Sunday, November 19, 2006

Many Hands Make Light Work

Apparently, the UK Revenue and Customs has introduced a new 'streamlined' process workflow, in which each case is handled by up to six civil servants. A spokesman for Revenue and Customs said: "The more complex returns may need more people working on them. The idea is to offer a better service."

The Mail on Sunday mocks this reform under the headline "No joke... it takes six civil servants to deal with your tax return".

It is possible that the Mail on Sunday could be expressing its scepticism about any process reengineering in the public sector, especially after learning that consultants were paid more than £7million to 'streamline' the process. (I don't actually know which consultancy it was, and I have no idea whether this was good value. There are many public sector projects that cost a lot more than this.)

But the language of the article (including words like "barmy") sounds more like bewilderment than scepticism. It seems that the Mail on Sunday simply doesn't understand how the division of labour can possibly improve efficiency.

The Mail on Sunday suggests that there is still a backlog of work, but even if this is true it does not necessarily mean that the reformed process doesn't work (see below). Meanwhile the Mail on Sunday is expressing its scorn and mockery of anyone who thinks it might work.

A proper evaluation of the reform would doubtless require a lot more detailed investigation and analysis than the Mail on Sunday is willing or able to undertake.

Exercise for the reader of this blog - to explain the division of labour in simple terms that even the Mail on Sunday can understand. (Hint: Adam Smith.)

Second exercise - to explain why backlogs don't always disappear immediately, even when the process is made more efficient. (Hint: to clear a 4-month backlog in 1 month may require up to 4+1 times as much resources, even with a more efficient process)

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