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Margaret Hodge's book outlines 'mind boggling' UK public sector waste

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Headmaster

"Sadly for those who triumph hope over experience, there is little to suggest the situation has materially improved."

What the fuck has happened to the quality of English on this site?

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Anonymous Coward

don't you mean...

... where's the lesbian angle?

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Sheep shall safely graze

There's a lot of bleating but not enough blood in the paddock. Until the big rams get slaughtered for this sort of waste, they will keep growing big curling horns and trotting around admiring themselves.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sheep shall safely graze

It's very easy to blame civil servants and conjure up images of Sir Humphrey but:

1. The government is in charge at the end of the day. The shareholders in a large company wouldn't put up with the CEO blaming his staff all the time and neither should we let the government hide from their responsibilities.

2. In my experience the government doesn't want to hear that they'"re doing the wrong thing. What they want is for you to "dance to the latest tune", people who express doubts are pushed aside.

3. A lot of projects go wrong because the government doesn't think things through, poorly defines requirements and those it does define it changes.

4. A lot of work these days is done by private industry which have proven they are just as good at screwing up. Add poor requirements and requirement changes to that and... well you know what happens.

5. A lot of civil servants get crap pay (I doubled my pay when I left), crappy working conditions (chairs were often repaired with tape, we had to wear gloves in winter) and then get blamed by the government without the right of reply. It makes it hard to care, it really does.

Of course there are bad civil servants, just as there are bad employees in any organisation. I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government.... they just get hidden a lot better :-)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sheep shall safely graze

>I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government

Of course most of this money wasted by the public sector is being wasted In the private sector.

People get riled about the civil servants spending money that's not their own but let's reserve some ire for the people who are directly profiting.

Unless some theoretical moneyologist can persuade us it's all grist to the economic mill and we all benefit in the end whatever.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government

Maybe, but if a company screws up too many times it fails or gets taken over by someone more competent. If government departments screw up repeatedly the senior civil servants still get their knighthoods and stonking great pensions, and we pay more taxes.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

In my experience, government and public bodies find change very difficult to accept. They prefer to keep banging on doing something they already know how to do even if it's inefficient, rather than understand that their processes are wasting money and causing difficulties for those who have to use the services those public departments supposedly supply. Of course, some of that resistance is a realization that if savings can be made then those budgets will be cut and they'll lose the money that they're effectively using to feather their nests with.

I have to add that I've seen the same in the private sector, it's just that there anyone putting in too much resistance eventually loses their job.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

The ancient Athenians had a nice way of dealing with this kind of problem. All public officials were elected by the Assembly - the city was so small that all the citizens (no women, slaves, foreigners, etc.) could meet in a single place - usually for no more than one year. Definitely a good idea: any longer and they get their feet under the table and start conspiring.

But here was the really great twist: at the end of that year in office, the Assembly met again to consider how each official was to be rewarded. It might be a statue, a nice house, or just a vote of thanks. OR... it might be a fine, exile, or even the death penalty. At one stage in the Peloponnesian War, a whole series of Athenian generals simply stayed abroad when their term of office elapsed, for fear of what they would get if they went home.

Now start thinking of modern-day politicians and civil servants, and how they would fare under the Athenian system...

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

That behaviour is largely due to the sheer scale of things nowadays. Democracy, if seriously tried, can work on a scale of a few hundred or even a few thousand people. One hundred thousand... not so much. 50 million, forget it. As for 320 million, as in the USA... well, we've seen how that has gone.

What happens is that, the bigger the community to be ruled, the greater the power and wealth at the disposal of the rulers. In other words, the greater the temptation to ruthless, unscrupulous people. Moreover, the bigger the scale, the more complex the organization, and the more opportunities to cheat systematically. Hence the old saying that any organization is like a cesspool: the really big chunks float to the top. The bigger the cesspool, the bigger the chunks, which is why the USA and the EU have substantially bigger chunks than the UK (although ours are quite big enough to be going on with).

Moreover, the longer and tougher the road to leadership - the higher and greasier the pole to climb - the less likely it is that anyone who is in the least bit qualified to lead effectively (or even who has the slightest interest in doing so) will manage to finish the obstacle course and win election. So naturally we get what is observed: political leaders who spend most of their time hob-nobbing with the rich and powerful, soliciting "contributions", and doing favours on a "quid pro quo" basis. In what little time they have left they quaff spirituous beverages, consult their favourite astrologers, er, sorry, "think tank wonks", and attack defenceless countries to make themselves appear tough and give their citizens something to swagger about. Plato understood this, and explained it in "The Republic". Gore Vidal made the same point in his usual pithy way: "Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so".

The whole political establishment is bankrupt. It's been a very long time since anybody designed a democratic system that was actually intended to work - the Swiss did a good job of it (surprise, surprise) a few centuries ago, and it's still working for them. In other countries, monarchies based on brute force were gradually diluted to avoid revolution, slowly adopting a few "democratic" features as protective coloration. The central focus of all those systems - whether in the USA, the UK, France or elsewhere - has always been to avoid any actual democracy like the plague. Just as long as the punters keep quiet and knuckle under...

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

Margaret Hodge has missed the point in concentrating on the tax-payer getting value for money when what is really going on is a money laundering operation.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze - But here was the really great twist

Yes, they brilliantly had a kneejerk execution of their admirals and then realised they had nobody to run the Navy, as pointed out to them by Aristophanes (Arginusae, 406BCE). A year is often not nearly long enough to decide if a public official is a success or a failure, so such a system encourages extremely cautious conformism. Athenian democracy didn't really last very long.

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Unhappy

Re: Sheep shall safely graze

Maybe, but if a company screws up too many times it gets more Government procurement contacts.

FTFY...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sheep shall safely graze

Not sure what part of civil service you where in or when but in my day (2000 - 2008) we had great equipment, latest desks and chairs because health and safety, latest servers, switches firewalls, desktops, laptops etc. Training sucked though. Long timers retired after securing their final salary pension and then came back a few weeks later earning private sector pay with public sector benefits. There was a mad push to farm out services like facilities, security, IT, for no better reason than to have it on someone's civil service cv that they outsourced something, regardless of the cost or impact to the organisation.

No one cared about the cost of anything. Staff where always looking at ways of maximising their pay for minimum work. Working weekends but not doing any work. Turning up early mon - thu so they can have Friday off, clocking their mates in and out etc.

Private companies are there to maximise earnings while the civil service are blind to costs, and have outsourced so much they have no clue on the true cost of anything. When HP[E] says a desk visit to patch a cable costs £100, whoever civil servent manages the contract has no clue & just pays it (yes it may cost £100 if the tech has to travel x miles to do that job, but the previous onsite tech would have just done it).

There is a huge culture of someone else will do it without knowing the cost which the outsourcers play to their benefit.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

1. CEO's blame everything and everyone all the time then get their mates on the remuneration committee to give them a big rise and bonus while denying the staffs.

2. Again not unique to government it happens in both public and private organisations.

3. Ministers don't write detailed specs for outsourcing that's civil servants, ministers might interfere (got to look after that future income) but it's the service that do the leg work filling in the detail or as mostly happens completely missing the detail so that any little thing can be charged as an expensive extra.

4. Unfortunately yes we do

5. Anytime I've worked directly for government (Whitehall and local) furniture has all been good and the hourly rate for the work I saw getting done was OK, most places I saw people spend 2/3 of the time moaning they had to much work which then only took the other 1/3 to do. Not saying it was the majority of people but it was enough that it was noticeable and with no one managing the situation.

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Re: Sheep shall safely graze

"while the civil service are blind to costs, and have outsourced so much they have no clue on the true cost of anything. "

Yeah, they're lies, they are...

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It's a common theme.

My other half worked for the Police a few years ago. Her job was to monitor projects (mainly several to get all the dozens of 'Police systems' across the country to join up) and have progress meetings with the Project Managers.

When she started all the Project Managers were puzzled and looking up from their crossword puzzles all said words to the effect of "Why are you doing this? It's a Govt project, we just tell Whitehall what they want to hear when the project finishes! It's only taxpayers money after all!"

She only stayed a few weeks.

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Re: It's a common theme.

ISTR under the team before they got rid of anyone in the civil service who knew what they were doing if they could. I worked for a council a few years ago and the only people in the IT dept who knew what they were doing were still there from many years earlier but sensibly refused to divulge their job to the contractors and as such couldn't be got rid of easily.

It had the smallest most cost effective IT dept for a council of its size by nearly an order of magnitude.

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what changed?

Presumably it was a center of excellence in management best practice for the 15 odd years when her lot ran things?

How did it become so institutionally wrong so quickly under her opponents? I thought the civil service wasn't agile?

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Re: what changed?

Presumably this is "our team vs their team" type politics. This thinking is what lets politicians of all persuasions off the hook. However bad they are they just point to someone else and say well 'they would have been worse' and some people believe them.

I think the article itself points out the same play from all the players. The upshot as far as I can tell is that politicians should not be involved in project that are likely to last longer than one parliament, probably none shorter either.

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Re: what changed?

"Politicians should not be involved in projects. "

FTFY

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Anonymous Coward

Re: what changed?

No, it was just as shit when her lot were running things. To be fair to Mrs Hodge, many of the things she highlights as being particularly egregious were attributable to Labour, and even so she doesn't pull her punches. The real difference is that before the ascendence of the PAC over the last few years it was easier to brush this sort of incompetence and/or corruption under the carpet.

The PAC has become more newsworthy over the years she has been in charge of it, and has uncovered a lot of things that the civil service would probably rather not be out in the open. All good stuff, though how much of this was down to Mrs Hodge's leadership and how much is down to the changing rules of government transparency and improved access to proceedings for the media (televised sessions etc.) remains an open question.

One can only hope it carries on in the same fashion - the cynic in me thinks that anything which embarrasses senior civil servants and politicians alike is likely to be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.

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Re: what changed?

the cynic in me thinks that anything which embarrasses senior civil servants and politicians alike is likely to be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.

I think that should be senior civil servants and politicians alike should be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.

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Re: what changed?

"I think that should be senior civil servants and politicians alike should be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of."

I think the word you're looking for is "revolution".

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Re: what changed?

"I think that should be senior civil servants and politicians alike should be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of."

I think the word you're looking for is "revolution".

The main problem with revolutions, aside from all the collateral damage, is that they are invariably, err, revolutions. Things just revolve until they're back in the previous formations.

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Phew! So many things to change

And nobody willing or able to change them.

Is the civil service still based on advancement according to who you know + longevity?

If it is what chance, between ignorant, axe grinding politicians and contemptible civil servants does the tax payer have?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Phew! So many things to change

"Is the civil service still based on advancement according to who you know + longevity?" well that's how things work in most big companies so why would you expect it to be different here?

I'd say the biggest change I've seen is at the top. Nowadays you need to sing from the same sheet as the governments current thinking if you want to advance. It's a difficult balancing act as they change their minds every five minutes so you need to be up-to-date with their latest ideas but it mustn't seem too obvious that that's what you're doing.

That sort of filters down to the lower ranks too.

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Headmaster

Re: Phew! So many things to change

"How Corporate Bad Behaviour and Government Wast Combine to Cost us Millions"

I might add ignorant, illiterate politicians who need to learn how to spell as well ..

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Re: Phew! So many things to change

You're attributing that to the politician and you call her ignorant! Fail...

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Parkinson's Law

was written some 60 years ago, but the problems he described persist

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Anonymous Coward

It'll get worse after Brexit...

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All old stories

'Old stories' but not meant in a bad way. It's generally the case that books 'whisle blow' and 'blow the doors off' to sell copy but in this case Marge was forthright at the time an disliked for it. All she's done is collated all the crap she was trying to wade for through all of those years.

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They do care

That they don't get caught making a decision and that there is a clearly identifiable chain of blame that they are not in.

My general experience of working on government IT projects is that the Civil Service does care about the waste of money, and do want value for money. They are not however prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and risk taking the blame when things go wrong, so everything has plenty of wiggle room, which leads to cost, cost, cost, and unless as a supplier you are really stupid, profit, profit, profit.

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Anonymous Coward

Taxpayer Boycott

To be fair to Margaret Hodge, she does seem to be laying some blame on her lot too for some of the massively misconceived projects and monumental waste incurred under new labour as well the current lot ......

A business would just stop paying .. us taxpayers should boycott paying the government til they stop wasting our money .. that would force a boot up some arses. That and how about clawing back civil servants' wages; if you are responsible for wasting hundreds of millions of tax payers' money you should have all your salary clawed back down to the level paid out on universal credit. That would focus a few minds or stop people greenlighting in the first place.

Flip side is if NAO shows they have genuinely saved money through IT they should get an override on the money saved ...

Oh, will someone just take Jeremy Hunt out an euthanase him (politically) now...

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Re: Taxpayer Boycott

"Oh, will someone just take Jeremy Hunt out an euthanase him (politically) now..."

I presume that's why he's still in post : he needs to dig a bigger hole before he can be comprehensively buried.

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Anonymous Coward

Yes Minister.

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Anonymous Coward

Won't change until...

They implement the opposite if a bonus system that removes money from the pockets of failing project managers and up the line as far as ministers.

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Re: Won't change until...

The better way would be to fire the top civil servant of the relevant department, revoke their gold plated pension and make sure they are nor employed in any form of government job ever again.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Won't change until...

That would only lead to better arse-covering not better administration.

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Re: Won't change until...

Not at all. Everyone can see the IT fail therefore the the top bod in, for example the health department for NHS IT cock-ups, gets marching orders and no pension. No arguments, they are gone. Next cock-up, the same thing with the new head bod.

Kept up long enough, they might get the message.

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Re: Won't change until...

Give contract to small startup to do it cheaply on web - any problems = you're fired.

Give contract to Crapita/EDS/etc but tell them to add a couple of Bn contingency - comes in under budget = promotion, and a seat on the board when you retire.

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Re: Won't change until...

If only it DID then come in under budget.

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Pirate

Stand and deliver

> Her prescription is a heavy dose of transparency, accountability and training.

> “The civil service continues to lack the appropriate skills and expertise required for modern government.” Commercial and IT expertise are particularly wanting as there are “simply not enough civil servants with those skills.”

The only way the Civil Service is going to acquire the skills and expertise required to deliver such projects successfully is to pay going rates for those skills. The words "false economy" spring to mind.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Stand and deliver

Most government departments have outsourced their IT delivery, so they're not going to acquire IT skills, ever. The best they can hope for is to gain staff with decent project management skills who can avoid being taken for a ride by the outsourcing companies. But they don't pay the going rate, so that won't happen.

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Re: Stand and deliver

Quite. So many civil servants have been sacked over the years, as politicians of whatever flavour have stood up in Parliament and acted hard about slashing government waste, that there are few people left who know enough to see through the torrent of bullshit generated by the companies bidding for projects. Ministers picked the easy target of the recurring payroll cost and assumed that cutting the numbers would result in long-term savings (because, after all, we all think that civil servants are lazy, overpaid and a waste of space, don't we?). It was a false economy and we're still paying the price of their ignorance and arrogance.

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Bonus scheme

From the outside looking in the major problems for government IT seem to be -

Mission creep

Change of management due to election

Stupidly wide project scope

Arse covering due to previous points

Why not put everyone in the department onto a bonus scheme that depends on fixed project trargets, fixed budgets and fixed go-live dates? Pull together as a team, stop adding more caveats and deliver it on time. Oh, and still be there 12 months after go-live to collect.

Or am I moving too far towards the Lenin school of project management via a 5 year plan / gun to the head?

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Headmaster

I admire this lady's commitment!

"Called to Account: How Corporate Bad Behaviour and Government Wast Combine to Cost us Millions."

Government Wast? She even economizes on vowels!

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More bad English - or is it just bad logic?

'Unfortunately Hodge is no less optimistic about a number of "in-flight" projects'.

Shurely "no more optimistic" or "no less pessimistic"? - Ed

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Well well well...

There is a lovely book about government projects gone wrong over the last 6 or 7 decades, projects that had lofty goals and that were politically hijacked or went off the rails because people spotted loopholes and effectively abused them to the point where the government had to pull the plug.

It's called "The Blunders of our Governments" (Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00EZ5YXQ8/ - starts a new page). It is most enlightening reading, and political persuasion is irrelevant. It pretty much echoes some of my experiences in government (particularly DEFRA).

Nice to see La Hodge not pulling punches over her own party...

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Re: Well well well...

Another lovely book:

Peter Helling, Bernhard Spengler, Thomas Springer: "Fehler richtig geplant - Ein Ratgeber für den kreativen Fehlplaner", Vbt Verlag Bau und Technik, 1987, ISBN 3-7640-0232-8.

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T'was ever thus

What's that rant about poor morale, lack of leadership, changing targets etc. that sounds like a modern tale but turns out to be some Roman centurion ?

(most) Management has always been shit, and political management far, far worse.

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