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The sector suffers from an institutional malaise

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There should be no need for an initiative to pursue greater efficiency in local government. If the normal operating routines worked as they should, we would never have had to have Best Value, or Gershon - or now Total Place and the IDeA’s new Efficiency Exchange. There would be no need for crazes such as the Six Sigma management strategy.

There is absolutely no reason why local government should not operate at high levels of, and with ever-increasing, efficiency. In the areas of local government I have worked in, time and again we have found that the same services could be delivered for just 60% of the cost they currently incur.

The malaise is institutional. Bad inefficient practice is the tradition: it is almost encouraged. Councils and quangos and departments simply seem unable to help themselves. They don’t budget to improve efficiency: they budget to obtain funding.

The fault lies at most senior levels. There are a few exceptions but mostly there is shrugging acceptance of the truth.

When I am asked what is the illness and what are the cures, the first thing I say is ‘language’. So many reports are written that just do not make sense. They are a waste of paper. Unless you can describe what you are trying to do and what resources you need in simple sentences that anyone can understand, you are certain to be inefficient.

Then I urge simplicity. Too many local government activities are weighed down with unnecessary complexity. An hour of simplification can save a year of waste. More than anything I call for better understanding of and closer contact with the public. Too often councils are terrified of talking and listening to residents. That is obviously wrong.

I wanted to participate in the Efficiency Exchange because I believe that the excessive public expenditure of recent years can be reduced without damaging services. I believe that the ways to achieve those cost reductions have already been demonstrated and can be applied widely.

I think we have to address the institutional problems that lie in the most senior levels of management. We do not need to cut services but instead need a new generation of managers with fresh, better thinking.

Tim Coates, former MD, Waterstone’s, is an adviser on public libraries and is an Efficiency Exchange contributor

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