Creating an online course about managing public money

This week I made a start on creating my first paid-for course. It is a course aimed at anyone working in the public sector who wants to know more about the big picture of financial management. It is concerned with explaining the differences in financial management between the public and private sector, how public bodies are funded, and the governance arrangements that tend to apply to public workers. It also explains the concept of value for money, something which is vitally important to organisations that do not sell their products and services in a free market.

I thought it might be interesting to write a series of blog posts over the next few weeks that show how the course was created…

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Free online training from the IMF about public financial management

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) have created an 8-weeks long course about public financial management. It is free, and available to you whether you work in a government agency, an NGO or are just interested in public money and budget transparency.

They have produced a 2-minute introductory video.

And you can sign up for the course here if you are a government official or work for a development agency and here if you are a member of the public. I think I will sign up because we can all learn something new however much of an expert we think we are. 

Benchmarking: an incentive to improve, a distraction or a red herring?

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Workbenchdiagram

In the question and answer session of the presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago I was asked how I thought a process of benchmarking should fit into the annual budgeting process. I gave an answer at the time but I don't think I expressed my view as well as I could have so I thought I would have a go in writing.

The question was posed to me in terms of unit costs: if we are preparing our budget for a service how should we take into account the fact that our neighbours or peers deliver the service for a lower (or higher) unit cost? On the face of it this seems like a good idea and I'm sure there must be some sound theories to support it. My answer to the group, though, was sceptical, borne from experience rather than theory.

I think that the "information" a public sector organisation gets from such benchmarking is unhelpful. I think carrying out a benchmarking exercise is "busy work"; it feels like you're doing something positive but in practice you're using up a lot of resources and getting very little in return. They say you don't fatten a pig by measuring it. Well, benchmarking is the equivalent of trying to fatten your pig by measuring someone else's.

I've been involved in numerous benchmarking activities over the years (it was a key feature of the Audit Commission's work in the 90s and 00s) and the first problem is agreeing common definitions so that the information is at all comparable. The development of accounting standards and financial reporting standards has no doubt improved the consistency of treatment by public bodies, but that does nothing for the second, and bigger, problem: that public managers will cling to favourable comparisons and find reasons to criticise unfavourable ones. (I once has a manager who was very quick to claim successes were the result of his management but failures were the result of external factors beyond his control. Sound familiar?) If you want an academic reference for this, Demeere et al (2009), writing about the use of activity-based costing in healthcare, said:

"... healthcare managers might argue about the accuracy of the models estimated costs and pro"tability rather than address how to improve the inef"cient processes, unpro"table products, and considerable excess capacity that the model has revealed."

Demeere et al actually touch on the potential negative consequence of benchmarking: complacency. If a public manager's unit costs (or whatever) are good they do not need to try harder; if they are poor, they might try hard to make a defence but they can avoid the need to improve their service.

Many aspects of public management these days are informed by or developed from private sector practice. Do private sector organisations benchmark with each other? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that an organisation could benchmark with competitors directly so they are more likely to use competitors' prices as the benchmark. They may ask themselves, Can we sell our product for the same price as the competition and still make an adequate return? If the answer is no then they either have to find a way to make their product more cheaply, charge a higher price and compete on the basis of quality/design or cease to produce the product. If the answer is yes then that's great, but it would not stop them from seeking efficiency improvements in order to improve their gross profit margin.

How does that compare with a public service? Well, there are some services where charges are made but generally there is not a market because public bodies usually have a monopoly on the service in some geographic area. But there are some areas where there are comparable private sector providers whose prices could be used as a signal. Except, how many local authorities would compare the unit costs of their schools with fee-paying private schools, or compare their access-for-all leisure centres with members-only private gyms? "They're not offering the same things as us," would be the cry so of course our unit costs are different from theirs.

So, based on my experience, what would I recommend? In my view the answer is much easier to find than carrying out benchmarking exercises because the organisation already has it. The answer is to compare our own unit costs over time. This avoids all the problems of alternative accounting treatments, geogrpahical differences in prices, etc. and it builds on the idea that however good a service is the managers should strive to improve it. I'm sure that if all the time and energy spent carrying out benchmarking work and then defending or criticising the results was spent on improving services the benefit for the public would be significantly improved.

 

Reference

Demeere, N., Stouthuysen, K., & Roodhooft, F. (2009). Time-driven activity-based costing in an outpatient clinic environment: Development, relevance and managerial impact. Health Policy, 92(2-3), 296–304. doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2009.05.003

Strategies for managing your budget under financial pressure

CIPFA's Financial Advisory Network run many events and I'll be the speaker at two of them in the next couple of weeks. I'll be 'the practitioner' at the Strategies for Managing your Budget under Financial Pressure in Leeds on 21 September and London on 28 September. My brief is to talk about things I've done rather than espouse a lot of theory. That's quite a different requirement from when I teach at Warwick Business School where students want to know theory. Anyway, the new requirements meant I spent about 12 hours last weekend working on a 45-minute presentation. I'm hoping the result is worth it for the people attending the event. I've included an example of one of the slides here but you'll have to come to the event to find out what my point is. After the event I'll post a QuickTime movie of the presentation onto the web and post a link here.

PS. I'll take a few copies of my book with me to events and will happily sign them and sell them.

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