Cutting the back office.


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.


There again, what do I know. If I were you I’d ask a real expert

As a reviewer commented, “I always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one. There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.
Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.”

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4 thoughts on “Cutting the back office.

  1. willmacmillanjones November 13, 2015 at 11:15 am Reply

    One quibble Jim: HMRC have already closed those centres where anyone can actually call in and speak to someone. All taxpayer contact is now only by remote – telephone, post, or internet. Services continue to be further centralised. I have no doubt that this is a model the administration wants Councils to follow, increasing the remoteness of beaurocracy – so for example, the Revenue departments of several councils could all be merged into one super department – that’s a lot more amenable to central control!

    • jwebster2 November 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm Reply

      I knew we’ve not been able to get hold of someone in person for some years, but I just assumed that the big offices in cities still had access.
      The problem is that the system is to complex for many staff to understand, never mind people trying to pay tax. It might actually be too expensive to run with the calibre of people they’re willing to pay.

  2. The Opening Sentence November 14, 2015 at 10:13 am Reply

    I worked in ‘back office’ from 2007 until I was made redundant in 2012. I always thought I served a purpose, but obviously I was wrong.

    • jwebster2 November 14, 2015 at 6:04 pm Reply

      When done properly the ‘back office’ is the bit of the organisation that allows the organisation to function and to provide the means by which the organisation delivers. I suspect that it is only with difficulty an organisation can be better than its back office

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