FEfocus Editorial - Red tape also holds things together

11th March 2011 at 00:00

Who will stick up for the bureaucrats? Those pens don't push themselves, you know! Someone has to keep the red-tape manufacturers in business, eh? Yes, it is hard to be an advocate for bureaucracy: but here goes.

The Skills Funding Agency's attempts to streamline its operations by cutting down the number of small providers it funds (page 3) are superficially sensible and take aim at the unpopular notion that money is wasted on back-office wastrels.

But if FE's endless parade of red tape-slashing commissions, from the Bureaucracy Reduction Task Force to the Bureaucracy Reduction Group, taught us anything, it is that cutting waste is far from a simple task.

All political parties have become obsessed with the "front line": for Labour it was a question of ensuring that most resources reached it, for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat fellow-travellers it is a matter of protecting what is most important from their cuts.

While FE Focus is not immune to the charms of a metaphor in uniform, this one does not even hold up within its own terms. Front lines need supply lines: the Royal Logistics Corps is the largest in the Army and has a long list of medals to prove its worth.

One of the lessons of the pain caused by cuts in so many parts of British life - from libraries to police pay - is that the idea of "Government waste" as something which can be easily extracted from the system, as if by liposuction, is largely an illusion.

The illusion in the case of introducing minimum contracts and forcing small apprenticeship providers to become subcontractors is that while a shiny shilling of costs seems to disappear, it ends up hidden behind the ear of the baffled small training provider.

One such provider says it faces pound;45,000 of extra costs as a result of being a subcontractor. Where does this money come from except the precious front line of education?

It is, perversely, a bureaucratic approach to the problem of bureaucracy. A particular manager is able to point to a budget reduction and receive a pat on the back, but there is little to show that the system as a whole has gained anything.

The truth is that all of the pen-pushers do something, and even if some of the things they do are more valuable than others, they probably all have some value. Complex systems can be complex for a reason.

This is the flipside to concerns that colleges are manipulating the complexities of the system and receiving funding they have not earned (page 2). Professor Alison Wolf may be right when she says that it is absurd that colleges need to pay for annual training courses to understand the latest wrinkle of the funding system, and worse than absurd if they use the knowledge to get more than they are due.

But if things are to change, decisions have to be made about the balance between complexity and manipulation of the system on the one hand, and on the other, the reason things got so complex in the first place: the need to cope with a range of different circumstances.

When it happens, it would be better if the trade-off was acknowledged rather than being waved away as a simple snip to the red tape.

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