How long does it take the public sector to change a light bulb?

Now if it was a light bulb in your house, and money was a bit tight, well, you’d compare prices and opt for the cheapest option.  Or you might weigh up the costs versus the quality, and being the co-conscious person you are, look at the longer term impact, and opt for the energy efficiency one that is going to save you money in the long term, even if it does cost a wee bit more now.

But in the public sector, you’d need someone from the great and the good to set up a wee committee to look at how to change the light bulb.  They’d visit your house and many others and ask you questions about the light bulbs you and your neighbours currently use. The committee would have lots of meetings and look at research before making a conclusion on how the light bulb should be changed.

They would pass a report to the politicians who would promptly pass it to their civil servants and ask them to work out what to do with it.  They might have to set up a wee committee too to help them think about that.  Some months later, another report would be produced and the politicians would make a speech committing to changing the light bulb but regretting that there was no new money for doing so – thanks to the other politicians – and the cost of changing it would have to be met from the existing budget.

So back to the public sector then with the recommendations on how to change the light bulb but no money to do so.  The various departments and agencies would gather round the light fitting and work out that yes, someone does indeed have to change the light bulb but who has authority to do so and more importantly, who is going to pay for that privilege? Every time a budget holder is identified, an assessment is needed  – often bringing in other colleagues to look at things like health and safety – and after that assessment, a quick look at the budget would confirm that there wasn’t enough to pay for the light bulb this month.

Back to the partnership then and many more meetings, and humming and hawing about whose responsibility this light bulb is before eventually the original budget holder manages to come up with the money after all.

Then, a job sheet has to go through to the relevant department to get the light bulb changed and because this is a partnership approach, that requires a whole new way of working than if the budget holder was commissioning the task for itself.  And more people to sign the job off of course.  By which time, the budget situation has changed again and the original budget holder does not have the money after all.

Meantime, fed up of sitting in the dark, you complain to your local MSP and he or she expresses indignation and fires off a letter to the relevant Minister. A question is asked that leads to a parliamentary debate about how long it takes to change a light bulb, and the Minister concerned shrugs his or her shoulders and says what can we do?  We met with the partnership and they promised to change the light bulb and we can’t interfere with their right or responsibility to change the light bulb.  But we do agree that the light bulb must be changed and so we will get our people to investigate why the light bulb hasn’t been changed.

Along comes another public body which investigates the matter and looks at the problem, interviews all the people involved in the partnership and produces a report, saying of course the light bulb should be changed but the public sector agencies are not looking for the most efficient and effective way of changing the light bulb.  The politicians agree and consider that the light bulb now needs to be changed as a matter of urgency.

The partnership looks at it again and concurs, but thinks that implementing the recommended way of funding and changing the light bulb needs a whole new process  – and maybe more people involved with different skill sets? New people are duly brought into the partnership and some months and many meetings later, the new process is agreed, a budget is identified, a job sheet is produced, and the light bulb is changed.

But what’s this?  It’s different from the original light bulb proposed and in fact, doesn’t seem to differ very much from the light bulb you had before.  In fact, it doesn’t save any money and isn’t an energy efficiency one.  There are neither short term nor long term savings to be made and actually, an awful lot of money has been spent along the way.

Do you complain?  Of course not.  You just thank your lucky stars you now have a working light bulb and hope to goodness it doesn’t blow anytime soon.

It might be funny if it really was light bulbs we were talking about changing. But because it’s about improving care for vulnerable adults and children – older, disabled, those with mental health problems and life-threatening and terminal diseases – and about finding ways to protect front line services when budgets get slashed, it’s not funny at all.


13 thoughts on “How long does it take the public sector to change a light bulb?

  1. In all too many organisations the process of doing something overwhelms the purpose in doing it. As scale increases the reason for doing it becomes broken down into proxy measures and these measures then become the purpose. Slowly but surely the people for whom the doing is being done become an inconvenience to the efficient working of the process.

  2. You’re right, Kate – it would be funny if it didn’t affect people. I worked in the public sector for many years, primarily in the NHS. I assumed that moving to local government would be similar, and found I had moved back in time, to before my first ever job! This was evident not just in the combative style taken with unions, but in how it stored information (each folder had a separate Word and Excel subfolder still), and in it’s archaic systems which meant that none of the hunners of spreadsheets we got from other departments correlated. Or they didn’t until there were several arguments and amendments. I said once – before things got really difficult for me as I challenged how they treated people – that IF this was a private sector organisation, it would have failed a long time ago.

    Change is a swear word there – layers and layers of processes for “accountability” in name only as lip service is what is paid on so many levels. It will take a radical overhaul to get our public servants to act in the public interest, and I wish those who try to do it a lot of luck…because while we wait, as your blog points out, it’s the most vulnerable (whether employees or service users) who suffer…

  3. Don’t forget that there would be at least one consultation process, so that lots of other people could spend time thinking about how best to change the bulb, only for the government to announce its plans for doing so the day before the consultation ends.

  4. Interesting article. To some extent we’re hoisted by our own petard, especially with the growing role the private sector plays.

    If you don’t have bidding processes, etc then eventually (fairly or otherwise) people start talking about bribery or corruption.

    In general terms though the slowness with which the public sector works can be a bad thing. Although given some of the short term and ill-thought policies many bureaucrats propose maybe delays are no bad thing!

    • Slow change is fine if they then get it right. All the indications are though from the advent of CHPs is that change has been a long time coming and actually not a lot has changed at all in terms of users of services noticing a difference in the effectiveness or efficiency of services

  5. Shake it up, Now, or forever hold your peace.

  6. This is a point well made. Its also why I think that there are millions of pounds available for services in the public sector that are tied up in useless bureaucracies. A friend of mine has just got a new job with the Scot Gov but cant do any work for a month because she cannot get a computer login until she has been security cleared. So she is being paid to twiddle her thumbs. The dept knew she was coming three weeks prior to her arrival but didnt get the work done.

    • It’s not just the public sector that this sort of thing happens – I’m just finishing a fortnight on a rig where I’ve spent the whole time trying to get a login for their system, and my first month at an internet bank a few years back was a complete write-off, waiting for various privileges and access rights.

      But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? The fact is the private sector can waste money if it wants, because it’s their own money. The public sector spends our money, and when you spend other people’s money, you owe it to them to make every penny count. Having spent a couple of years at a company that provided IT systems for councils, the picture Kate paints is only too familiar to me. The right hand really doesn’t know what the left is doing, and there are just far too many people involved. Nobody wants to appear redundant, or they’ll be made redundant, so everyone is trying to justify their position in the process. The more people you have, the more time is wasted, and the more scope there is for human error to creep in, causing even more delays when things have to be corrected.

      Better leadership is needed, and less people. Eventually, you need someone to stand up and say “right, we’re changing the lightbulb now, and we’ll be using an energy saver.”

      • Totally agree with Doug Daniel there.

      • I agree with most of what you say here Doug. Problem is that all systems are perfectly designed to produce the kinds of results they now produce. There is obviously something about the public sector that encourages it to grow bigger and shift responsibility.

        The leader who eventually says “right, we’re changing the lightbulb now,” will know that if the lightbulb fails next day, there’ll be hell to pay when opposition politicians find out. In that position, you save your leadership for the one or two issues you really care about. Which may not be lightbulbs.

      • Absolutely spot on Doug.

    • Douglas you highlight one excellent snapshot example of the creaking bureaucracy in our public sector, of people forgetting that it is public money that funds them and the need to act and behave accordingly. Hope your friend is enjoying twiddling her thumbs!

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