Friday, 18 March 2016

The government approach to cutting costs is the worst way to achieve lower costs

Governments love to distribute the pain of budget cuts evenly by slicing a percentage from every department's budget. This seems fair but is the worst way to achieve sustainably lower spending or to minimise the damage caused by the cuts.

The trouble with government is that it is run by politicians. And politicians usually care more about image than they do about substance when it comes to making decisions. So when public finances are squeezed they tend to focus on the fairness of their budget cuts rather than the effectiveness of their budget cuts and this sometimes leads to really dumb decisions.

To do a good job of cost cutting or improving efficiency you need to know where and how the money is being spent now. For example, if you run a factory and its costs are way higher than the competition, it helps to know in detail why that is the case. It could be you have a serious problem with overmanning; or it might be that the skill mix is wrong and you need higher quality, more productive people; or, it might be that you need more people because the machines they work with are unreliable and old; or perhaps you buy all the raw materials from low quality, expensive suppliers. If you don't know which problem you have, cutting the budget might make things worse not better. If your problem is obsolete machinery, for example, the best fix is to invest in new machinery (which involves spending more); short term cuts to the maintenance budget will, ultimately, lead to less reliability and higher costs.

If the first thing you cut is the accounting and analysis department (they don't produce anything, do they?) then you will not be able to diagnose why your costs are high and therefore tell which action is most important for the long term future of your factory. You will most probably make the wrong decisions.

This is a pretty good analogy for how governments cut public spending.

The ONS, for example, is responsible for gathering and analysing the statistics that tell us what is happening in our economy, but they haven't been doing a good enough job (see BBC story or this story in Public Finance ). But government has been cutting their budget and doing crazy things like moving their headquarters to Newport from London (which saved costs by ensuring that most of their experienced staff resigned to stay in London leaving the organisation with a huge experience deficit and a much reduced capacity to do its job).

The NHS as a whole has done relatively well compared to most other government departments with its total budget. But inside the NHS a similar pattern emerges.

NICE is responsible for evaluating the quality and cost effectiveness of drugs and procedures in the NHS. But it is facing significant budget cuts even though spending more might identify more opportunities to save costs and improve quality across the whole NHS. But we can't have more spent on analytics when there are squeezes on providers, can we? That would be unfair.

The new NHS Improvement is supposed to work alongside NHS providers to help them do a better and more efficient job of caring for patients. There is a strong case for doing more to identify good practice and help spread it across the system. But one of the barriers to achieving improvement is a serious lack of reliable data about how the money is spent now and, in many providers, how the staff are deployed. The Carter review of the opportunities for NHS savings was very clear on this (see this analysis). And it isn't as if the current archaic infrastructure of collecting data in the NHS is good enough to support improvement at any level (see this comment). But NHS Improvement is going to have to live with significant headcount cuts when it is finally officially established. Apparently it needs to send a signal to providers about the fairness of the NHS financial squeeze. And that is, apparently, more important than its ability to do a good job of supporting the NHS to improve.

And it isn't as if hospitals will be expanding their information departments in the current climate even if doing so might help them achieve improvement elsewhere. Cutting already inadequate information teams is easy as it doesn't affect patient care tomorrow (and if it is catastrophic for care in a couple of years, who is going to care as the Chief Executive will have moved on by then?)

If you don't understand how things work, arbitrary cost cutting will lead to long term damage

If your approach to cost cutting involves slicing the ends of everything that looks like a salami then you will also cut the ends off a lot of fingers.

In one of the very few good books on business strategy, Richard Rumelt argues that the first step in any effective strategy is a good diagnosis of the problem you are trying to solve (see this interesting analysis of how his thinking applies to the NHS). The current symptom we observe in the NHS is large financial deficits. But this isn't the problem any more than a fever is a problem for a patient with malaria. To understand what the actual problem in the NHS is we need to know where and how the money flows. If we don't understand what is happening to create deficits then we can't develop a coherent plan to create an NHS that can sustainably treat patients without lapsing into periodic financial catastrophe. We can treat a fever with an ice bath, but if we don't understand what caused it (was it malaria or was it viral pneumonia?) the patient's recovery will be brief and the fever will soon return.

I don't want to try and diagnose the underlying problems of the NHS in a short blog article; my point is merely that a salami slicing approach to budget cuts damages the system's ability to do diagnosis. This is especially true when the cuts affect the flow of information or the bodies with the expertise to analyse problems and develop improvements. The NHS has tended to grossly undervalue good, timely operational information and is severely short of the analytical capacity to make sense of that information (for examples see this on A&E data and this on the information infrastructure).

The Carter report on hospital productivity argued (see my analysis) that the biggest barrier to improvement was a lack of good information about operational performance. But the we-must-share-the-pain-equally, salami-slicing model of addressing the current deficits is cutting the capacity to collect and analyse that information even though that capacity was inadequate to start with.

We won't build a sustainable NHS without a good diagnosis of the underlying problems. That requires better information about what is happening inside hospitals. A good strategy for achieving a sustainable NHS would, therefore, focus on getting better information at the start so subsequent decisions could address the most important underlying problems.

What we are likely to get is more salami-slicing which damages our ability to understand the problem and exacerbates the failure to focus on which problems matter most. In fact NHS strategy is still in an era equivalent to medicine when bleeding patients with leeches was still thought to be a good universal cure. As in medicine, repeated application of the leeches will fail to cure the patient. Whatever the apparent short term gain, in the long term the patient will be sicker.

The problem generalises across all of government. Salami-slicing cuts to everyone's budget damages the government's very ability to know what is actually happening and therefore its ability to make good decisions about what really ought to be done.

It looks like the patient with the fever is stuck in the ICU until someone comes up with a better diagnosis.

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