Various politicians have been saying that local authorities ought to cut their back office and still provide frontline services. It’s an interesting idea and the whole concept of ‘cutting the back office’ probably needs looking at.
Firstly you could just put ‘back office’ stuff onto ‘front line staff.’ Let them do it. It has the advantage that it’s then being done by people who know what is actually happening in the real world. It’s what every family farm does. You put in a full day’s work and then you and/or your spouse do the ‘back office’ stuff at night when it’s too dark to work outside. Sometimes you can save the paperwork to those days when the weather is utterly disgusting and you’re almost glad of the excuse not to go out.
This system works reasonably well. You have to accept that farmers have high rates of undiagnosed depression and about the highest suicide rate of any employment group (Vets sometimes have higher figures.)
It might work pretty well because farmers tend to be people who are hands on and practical, which means they loathe the back office stuff and aren’t going to make a big thing of it.
There again there are those who deal with it by contracting it out to somebody else. I know several accountants who have farmer clients who just give them a black bin bag of receipts, bank statements and chequebooks and just leave it to them to reconstruct the finances of the business.
One problem with ‘cutting the back office’ is that it seems to indicate that there are people up at the cutting edge who have the kudos and authority to do that. The problem arises when those at the cutting edge, who meet the public and provide the services, are the low grade minions who are not held in any particular respect by the rest of the organisation.
HM Revenue and Customs is a fine example of this. They have back office which deals with stuff, and frontline people who meet the public and explain stuff and help us get it right, deal with our problems and make the system work.
So HMRC are cutting the 170 offices where you can actually go in and talk to a real person and making us deal with some of the least responsive call centres ever created. In this case it begins to look as if the back office is trying to save money by having as little meaningful contact with the outside world as possible.
In local authorities, the people in the back office you want to cut are the people who run the organisation and decide who and what gets cut.
Now there are ways around this. Contracting out services is one. This should cut down the need for both frontline and back office staff. It certainly cuts the frontline, but of course the back office reinvents itself as ‘contract monitoring’ and might even have to increase the number of staff it has to ensure the contract is properly monitored.
Funnily enough in small businesses, contract monitoring is done by the same person who does everything else, and involves one simple process. Compare result of contract with price paid. If happy, pay next year, if not happy don’t.
But of course those working for local government would point out that it’s not so simple for them. They’ve got all sorts of things they have to monitor. Not merely that the job has been done properly but that all sorts of other targets have been met, be they diversity, environment or whatever.
At this point the farmer, the small businessman, the teacher, the local government officer can all agree on something. A large proportion of the ‘back office’ stuff, the endless stultifying, mind numbing, time wasting bureaucracy that washes endlessly over us, is actually dumped on us by government in the first place.
So effectively, if government wants organisations to cut the back office, perhaps government ought to stop creating work for the back office to do.