John Hemming's Web Log John's Reference Website
Saturday, January 22, 2005
  Biscuit Budget - Iron Angle
Iron Angle in The Birmingham Post on Saturdays is an equivalent of the Parliamentary Diary written about Birmingham City Council. Today it features me confirming that yes the City Council does have a biscuit budget.

The background to this is a debate at Full Council where the Labour Leader (Sir Albert Bore) criticised the Lib Dems for having lunch at £14.95 each on the general fund when we spent 6 hours unpaid on a Sunday reviewing council matters. He claimed that Labour paid for all their own group food.

I didn't quite believe this and therefore did some research to find that the Labour group spent thousands of pounds on food and that their group executive charged the Council Tax Payer £113 per month for food. Much that Sir Albert Bore claims that he had paid for it we could not find the cheque. Sir Albert was a bit miffed about this and said he would prove that they have paid for it and he wanted an apology. I am still waiting for the proof.

As part of this process my own group office stopped ordering biscuits (for tea and biscuits). This resulted in

a) One councillor taking executive action and a couple of bits of clingfilm and reclaiming some biscuits which were left over from a committee meeting.

b) Another councillor phoning me to clarify the situation whilst I was talking to the journalist who writes Iron Angle.

We have also found that comparing periods 4-9 in 2004/5 to the average of the same periods in 2003/4 and 2002/3 that the new administration is spending £1,273 less per week on internal catering.

In the mean time, however, I have been investigating more about what happens in The Council House. I find that the Labour Group offices have spent the amazing sum of over £40,000 on refurbishments including over £7,000 on each of the Labour Leader and Labour Deputy Leader's office. Indeed even the council leader has had a new fan at a cost of £657. Oddly enough, however, I have looked at his fan and his fan is older than mine. Mine is not a new fan. The mystery thickens. I am getting copies of the invoices.

I have great difficulty working out how we can spend £4,500 on a carpet in a single office. Does it have real 24ct gold threads?

I am finding the process of spot checks on costs and activity produces dividends. We found a clearup team in Lifford Lane who were supposed to be clearing up for Housing, which Housing did not know about and hence were sitting around drinking tea. They are now clearing up housing land.

I have two interesting questions outstanding. One is why the Swan Underpass was shut off a few weeks ago. It looks to me that someone wants to get some overtime so they go and shut off the Swan Underpass on a Sunday (Double Time).

The second is finding out what graffiti the graffiti team are actually clearing up. I see the lists of requests, but have not seen much about them actually clearing it up. I know they are doing something, but I am not sure what.

The authorisation issue is also interesting. I refused to agree to a payment on one issue so it was charged to another department. When that Cabinet Member asked about the payment it was said that it had been preauthorised by the previous administration. Hmmm.

Various officers keep finding trips I could go on. I prefer staying in Birmingham to look at things - like missing fans and hyperexpensive carpet.

It does seem some times that every City Council pound is only worth 30p in purchasing power. This is, of course, not unique to local authorities. The same applies to central government and its organs.

Some would say that I should only look at the big summary figures. The problem is that the big summary figures are an accumulation of the small "what you pay for" figures. If we can cut the cost of doing things we can do more with the big money.

cf Gershon.
 
Comments:
One of the things that I have often wondered about (having worked for a number of public sector organisations) is how the money that is spent on actual things (be they carpets, rail tickets, light bulbs, major IT projects or whatever) involved in delivering services compares to the costs of measuring, controlling and auditing those expenditures. I have frequently felt that government seems to spend two to three times as much making sure public money is not mis-spent as it actually spends on services. This would fit in nicely with your comment about a council pound being apparently worth only 30p.

Obviously auditing and such are required, any business has to keep an eye on where the money is going. When I've worked in the private sector, however, I have found such checks to be more streamlined.

For example if I needed to travel to a customer site I could just buy a rail ticket and claim the expense when I came back. If it turned out that I had done something wrong then it would be sorted out through discussions between myself and management and, if required, the disaplinary procedure (for the record I was never told I'd done anything wrong). The equivalent when I have been working for the public sector would be first to get authorisation from my line manager, then a budget code from admin, then find the budget holder and get authorisation from them, then take the authorisation and the budget code to the person who handles employee travel and get a rail warrant, finally I go to the station to get my ticket. Similar processes apply to something as simple as buying box of eggs (my first ever job was as a care assistant in a day centre for people with learning difficulties, one day we needed a box of eggs for a cookery session, the stygian mess revealed itself).
 
You are basically right. The problem is that the processes in the public sector are overly complex.

The challenge is to find out how significant this is. This is why I like to look at the cost of specific items (we had £38 to change a lightbulb in Housing)

I believe a box of biscuits actually is charged at £6.00.

Gershon, theoretically is about finding this inefficiency and rooting it out. However, if you actually look at what Gershon means I am not certain it will save any money.
 
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