, therefore, to read Sue Cameron write in yesterday’s FT about how the Chairman of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) should be lauded for resigning over the child benefit data loss scandal and is something of an example over Sir Iain Blair, London’s beleaguered police chief who stubbornly refuses to resign over the killing of Jean-Charles de Menezes. Personally my inclination is always towards the determined fighter over the quitter.

I’m not completely against politicians and senior civil servants resigning. Estelle Morris famously felt she wasn’t capable of doing her job as Education Secretary. Fair enough: get out of the way. But resigning/sacking after a scandal should really be if the person was directly responsible, culpable or negligent in some way.

For example, if your trusted engineers tell you that the space shuttle will explode because the O-rings won’t function properly after freezing over night and you don’t listen to them you deserve to be fired. If your security controller comes to you and alerts you to a shortcoming in your security procedures and you twiddle your thumbs then again it’s your fault.

If a junior member of staff ignored procedures and, in doing so, caused a cock-up I’m not really sure that it’s the fault of anyone senior. Now, you could say the procedures were lacking. Maybe. In the real world you can’t procedurise the minutiae of every little sub-task an individual does: the civil service is already suffocated by too much bureaucracy. The weak point in any security system is always going to be human error. You can manage that risk (security vetting, training, monitoring, etc.) but you can never fully eliminate it. Even with the best will in the world there will be cock ups. The goal can only be to minimise the chances of them happening and to minimise the impact when they do happen. If you have put in place all reasonable procedures based on what you know at the time, then I don’t think much more can be asked of you.

Would it be too narrow-minded of me to write that journalists and politicians, often with no experience of doing a "real job", no experience of management and a very academic education with no practical grounding call so easily for resignations simply because they don’t know what it is to take responsibility?

This isn’t just a public sector cancer either. I remember very vividly a discussion on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago about how British universities are trying to emulate the entrepreneurial success of Silicon Valley. An American commentator’s views were incisive. He argued that the major difference was one of culture: in California if you screw up, that’s okay, people realise you will learn from your mistakes and do a better job next time round; in Britain if you screw up you are derided for even trying in the first place.

Update:  Since I originally drafted this article it appears some correspondence has been published showing that, despite what the Chancellor reported to Parliament, senior HMRC managers were involved in authorising the insecure data transfer. There’s probably much more to this yet to come out. Nevertheless my general point about responsibility and resignation stands.

DLR ticket refunds

I just found a web page to apply for DLR ticket refunds (Oyster only) in the case of unscheduled delays lasting longer than 15 mins. As with the Tube refunds page it’s not easy to find.

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Delayed on the Tube? Get a refund

The Citzen’s Charter initiative was probably one of the best ideas pursued by John Major’s government in the 1990s. Success is debatable but the basic principles are still very relevant today – that public services should provide value for money and be accountable, for a recognised service level agreement, to their customers.

One of the legacies of the Citizen’s Charter project is the number of public bodies that still operate compensation policies under their “Customer Charters”. The one that I have most call upon using is that for London Underground.

London Underground (but curiously not the rest of Transport for London) provide a full single fare refund if your tube journey is delayed by 15 mins. This applies regardless of the ticket type (single / return / travelcard / Oyster, etc.) Of course, much of the time you would rather get to your destination on time. Nevertheless I think it is always important to press for the compensation that you are entitled too because these numbers add up and pressure manages to improve service quality. Also, sometimes (especially if you are a student) you might actually prefer a slightly delayed, but free, journey – particularly if you are used to allowing extra time to cope with the nuances of the Northern Line!

Perhaps understandably, the application form for Customer Charter refunds is a little difficult to find on TfL’s web site. Hence my reason for blogging about it as an excuse for posting the link.