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Austerity? No, It’s Prudence!

Local HR consultant John Williams argues that HR should have a hand in ensuring that the economy spends only what it can afford to spend and is fit for purpose in 2015 and beyond.

‘Austerity’ has become the focus for attack by various organisations, experts and generally left leaning politicians. What it really means is controlling excess costs, not over-borrowing and examining organisations to identify what is better done by someone else or not done at all.

Private sector businesses have this as part of their psyche through the annual budget process. ‘Zero based budgeting’ is a popular activity in many companies where you effectively start from scratch in terms of what is the purpose of the business and what organisation is needed to deliver goals.

In the public sector many HR and finance leaders have stepped up to the plate finding innovative ways to deliver services. Local authorities share ‘back office’ functions and a thorough analysis of what is really needed through the budget setting process is well embedded in many public sector bodies. Unlike the private sector there is less opportunity to raise revenue from commercial activities and Government funding restrictions generally determine the pot that has to be spent.

What we need to do is re-label ‘austerity’ to ‘prudence’ (although Gordon Brown annexed this term!) or ‘common sense budgeting’ and take the sting out of the process. HR can be a great driver of change here, thinking outside of the box in terms of service delivery, collaboration, outsourcing and changing strategic thinking.

Citizens too can have a key role to play by acting as the critical friend to public authorities. The status quo is never static in today’s world and an informed electorate should focus on how critical services can be delivered.

A good example can be found in policing. In the 1970s Thames Valley Police was created covering Bucks, Beds and Oxon with a combined population of 2.2 million. The Force covers Oxford, Reading, Slough Windsor (and the Royal Family),Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Milton Keynes and their surrounding areas. Yet Bedfordshire has a separate force covering 617,000 people with Luton and Bedford as the largest towns. Bedfordshire Police already shares forensic services and major crime CID with neighbouring forces. As a letter writer in the Leighton Buzzard Observer put it, “the real question…is why Bedfordshire Police exists at all?” One does not hear wails of protest from the residents of Milton Keynes, Oxford or Reading, for example, demanding their own county forces. The key point is how the service is delivered on the ground to the local population.

I propose the creation of the West Anglia Police combining Beds, Herts and Cambridgeshire. One Chief Constable instead of three, one senior management team instead of three and combination of back office and scientific services must yield savings to re-invest in the front line. The successful model is there and operates just half a mile from where I live!

The opposition, it seems to me, comes from vested interests such as local politicians, staff maybe and expensive Police and Crime Commissioners. The letter writer got a cold response from a local Labour politician; what he knew about delivering a tightly managed service is unknown. A strategic view is needed to ensure the right service is effectively supplied to citizens. Prudence rather than Austerity I would say! Of course the whole emergency services ‘organisation’ in England is a hotchpotch with different services having different geographies but that is a whole new topic!

John Williams is the MD of John Williams Consultancy, an HR consultancy based in Leighton Buzzard. A former HR director with strategic and organisational development experience, and particular knowledge of pharmaceutical, agri-biotech, animal health, nutrition and engineering industries.

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