Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Cutting back the layers in the Department for Education

The good old BBC has reported today that the Department for Education is to cut 1000 jobs in an effort to cut its administrative expenditure by a whopping £290m. No doubt there will be screams of anguish from all the usual suspects about how this tallies with the GCSE grade fiasco a couple of months ago, or all those new primary school Academies. But they would be missing the point spectacularly.

These cuts are in 'adminstration', and follow on from a review that was kicked off in June this year. According to the BBC the review found that decision-making was often "slow and laborious", with "unclear roles and processes" and that new ways of working were needed that would remove "the barriers which sap energy and prevent people being as effective as they can be so that less time is wasted on activities which add little value".

This fascinated me. Back in the mid 1990s in a brief interlude between consultancy jobs I spent two years managing the running costs of the old Department for Education. Back then we spent about £90 million on adminstrative costs. Now the £290 million mentioned above represents about half the total adminstrative costs for the department and its agencies. As I recall in the 90s we spent another 4 or 5 million on them. So let's be generous and say that it cost £100m just under 20 years ago as opposed to £580m or so now.

Of course, there has been a bit of inflation since then. So let's apply that to our £100m. I used the This is Money calculator and ended up with a figure of £156m. So where did the extra £400m or so come from?

I think the clue might be in some of the report words quoted above: slow, laborious, energy-sapping. None of those are adjectives I would have associated with the Department when I was there. Sure, there were inefficiencies: I recall cutting back my own team by 25% by the simple expedient of using a computer for our spreadsheets! But on the policy side, we ran a sleek ship, something that the report clearly doesn't think is happening any more.

What went wrong? Well, first there was the merger with the bloated old Employment Department, then all the splitting up and re-engineering that came about when the department was recast as the Department for Children, Schools and Families. And finally the repositioning back as the good old Education department again. My guess is that all this change has added layers after layers and the only solution is a totally Augean Stables type clean out.

So, good luck to the people behind all this. A 50% cut sounds perfectly doable to me. In fact you might want to try for a bit more. And as to those naysayers, I have one question for you: Wouldn't you rather that £290m was spent on the kids rather than a bunch of nameless officials?

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