In a former life I worked in an organisation that was affiliated to the Civil Service.  I say ‘affiliated’ because it wasn’t strictly a major department: it was one of those bodies that is called a ‘semi-autonomous public body’.  It receives public money, but is relatively free to decide its own policies and so on.  That’s the theory anyway.  At this point, readers might assume the organisation was MI5, but it was actually one of what UK readers will know as a ‘Quango’.  This particular organisation was actually the world’s first Quango.

At the time I was there, public/civil service organisations were quite different from what they are now: For one thing, they still had some semblance of self-belief and were able to build systems because people knew it was the right thing to do.  I built a system which was still in use until relatively recently.  This was the tail end of an era before compulsory out-sourcing, endless reviews of ‘value-for-money’ (whatever that is), ‘efficiency’ (whatever that is), ‘effectiveness’ (whatever that is), and so on.

My first boss, a Margaret Rutherford look-alike in her late 50s complete with half-glasses and a wonderful, 1930s style telephone manner, came back from a meeting where – to cut a long story short – she had been asked to give involved in some new cutting edge policies for the organisation.  These included a new form of budgeting and also some other ‘cutting edge’ ideas – PRINCE for project management and so on.   Over time it emerged that various internal, departmental budgets were to set up, and various ‘centralised’ HQ functions would be reformed or abolished. 

Later, my boss launched into a tirade about some more of the things that would soon be happening. This included various ‘value for money’ exercises and other studies, shake-ups, reorganisations and so on, and many bizarre accounting practices.  As I recall, they introduced a procedure whereby if you went to reprographics to get a document photocopied (you pretty much had to go there – all the other photocopiers were crap) you had to had to hand over a charge-code.  However, you could go to the stationary store and they would happily give you the toner cartridge, or printer cartridges over the counter with no question.  These cost £40 a throw…

In later years, this organisation, like many other public bodies, the NHS, schools, you name it - have been engulfed in many such procedural, accounting and organisational nonsenses – mostly instigated by ‘Finance’ people – its almost impossible to know where to start. 

She later came out with a comment that has stayed with me ever since.  ‘Michael’ she said (she didn’t believe in shortening names), ‘The problem is that saving money is one of the most expensive things an organisation can do’.  She then started rambling about various things that I didn’t pay too much attention to at the time, but what she was saying in essence was that once all the procedures, controls, checks, monitoring and so on has been put in place, you actually eliminate any ‘saving’ you attempted to make in the first place.  I even heard of a case much later where a ‘savings’ exercise actually ended up costing the organisation more.

Let the Finance people think about that

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