Humphrey had intended to write a piece today about the return to contingency operations in the UK. This is now on hold as instead, reports emerged about Government Procurement Cards (GPCs) reportedly being abused, mainly by MOD staff and that there was insufficient audits of expenses.
This isn’t the first time the GPC has been in the news, earlier this year there was outrage in the media at suggestions that GPCs were being used to procure all manner of extravagant items like antiques. In fact all of the so called abuses were in fact utterly legitimate work purchases, which were then classed by the vendor category on the receipts, and not the item.
The debate on GPC expenditure though highlights an interesting dilemma over public expenditure, and delegation of trust to public servants. There is a perception, not helped by today’s report, that GPCs are in mass issue, and that all civil servants are cutting about with them and putting every conceivable expense on them. The implied message is that somehow some public servants are using public money to fund personal expenses.
The real issue here is not one of the use of the GPC, but the question of how much trust should be vested in public servants. There appear to be two mutually contradictory issues- firstly, the aim to get public servants to deliver value for money, to cut costs and to adopt best practise as seen by business. The second is the desire to ensure that public money is scrutinised, and that expenditure only occurs for the most legitimate claim.
GPC is about the delegation of authority – it saves time by reducing the need to fill in long purchase orders, or fiddling with a claims system which feels as if it was designed to save money by being so user unfriendly that people don’t want to use it. In an era where admin staff are being cut left right and centre, it makes far more sense to let desk officers spend their time working on the stuff that really matters, rather than processing travel claims.
However, the need to be seen to scrutinise will only slow things down. The MOD (and wider civil service) tries to make its workforce be ever more efficient, but true efficiency can only be delivered when business processes are reduced to a minimum. If all claims are audited physically, then the time and effort required to do this would require extra staff (costing money), or take staff away from their real job (again not delivering the most cost effective use of the resource).
The current system could be more effective, and deliver even greater savings, if staff were fully trusted. The current system of centralised booking for travel and hotels is not cost effective – it improves scrutiny, as it means that all accommodation and rail travel can be audited and booked under a cap. But it lacks flexibility, and because the service is carried out by a private company, the MOD incurs huge costs each year to use a centralised booking service with an 0844 number in order to book hotels.
This authors own personal view is that every member of the CS should have a GPC. They should use it for all expenses, such as flights & hire car booking, accommodation booking and so on. Instead of relying on centralised process, let staff sort their own arrangements out. Put trust in the staff that they will find a low cost option, put the costings together and then claim it back in due course. Let them pay for it on a GPC where it can easily be accounted for. Why pay for a private company to do hotel bookings for the CS, when anyone can be their own travel agent at their desk?
We trust our people to make life or death decisions. This author has in his career been required to take decisions which would result in people definitely being killed if he supported a certain course of action. Despite this, he is not trusted to travel for a meeting by car in another town, incurring less than £20 of mileage claims without going through a 1* level approval process.
What message does this really send? It says that the MOD is serious about travel scrutiny, and that people are not able to go off on spurious jollies and spending splurges on their GPC. But at the same time the cost in staff time of putting a business case together, staffing it, getting it signed off and then claiming it back is vastly greater than the original sum of money. Is it really the best use of public money to scrutinise expenditure on smaller sums of public money, or should the system trust its people?
There is no right answer to this debate. The author is passionate about ensuring that public money is spent in the most appropriate manner. Was he to encounter anyone fiddling the books, then he would immediately report them to the appropriate authorities. But the desire to see public money spent properly extends to the scrutiny process too. Is it really the best use of a busy 1* officers time to make them check and approve travel requests for a meeting in another town? What message does this send to the MOD – that you cannot be trusted to make a decision that you need to travel to a meeting and spend a small sum of public money, but that you can be trusted to kill someone.
We need to ensure public money is properly spent, but this author thinks we need to trust our people a little bit more. Issue a GPC card to everyone, reap huge savings from scrapping the centralised booking offices, and let delegate a little bit of authority. By trusting our people, we may find it ever easier to make real savings in other areas. Make the public sector have a personal stake in spending public money.