Help the next generation of women reach their potential

Help the next generation of women reach their potential

In South Sudan most girls drop out of school early, before they achieve any formal qualifications. In fact, teenage girls are more likely to die in childbirth than complete their secondary education.

At the beginning of February the government of South Sudan published the results of the nationwide primary school leaving certificate which were taken sat at the end of November 2018.

The top scorer in the 2018 examinations was a girl from a small village in the south west of the country. She was joined in the national top ten by five of her classmates. That’s 6 out of the top ten scorers in the country were girls from the same small school: Ibba Girls Boarding School.

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Become a friend of Ibba Girls School and help girls in South Sudan to finish their education

Become a friend of Ibba Girls School and help girls in South Sudan to finish their education

I am the treasurer of a charity in the UK, the Friends of Ibba Girls School, which exists to build and operate a school for girls in the southwest corner of South Sudan. As well as being the world's newest countries, South Sudan is one of the poorest and most fragile. We all know that education improves the life chances of children and, in practice, their families, too. That's why it is important that Ibba Girls School, and the other schools in the country, exist.

If you have two minutes to spare, here's a video about the school featuring some of the girls whose future we want to enhance.

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Will fraud increase because of austerity?

The UK was ranked 17th in the 2012 edition of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Having heard Professor Alan Doig at the recent CIPFA Audit Conference I wonder if we may slip down the ranking over the next few years. Prof Doig is undoubtedly an expert in fraud and corruption and has applied his knowledge around the world. His friendly, wryly-humoured delivery belied what I thought was a rather bleak message. In fairly short order he demonstrated how much of the UK's public sector anti-fraud apparatus has been, or soon will be, demolished:

  • only 25% of police forces have fraud squads
  • only one force (West Midlands) out of 43 has anyone looking at election fraud
  • the Audit Commission will be abolished.

These changes come at a time when more and more public money is being moved outside of the traditional accountability structures. So, for example, a local authority's rules apply to its schools and they would be subject, amongst other things, to visits from the internal auditors. We've already seen financial management problems at academies, such as this example in London. What arrangements will apply to free schools which seem to me to be even further outside the traditional accountability arrangements? Another example: our traditional approach to providing personal social care has been for local authorities to assess needs, commission someone to provide care and then pay the bills. Increasingly individuals are being given more control of their care. After their needs are assessed they receive a direct payment from the local authority and they arrange their care and pay for it. I can see the benefits to individuals of this approach but it introduces the potential for the misapplication of the money. Surely taxpayers and the local authority need new accountability mechanisms to cover this element of public spending?

One comment made by Prof Doig has stuck in my mind: on average only 30% of fraudsters are detected. If that is the rate when we've got a lot of anti-fraud work in place what will the detection rate be in the future?

High volume, low value frauds, he said, pose a particular problem. Fraudulent claims of social security benefits have long been an issue in the UK (the Department for Work and Pensions has worked hard to get the rate down to less than 2% but it still amounts to about £2billion a year, and consequently their accounts have been qualified every year for more than two decades).

Perhaps a strategy for public bodies is to carry out a risk assessment and focus the resources on areas where the potential payback is best. When asked about this, Prof Doig identified housing tenancies and direct payments for personal social services as areas to focus on.

It's understandable that public bodies which are under pressure to reduce their expenditure have reduced the level of resources applied to preventing and detecting frauds. But it's just like cutting training. It may be understandable but we all know that in the long run it will cost us more money. To borrow a quotation from Peter Senge, "The easy way out usually leads back in."

I started this post by pondering whether the UK will fall in the CPI. That index is a relative measure so the UK's position depends also on what other countries do. I would be interested to hear if comments about whether other countries are breaking up their anti-fraud infrastructure in the way that the UK is.


Since I wrote this article the National Fraud Authority has published the Annual Fraud Indicator report for 2013. They estimate fraud in the public sector amounts to £20.6billion, which is of the order of 3% of total annual public spending.

Can local government save 20% on what it buys?

There has been a lot written over the years about public sector procurement, especially about the view that public bodies could get better deals than they currently have. As someone who has worked in public roles I know that the bodies seek the best value for money they can find, as far as the constraints on them will allow.

The fact that public money is involved means high standards of probity are expected. And for all but the smallest contracts (and anything involving national security) the EU’s procurement regime requires that the opportunity to bid for the contract is offered to any interested firm or person in the 25 member states. A public manager receiving tenders for some goods or service might feel that they could have negotiated a better deal but they would be reluctant to use negotiation for fear of being suspected of bribery or corruption. It’s rather like the adage that no-one got fired for buying IBM. In the public sector no-one gets fired for going out to tender and accepting the lowest bid.

The report referred to in this article by Ben Goldacre does not, in my opinion, help the situation. Making a sweeping generalisation from a small sample of data (if there is any data at all) is methodologically flawed. Perhaps the consultants have more data than they put in their summary report and it is not their fault that DCLG have broadcast in the way they have but the way to identify potential savings requires a detailed review of an organisation’s pattern of spending.

Experienced, knowledgeable procurement managers can analyse which products and services are being acquired, what the current terms of the contracts are and compare them with benchmarks. They might well identify some areas where the organisation could save 20% of its spending but I would be surprised if any organisation’s contracts were universally expensive. It is more likely that an organisation will have a poor deal on products A, B and C but have really good deals on D, E and F. This is because the price that the organisation gets depends on how the deal was procured, the timing, the extent of competition, the appetite of bidders to offer discounts, etc. What this means is that the potential for making savings through procurement is unique for each organisation.

This is also why moving to consolidated contracts might not save as much as predicted (by Sir Philip Green, for example). If a group of organisations form a consortium to procure something there is a chance that some of the organisations could have got a better deal for themselves than the consortium achieved. This used to be the case with schools when I worked in local government I presume it still is the case. A large secondary school might get a great deal on photocopiers. The smaller primary schools would like to get such a deal so they all club together with the secondary school. The consolidated contract prices might result in a lower average cost for the whole consortium but the cost to the secondary school goes up to “subsidise” the primary schools. If you were the headteacher of the secondary school and were under pressure to keep your spending down would you voluntarily offer to pay more for a service in order that your counterparts in primary schools benefit?

When local authorities controlled all their schools they could enforce this sort of deal (and adjust individual school budgets accordingly) because the authority benefited from the lower average cost. But now it is every school for itself—and every hospital, police station, fire station, library, etc—we are inevitably going to get some sub-optimal deals. Nevertheless, public managers should continue to get the best value for money deals that they can.