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Sir Philip Green: Great Report – Wrong Conclusion

We don’t need a Ministry of Paper-Clips, Open Data is the Answer.

Sir Philip Green’s report on government spending  is now online.  Unlike most Government reports it’s a succinct thirty page slide deck in big print that can be read in five minutes.   If that’s too much then I’ll give you the gist:  he finds the government wastes money then concludes we must centralise buying.

I’ve no issue at all with his findings.  The examples he cites confirm everything we already suspected about wasteful and lazy Government procurement.  Some of the examples are jaw-dropping.  I’ve also no issue with his central theme that the Government has failed miserably to take advantage of its scale or credit rating.  On that he’s right.  He  obviously knows a trick or two about keeping hold of money so I feel a bit cheeky calling him out here –  but  I have to:  The findings might be good, the theme sound, but his conclusion is wrong.

It is nuts to propose that a problem of poor or lazy administration will be solved by more bureaucracy.   The Coalition Government is rightly extolling the virtues of localism at the core of its agenda.  There is an obvious intellectual contradiction between pushing localism and enforcing centralised procurement.  The last thing we need to do now is set up yet another Government Agency that would literally be the ‘Ministry for Paper-Clips’.  No matter how well intentioned it would fail.   I’ve spent long enough working with big business watching the pendulum swing back and forth from localised  business models to centralised models to know that the prize of lower procurement costs will come at the expense of agility and innovation.  It is in this agility and innovation that the very biggest prizes lie.

The diversity of Government activity is not comparable with running a chain of identical Top Shops.  If the proposal goes ahead you can imagine the scenario – a nimble cost-cutting  government department identifies a new way to deliver a service at a fraction of the cost of the existing way.  The project to implement it will need new kit.  Being new stuff, the central agency doesn’t have it on its catalogue – cue a tedious process to get into the approved kit list, another process to approve possible vendors, another process to then raise the purchase orders.  All these no doubt delayed because the new ministry is dealing with back-logs from every department and school and council and prison in the country for their regular stuff.  At the same time you would also be crushing the ability of SMEs to tender for government business as there is no way they would have the scale to operate at a whole government level rather than at a smaller niche.  Hurting that part of the British economy is not something we should be engineering.  Instead, we’re supposed to be marching into a brave new post-bureaucratic age and Green’s proposal runs counter to that end.

No, the answer to all the issues that Green has identified can be solved by removing the veil of bureaucracy  and accelerating proposals for complete transparency of  Government data on-line.   Every single contract and purchase order for more than £500 should be there for everyone to see.   It is our tax money so the spend data is our data.  Arguments by vendors about contract  ‘commercial sensitivity’ are a sham ,they don’t want it exposed they are ripping us off.  The public has a right to see that vendors are not charging the government more than they charge in the high street.  Overnight, by publishing all this data you would free-up departmental procurement officers to see what is the going-rate or a fair price.  More importantly you would allow commercial competitors to see the price they need to compete with. This more than anything  would continually drive prices downwards.  Rather than a procurement officer going to a vendor and saying “I need 10,000 of x what is our agreed price?”  You would have vendors ringing procurement officers and saying “I see you bought 10,000 x and paid y – in future I can do it z cheaper”.   You would stop at once the procurement officer who buys the slightly more expensive stuff because he gets more air miles or because the vendor sent him on a nice day-at-the-races during the bid.  The armchair auditors (or the press) would not allow it.  Transparency is to everyone’s advantage.  It will retain our localism agenda and leave space for agility and innovation in departments.  It will also mean we don’t need to waste time or money setting up a Ministry of Paper Clips.

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Labour’s Bonkers Shadow Cabinet Selection

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  I suppose that line could be New Labour’s epitaph.  However, it’s still alive and well in the party’s internal democracy.  As with the leadership election rules, the system for selecting their Shadow Cabinet is well-meaning and intended to be democratic.  That is a laudable ambition.  It is certainly something the Conservative Party hasn’t cracked.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with Jack Straw that Labour’s means to this ends, when you take a step back, is frankly ‘barking mad‘.

Poor Ed.  He can’t pick his own team.  Instead he has to go through the next two years surrounded by a Shadow Cabinet put in place thanks to nods, winks and pushes from politicking Unions helping advise their members on where to put their 1s, 2s and 3s.   Straw is convinced the quality of the opposition benches are hurt, he says:

“And what it means is that of the 18 or 19 people in shadow cabinet, probably a dozen [are] capable of being in the Cabinet, half a dozen are not[..]”

So Ed is going into battle with a couple of even dudder duds in his armoury.

The other huge issue for Ed is that when you look at the top ten in the list as finally elected – not a single one of them backed Ed as first preference.  Think about that.  Not one of the top ten members of his team thought he was the best man for leader.

He has his work cut out and starts handicapped by his own party rules.   We should let him get on with it.  As Napoleon used to nearly say “Never interrupt your enemy when he is doing a good job of defeating himself”.

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Reflections of a Delegate – Conservative Conference Day 1

The 2010 Conference was always going to be a tough one to pitch. Jubilation at being a party of Government rather than opposition was always going to be balanced by disappointment that we didn’t win outright and the sobering reality of the difficult choices ahead. Although the biggest Tory conference ever (apparently 13,000 registered delegates) – it actually doesn’t feel that busy. If anything before kick-off things felt quite muted.

The conference started by revisiting the theme of the ‘Big Society’. This was a bit of a risk. As we found on the campaign the issue with the ‘Big Society’ idea is that whilst people intuitively support the sentiment, they have difficulty in articulating what it means in practice. As an election slogan it fell a bit flat. Without the urgency of the election it is now worth another stab at getting the message over to the voters – the reality is that the philosophy that underpins it is at the core of Cameron’s thinking and guides every aspect of our policy agenda.

The first Fringe event I attended was promoted by the TRG and explored real examples of the ‘Big Society’ in action. Later the main conference began with another hotch-potch montage of the kind of people and action that the phrase is intended to embrace. We need to do more of this. My hope is that the comprehension gap will be made easier over the next year or two as the enabling legislation is implemented and the pool of ‘real’ examples increases.

The set-piece speech of the introductory session fell to Baraness Warsi. I’d briefly chatted to her the night before and she was a wee bit nervous about being first up. It was a good speech throughout – she spoke with humility about the day she was called into the Cabinet – and with honesty and humour about her first perception of having been offered what she described as “a non-job”(minister without Portfolio) and a “Job Share” (Co-Chairman). It shows good self-awareness that she tackled this directly as I’ve heard her critics chuck those exact descriptions of her role at her. But she hit her  real stride and carried the hall when she reached the passage reflecting on Labour – I can’t paraphrase it any better so will just quote direct:

“They say we want to make spending cuts. They say we are letting down the poor. But it was them who left us with this mess. So let me say something to the Labour Party.
We left you a thriving, buoyant economy in 1997… and you brought Britain back to the brink of bankruptcy.
You hammered the working classes by scrapping the 10p tax band. You left an economy where people who are black or brown are twice as likely to be unemployed. And you let down the regions by creating an economy where for every ten private sector jobs created in the South, just one was created in the North and the Midlands.
So Mr. Miliband, Don’t you dare say you are a friend of the working classes. Don’t you dare say you’re a friend of minorities. Don’t you dare say you’re the friend of people in the north. Because I am all of those things and you are no friend of mine!”

Great Stuff.

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Ed Miliband and the Battle for the Centre Ground

British Politics is a curious thing.  Elections are won in the UK by convincing people who describe themselves as ‘of-the-centre’ to vote for you.  You don’t get committed right or left wingers as swing-voters.   The hardcore left will vote Labour.  The committed right will vote Tory.  At the extreme end of either party you may get some lefties who lose faith and run off to nutty Marxist outfits or righties sulking off to UKIP but the numbers lost at these fringes are nothing compared to the numbers to be won in the middle.

The problem both parties face is that their grassroot activists, by definition and nature, do not generally tend to sit in the centre.   They naturally wish to drag their party toward the relevant pole.  The challenge for an aspiring leader of either of the main British Parties (yup, I only count the two) is to –

  • a) Convince your party that you have the left/right credentials to protect and maintain the party’s core political compass
  • b) Convince the public that they needn’t fear the ‘common wisdom’ version of the downsides of a lurch to the left or right, i.e. fear crippling ‘Tax and Spend’ misery associated with a big left swing, or fear the brutality of an un-regulated free market leading to orphans-cleaning-chimneys-for-tuppence with an unchecked lurch to the right.

Blair was the master of this and that is why he won three elections despite Iraq.  Cameron got it.  Brown didn’t.  And that’s why we now have a blue PM. It’s a heck of a juggling act.  As I say in my philosophy page – although the battle for the centre ground usually gets characterised as one of competence over political difference there is real substance between how centre-right and a centre-left perspectives manifest themselves in actual policies.  Our Current coalition is proving that a Centre-Right government can still be very radical in approach – thank goodness they just about won over the centre this time around.

Back to Ed Miliband.  He’s won the Labour leadership.  Congratulations.  He’s cracked part (a) of the equation and convinced the party (I’ll put aside for now the dodgy way they do leadership elections).  The challenge for him now is cracking part (b) and carrying the public.

My guarded instinct at the moment is that he will not be able to.  As an active Conservative obviously I find that a good thing.  I watched his speech on the news last night and nothing about his body-language and delivery gave me any sense that he has the gravitas or charisma to project himself as a credible leader to those swing-voters.  He looked like a rabbit in headlights.  His awkward gawky/geeky style screams policy wonk rather than leader.

That said, the reason I’m guarded is that if Labour are patient then there is plenty of time for him to grow into the role.   Cameron definitely enjoyed the extra few years to shift the lightweight tag after Brown bottled it in 2008.  Ed M. has similar time.  He also has the big benefit of being in opposition during a very rough economic period.  One thing he has over his brother is that he is not personally as tainted with the causes of these tough times – nobody in the public will have clocked him personally as a Labour ‘Top-Tabler’ during the last Government – and perception is more important than reality.  He can and will feign distance and a ‘new start’.

It will be an interesting few months as he tries to define himself to the electorate.  This is all about part B) in the equation.   For all the reasons above I suspect the Ed Miliband that emerges in this phase will be very different to the one that has just defined himself to the party.  He’s started with his interview in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  Will the Union backers who gifted him the leadership allow him to play this game?  I doubt it.  But that’s the juggling act he now has to try and master- pander to the party and risk loosing the public, or pander to the public and risk loosing the party.  Who’d be a leader!

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Conservative Party Chairmen’s Briefing to West Midlands Associations

About 70 Conservative party members – mainly of a mixture of Association execs, PPCs and the like – yesterday attended the West Midlands ‘Meet the Chairmen Briefing’  with Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldmen at the Richo Arena in Coventry.   I wouldn’t wish to betray any confidences (if there were any) so will just summarise the key points that landed with me for those who may have been unable to attend.

It was a relaxed ‘cosy sofa’ arrangement and started with them each doing a ten minute turn explaining their division of labour and current priorities.  Warsi made the point that her luxury over other Cabinet members is that everyone else is slightly constrained by the nature of Coalition but in her role at least she can be fully ‘blue’ in everything she does.  Her part of the job is the ‘political side’.  Feldman started by acknowledging he was still newish to the Party; “I was mates with Dave at Uni, he asked me to help out with fundraising during his leadership campaign, and it has just sort of grown from there”.  His role is “the back office stuff of the professional party”.  He gave a confident and refreshingly frank account of the drivers for the recent reshuffle of CCHQ and reassurance that party finances are sound.

The meat of the event was the Q&A session:

  • There was a question to the likelihood of the Coalition going the distance – there was some nervousness in the room about Lib Dem stability and Party readiness if things go wrong.  Warsi was robust that we’ve signed up for five years and we’re going to do five years.  Things can and do change in Politics but there is every expectation that we will go the distance.  Party plans, whilst still flexible to sudden change, assume we will.  There are a stream of near term milestones ahead of the next General Election (local elections, referendum etc.) and, to paraphrase slightly, locally we shouldn’t let hypothetical events distract our focus from the visible and certain horizon.
  • There was a discussion about Membership.  For this newish member it was refreshing to hear the Chairmen both acknowledge that joining the Conservatives can be a variable experience depending on local Association.  I have described my feeling of trying to get involved as less like pushing on an open door, more having to shoulder-barge it.  Yet when I changed associations I could hardly have been made more welcome.  They understand this variance is a real problem and are looking at it.  Overall membership numbers remains OK but the average age of members is higher than we would like which is something else they wish to address.  Warsi was clearly frustrated at reports that a small number of local associations were still showing quite an exclusive mindset – she summed this up:  “The Conservative Party is a political party.  It is not a dining club.”  The subtext to the answer was that the Parliamentary Party and the Professional Party have made huge strides in looking and feeling like modern Britain in their make-up without any compromise to core values but some local associations within the voluntary party have not kept up.   This got Warsi onto the topic of diversity and after stating her long-standing rejection of quotas or gender/ethnic shortlists she launched into a familiar but always enjoyable rant about taking no hypocritical lessons from Labour about party diversity when at a time their leadership contest is realistically a battle between white Oxford grads she as a Muslim woman from a city and this ‘Jewish business chap’ sit together at the top table of our Party on their merits.
  • There is a full review of the way candidates are appointed underway.  The A-List has gone.  Open primaries, whilst attractive, are prohibitively expensive and a device best reserved for very specific circumstances. Whilst it is clear there is advantage in getting candidates in early, we have time to get the new process right as there is no point in beginning selections until the boundary changes have been announced in two years time.  It is likely that the candidates list (which will also be reviewed) will be re-opened ahead of those next selections.  The principal of local associations picking their candidates is one Warsi supports, and Feldman sees as a real hook for getting new people to join the party.
  • We can and will get more from our investment in the Merlin system at the next election.

The event hit the right note.  It felt like genuine two-way engagement with the grass-roots.  They will have walked away having heard some genuine frustrations about candidate selections whilst the Associations will have walked away with some real food for thought about how to make new members welcome and get them involved.  I was encouraged by everything I heard.  I take heart they remain committed to continue making the Conservative Party more attractive to that large part of a generation who grew up believing it was anything but.  This absolutely can be achieved without any sacrifice to core principals.  Only if we continue to crack that one we will have a chance to push-on for a full majority in 2015.

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NHS Direct: A Public Service Cut or Public Service Improvement?

It was with a little sadness that I noted the announcement of the closure of NHS Direct.  It was a service I used myself twice. Once they saved me a trip to the doctor and left me reassured. Once they advised that I see a doctor, at least leaving me guilt-free when I then booked an appointment that I would not be wasting the doctor’s finite time (a guilt that would never enter the heads of the huge swathe of our population who book appointments every time they have the smallest sniffle).  There was some genuinely innovative use of technology in both call-centres and the use of the internet by NHS Direct at the time it was launched and it was something we could be very proud of in the UK.  Sadly, over its lifespan the organisation didn’t quite keep up with the pace of technological development although its budget certainly kept up Government largesse.  Nevertheless, the concept was something I would remain keen to advance and champion.  A couple of months ago I was even, very briefly, in the running to be a Non-Exec Director of the organisation. It was a service I would wish well and a service I genuinely regretted first hearing was going.

Predictably (and as we shall see hypocritically) Labour have gone into full mock-rage at this cut.  The principal cheer-leaders are Two-Jags who has started a petition to ‘Save NHS Direct’ and leadership pretender Andy Burnham who claims it proof absolute that the Coalition (he really means the Tories) are hell-bent on dismantling the entire NHS.  Out there (here?) in the Blogosphere the parroting of this outrage by the red faithful fills many identikit rants.  For a flavour of the hyperbole in them take a look at this typical example from ‘Jay’s Political Blog’.  The common objections in all the Labour attacks boil down to two substantive accusations:

  • A)      The ‘111’ service that will replace NHS Direct will not be manned by medical professionals.  This will ‘inevitably’ lead to a poorer service.  The sound-bite attack is “Would you wish to be diagnosed by someone with no medical training?”.
  • B)      The Tories said ‘NHS Funding was ring-fenced’, this is a cut to the NHS, thus the Tories are evil liars.

Both charges need unpicking.  The attack by Labour on the 111 Service, particularly by Burnham, is so bizarre as to be perverse.  The 111 service was a project that was originally initiated by Burnham himself when he was Health Secretary. Labour, whilst in Government, were rightly troubled by the cost of NHS Direct.  In fact – they’d been caught a bit on the fly – in September 2008 they thought the average cost per call was £15.35 (source: Hansard).  The Lib Dems smelt characteristic dodgy Labour accounting and demanded more detail and asked the question again. A month later an embarrassed Labour Government revised its figures and accepted that it was actually costing the taxpayer £25.53 per call (Source: Hansard).  The troubling thing here is that at this point a call to NHS direct was actually costing more than seeing a GP.

Trying to figure out scope for lowering this cost you see that in order to minimise risk of mis-diagnosis calls were handled with a protocol-led workflow.  The nurse you were connected to at the call centre had a narrow script on a computer screen in front of them – he or she clicked options depending on your answers and this delivered the next part of the script.  This would culminate in a recommendation e.g. forget about it, or take a few aspirin and see your GP if it isn’t better in 48 hours, or make an appointment with your GP now, or go to A&E immediately or whatever.  They had only a little leeway to deviate from the script and make use of their professional knowledge.

One of the genuine achievements of Labour’s time in power was that Nurses now receive something comparable to a professional wage.  It doesn’t take the sharpest commercial mind to spot that if you are doing a role controlled by computer script and that in practice this role requires the same skill to deliver that it would to sell insurance or deliver any other call center script, then it does seem rather an extravagance to have professional equivalent people’s talent wasted performing the role – particularly if they may be better deployed on front-line wards.

Labour realised this and set up a trial for the 111 scheme.   The pilot has been a success.  It was in Labour’s manifesto (page 35) that they themselves would go with 111 if elected.  The Coalition are doing the right thing in picking up and running with it.  Rather than celebrating their success Labour are now disowning their own brain-child.  That, I guess, is everything that is wrong with politics.

The vision of NHS Direct was that via the telephone or internet you could have access to a 24 hour service that would triage your condition and stop you from making a needless doctors visit if unnecessary but quickly get you to the right medical help if necessary.

The 111 service does exactly that and more:  it also allows you to  book your appointment on the same call rather than having to make a separate call to your local practice afterwards (and then consume the time of another medical receptionist in addition to your own). It is also free (NHS Direct was charged as a national rate call). In short it does more for less.  In these tough times that is something to applaud.

I suppose the Government has invited these attacks by using the language of ‘cuts’ in the way it has positioned these changes.  Cuts to me (as the end user) suggests a service will no longer be available.  Having investigated what it means it seems the service I expected from NHS Direct will still be available and better – it will just be delivered by different people, under a new badge, at less cost to the tax payer.  I concede that it is genuinely a ‘cut’ from the perspective of current NHS Direct employees and I do wish them well.  But for the end-user?  At worst it’s no different, at best an improvement.

As to the charge that the Tories are therefore evil liars: the promise was that the NHS Budget was ring-fenced and will actually increase year on year through the life of the Parliament.  So far the Government  is on track to deliver that.  And if it can supplement this by doing ‘more for less’ in other areas of NHS delivery then again – it should be applauded.

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Cloned Cows in Food-chain: Where’s the Beef?

One story in the press this week that had me frustrated was coverage of the revelation that two cows born from a cloned parent had their beef enter the UK human food-chain.

The tone of all the coverage was outrage.  None of the stories went into depth about why we should be ‘outraged’ suggesting it is self-evident.  To me it was not.  That left me feeling a bit thick.  In my simple northern mind if you have a cow you would be happy to eat and you make a healthy clone then you should be happy to eat that too.  Probably 90% of the plant based food I have eaten in my entire life has been cloned and that seems to have caused me no harm and nobody seems to have lost sleep.  So is it different with mammals?

Well, the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has looked at the issue in some depth since 2007, they concluded that they could find no difference between healthy cloned animals and genetically similar animals produced by normal reproduction. (see here for the summary).  So what is the objection? After a bit of Googling it seems to boil down to:

a)  Animal welfare:  the evidence is that cloned animals currently have an increased chance of birth defects.

b) General Objections to bigger/more cattle:  Cows, particularly healthy big ones, eat a load of grain/grass to grow.  In a world of limited (and diminishing) agricultural space you could feed more humans if instead of growing food for cows and then eating the cow you simply grew food for humans.

c) The absence of any evidence that something is a danger is not the same as evidence of it being safe.

Now remember the trigger for the outrage is supposed to be that this beef has entered the food chain.  Argument ‘A’ is an argument against cloning full stop.  Argument B is an argument against eating cows full stop.  Argument C, whilst true, is also a crazy argument against consuming anything ever, full stop.  All three are interesting debates in themselves but at best they are only tangently related to concerns about meat entering the food chain.

The truth is that the press know that ‘Outrage’ sells more than ‘Mild Debate’.   The media feeds off the frenzy of scare stories and they can manufacture more column inches in debate through their faux ‘outrage’.   It is self-serving waffle.   I guess we just have to accept that this is how the media works and all put on our own critical thinking hats whenever these stories break.  What worries me is that whilst in politics newspapers have their party political biases and you know that stories ‘spun’ sensationally in one paper will be counterbalanced with the opposite view in other mainstream papers – with science it increasingly seems to me that all UK papers (even so-called qualities such as the FT, Telegraph, Times and Guardian) are happy to run with the sensationalist spin or headline from the view point of the Luddite.    It sells papers.  Without the enlightened counter-balance though I really fear that the public is increasingly being pushed into being sceptical of and turning against scientific advance.  That’s dangerous.

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