Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Often a Simple Solution to the Biggest Problems

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Often a Simple Solution to the Biggest Problems

Article excerpt


THE sheer scale of the fallout from the recent collapse of Carillion has raised some serious misgivings about the way large public sector contracts are awarded and managed. Predictably, we have had the usual calls for a public inquiry, lessons to be learned and renationalisation.

The problem with these, now rather cliched, responses is that in the main they're all talk and no trousers. A public inquiry will take ages, cost a fortune and merely produce reams of drawn-out reports detailing the blinking obvious.

I've lost count of the number of lessons the Government needs to learn and there's little point in renationalisation without fundamentally addressing the root causes of the problems, as it will achieve little, benefit very few and likely cost millions transferring a large organisation from private to public ownership. So why bother? The difficulty with society today is everyone seems to think solutions to problems have to be complicated, require vast sums of money or involve some kind of panel of experts that spout huge doses of management gobbledygook.

However, like most things, the best and most cost-effective answers tend to be simple. Perhaps best explained by the US/Soviet space race adage of the 1960s. For those too young to remember, back then America and Russia were desperately trying to outperform each other in the race to conquer space travel. If I recall, the story was along the lines that NASA spent millions of dollars trying, unsuccessfully, to create an ink pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians used pencils. Yes, it's an age-old maxim and probably not even true, but it brilliantly illustrates the point that sometimes simple solutions are often the best.

So, back to Carillion. How is it that such a mighty company, with so much public sector work, employing thousands of people, was able to fail and, more importantly, jeopardise the delivery of many important public services? The answer has always been there and, just like the Russian space pencils, really simple. The answer is management responsibility, accountability and oversight. There you go, summed up in plain English and not a mission statement in sight.

I've written before about the woefully inept calibre of public procurement and the Carillion collapse is just another example, albeit a monumental one. Here are a couple of others.

First up, NHS managers decided to only immunise against three of the four flu strains this winter as it would have cost PS3 more, per vaccine, to protect against the Japanese Flu strain. Guess what? We now have a pandemic of Japanese flu spreading across the country, swamping the NHS and killing people. These are the same NHS managers, by the way, that spent PS100,000 on refreshing the NHS logo. …

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