Chris Shapcott (NAO) asks for “more detailed and clearer picture” of reforms

We spoke to Chris Shapcott, National Audit Office director of regulatory reform, about the NAO report titled ‘Reducing bureaucracy in further education in England’ published today.

Q) Were these numbers what you expected?

In a way, we produced the report because we didn’t know what to expect! That in a way was the point. In the report we do mention that where was some work done a few years ago, by the Information Authority in 2008  – they had a figure of about £140  million. So in that sense the £184, or £180 million for colleges was not that surprising. But really it’s unknown territory, so any figure is interesting.

We felt that because there wasn’t a good figure out there already, it was important to have a go and make a rough estimate. We’re pleased to see that the agency is now trying to do some more accurate figures themselves. It’ll be very interesting to see what they find out.

Q) A number of key burdens were highlighted by providers in the report. Which do you think are the most significant?

It’s the amount of information they need to get. The learner record for instance has got several hundred fields on it – so there’s a lot of stuff that they need to do.

One of the complications in this area is that they will need some of this information for their own purposes. If you’re a good educational institution, you’re going to be keeping a record of whether people are going to classes, what sort of qualifications they’re getting, what learning experiences they’re getting. The really difficult part of this area is to work out what it is the college needs to be a good educational institution, and then what exactly are they adding onto that to meet these government requirements.

Which  isn’t to say these extras are unnecessary, because clearly government is funding this, and government needs assurance that the money is being used properly and being used for the purpose for which it is provided. What we’re looking for, and what we’re recommending, is a more systematic way of working out how much of this extra information which is being asked for is really pulling it’s weight,  the value you’re getting from it, and what’s it costing you to provide.

It’s important to understand it’s not just a matter of asking for less – finding an easier way for colleges to provide what you’re already asking for maybe just as welcome.

Q) What about the issue of accountability? Is there a possibility that the Government’s drive for increased for simplification and reduced bureaucracy will go too far?

We have produced reports in the past which have been critical of problems in the sector. There was some big scandals about ten years ago for instance, and more recently the Public Accounts Committee has been emphasising the importance of accountability for public money.

So I’m 100% behind that – but it’s a matter of how you do it.

What we want is more scientific, analytical management for this to achieve their objectives.

Q) How difficult will it be to create that system, where you can give out those flexibilities but also ensure there is adequate monitoring and regulation? Is it even feasible?

Yes, clearly we think it’s feasible, or we wouldn’t be reporting on this. What we recognise is that they are doing a lot already, and in fact they’re really quite ambitious. What we’re suggesting is the ways in which they can get even more out of what they’re doing. Which in particular is by getting the information on what it’s really costing people, and what they’re getting for it – which will allow them to do things more efficiently.

The other thing that I think would help, would be a more detailed and clearer picture about what the destination of the journey is. We call it I think the final operating model in the report, but where do you want to get to? They know where they are, and they know a lot of things that they want to change – but where’s it going to end you up?

Q) There isn’t a lot of talk between agencies? Should they be more unified?

There is a lot of talking going on, but as we say in the report – we think they’re not making the most of the opportunity they have to work together. It is a difficult thing, because each department has it’s own responsibilities, and one department can’t tell another department what to do in its ‘patch’. But we think there’s more that could be done there.

Q) What was the reaction from the colleges which you visited in the report?

There was a recognition that there is a lot being done and there is an ambition there. The issue is because people have often been around for quite a long time, particularly the ones in the senior positions, they’ve seen a lot of things before, and so they need a lot of convincing that things are really going to stick. I think they welcome what was being done, they welcome the wish to do more, but there’s natural caution as well.

Q) Colleges said they thought they could reduce their costs by around half. However, the NAO suggested that a 25 per cent target was much more reasonable. How would this be achieved?

It’s things like simplifying the information they have to provide, and not having to provide it quite so often. All of that sort of thing.

The 25 per cent, we’re not saying we definitely  it will be 25 per cent, but 25 per cent is something that has been sought in other areas where people have been looking to make a big reduction. Our feeling is the very act of setting an ambitious target in itself is helpful, because it starts people thinking more radically than if you set a small target. They come up with more creative and novel solutions. It may well be at the end of the day they don’t get the 25% but 18%, but that’s still better than aiming for 10% and getting it.

Q) Response to the SFA comments?

These are all things we’ve addressed in the report, and we were aware of the SFA’s thoughts on this before we published, so if you look at the relevant bits you’ll see we’ve covered the bits they’ve dealt with.

We’re very happy with what we’re saying.

Q) What do you think is the key message  of the NAO report?

The value of measurement and the importance of having a clear view about the destination you’re aiming at. In this particular area, where there are so many people to coordinate, the importance of working hard at that as well.

(Read our news piece on the report here)