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Angus Long, Owner of Impression Marketing

Reflecting on a recent report highlighting that, due to funding shortages of £2.4 billion, thousands of elderly people are in danger of losing vital homecare services, Angus Long, Owner of Impression Marketing, discusses the “bureaucratic” problem that is making the delivery of homecare more expensive and inefficient than it ought to be.

The article focuses on public sector manager mindset and attitudes towards funding, budget setting, procurement and delivery of public services.

In JK Rowling’s ‘The Goblet of Fire’, Professor Dumbledore counsels the troubled Harry Potter, pondering a difficult decision, by telling him it is sometimes harder to do what is right than what is easy. Although plucked from a work of popular fiction, this is, in my view, an uncanny metaphor for many an attitude and work ethic of today.

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I’m a great believer in the adage that one’s attitude and outlook is greatly influenced by the education and experience bestowed upon us in our youth. Well, it certainly applied to me and none more so than during my time in the military. Back in the late 1980s, I was a young soldier in the Army and had the pleasure of working with, and being mentored by, a great many excellent people who taught me much.

However, there was one particular officer whose attitude to his role as the ‘Officer-in-Command’ will forever be etched in my consciousness. I’ll refer to him as ‘the Major’ to save his blushes in case he’s reading this.

The military, believe it or not, is just like every other public sector organisation and is still required to adhere to various levels of administration, formalities, paperwork and officialdom. Contrary to what many may think, rather than running about in the woods wielding a gun and yelling orders, most senior officers spend a large proportion of their working day behind a desk dealing with bureaucracy and reloading a pen instead of a pistol.

Like his peers and fellow officers, the Major had his office and said desk, he even had plastic ‘In’ and ‘Out’ trays in which to place the various work he needed to do and oversee. The Major, however, had a third plastic tray in the middle of the other two, which was labelled ‘Too Difficult’. It was the sort of thing that aroused a certain curiosity, but not the sort of thing a subordinate would ever overtly question the Officer-in-Command.

Over time, though, we got to know each other better and I was able to engage in less formal dialogue. So, one day my curiosity got the better of me and, with a nervous chuckle, I asked the Major what he put into the ‘Too Difficult’ tray. Slowly and silently, he put down his pen; his light-hearted demeanour instantly disappeared and with a steely look of absolute gravity he told me.

He said that it is his job to ensure that when the time comes to go to war, the men in his command are ready and equipped, to the best of his ability, to undertake that task. They are to be trained, equipped and be fit (physically and mentally) to do the ultimate job. The men under his command are a team that work and live together, where each person’s role, job and function are like links in a chain and that chain is only as strong as the weakest link. It is his job to ensure there are no weak links in his chain. That means making decisions on the best use of the time and resources available to him.

Anything that isn’t directly related to ensuring the combat efficiency and welfare of his troops is considered an extraneous or an inconsequential task and so destined for the ‘Too Difficult’ tray. That is because in the military we have a job to do and if we don’t have enough tools and resources we don’t stop, we don’t whinge and we don’t cry. What we do is, we improvise, we overcome, we adapt and we deliver. Therefore, what was put into that tray was anything that got in the way of delivering the primary remit of having combat-ready, 24/7, a unit of soldiers in the most professional Army in the world.

What the Major said to me that day never left me and continues to play a big part in my attitude and work ethic today. Unfortunately, I think that there are too many managers in charge of our various public sector services today that also have a third plastic tray on their desks. However, unlike the Major, they are happier to spend their time, resources and our money dealing with all the extraneous and the inconsequential tasks and leave the job of actually delivering the public services languishing in the ‘Too Difficult’ tray.

It’s the only explanation I can come up with.

For example, Durham County Council chose not to award a regional community care contract to a local company. The reason being that it felt the cost benefits to the NHS of being able to discharge patients back into the community three weeks earlier than previously wasn’t a consideration the council could take into account, as the cost savings would not be reflected in their budget and to do so would contradict procurement rules.

It was recently reported that councils are warning that, due to funding shortages of some £2.4bn, thousands of elderly people are in danger of losing vital care services. 

Indeed, Newcastle City Council is one of those protesting the loudest that, due to extreme funding shortages and government austerity, it is warning of severe cuts and closures to vital community services. However, despite the severe funding shortages, the council has approved plans to renovate the Civil Hall at an estimated cost of around £45m.

It simply beggars belief that the people in charge of providing public services deem refurbishing their own offices with plush new furnishings, lavish decor and swanky surroundings a better use of time and money than providing the vital homecare services people so desperately need.

Regrettably, this crazy attitude to funding, budget setting, procurement and delivery oversight is not restricted to North East of England but is a contagion that has infected most councils across the country.

For the sake of our country and the care of the elderly and disabled, please bring back ‘the Major’.

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