Hear me, see me, cut out red tape

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Sir Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, is to head a bureaucracy-busting task force, Steve Hook reports.

THE controller of the Audit Commission may not have the sexiest job title in Britain but his activities send shivers down the spines of ministers and public-sector administrators.

Now, it is hoped that Sir Andrew Foster will have a similar effect on further education, as head of a group set up to act as a "gatekeeper" against excessive bureaucracy.

Duplication of administration, including human resources and financial management, along with a funding system which remains hard to understand and tough to operate, have proved an increasing headache for principals and their management teams.

Sir Andrew is about to stand down from the Audit Commission, the body responsible for ensuring value for money in public services.

A lifelong public servant, he started out in social work and climbed his way up from outside Whitehall. He has twice been a director of social services, in Greenwich and North Yorkshire. A former general manager of Yorkshire Regional Health Authority, he also served as deputy chief executive of the National Health Service.

The group he is to chair is the creation of the Learning and Skills Council's bureaucracy-busting task force, headed by college principal Sir George Sweeney. It will examine new and existing procedures to reduce paperwork - a task which will include challenging ministers about over-bureaucratic initiatives.

Unlike Sir George, Sir Andrew is an outsider - and says he will only stay in the role if he is given a free hand.

"I only agreed to take on this task when Margaret Hodge (then further and higher education minister) and Charles Clarke (Education Secretary) both spoke to me and said they were serious," he told FE Focus. He estimates it will take six months to come up with his first list of recommendations for reform.

It is early days, but already he is concerned about the complexity of the sector.

The fear is that the way colleges are funded is a mystery to most of those whose money is being spent - taxpayers. There are colleges. Inside those colleges are students and people to teach them. The rest is unknown.

And too often, those inside the system have trouble making it work. "The funding mechanism has not been well understood," said Sir Andrew.

"I don't think the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus understands the institutions involved or how they relate to each other. That is against the public interest.

"I think there is not much clarity about how things hang together. My work in public services shows it is very important ... to have integration at a local level between things and have people working together well and reducing duplication.

"I want to get round and about and see how things can be managed differently. I know about what it is like to be there at local level and how Whitehall seems to appear to be to those on the ground. I will be encouraging people to write to me and going to visit them."

Since colleges left local authority control in 1993, and set up as quasi-companies, a series of misadventures, particularly involving franchising, has damaged their reputation.

But Sir Andrew says this must not be an excuse for too much central control."We have to have scrutiny which is proportional to the risk they demonstrate. You have had a number of scandals in this sector but that does not mean that everybody needs a belt and braces approach.

"A light touch should be seen as a positive way forward," he added.

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