The middle men

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Kenneth Roy

Although you would have to be a certified policy geek to find much of compelling interest in the manifestos of the UK’s three main political parties…

Kenneth Roy

Although you would have to be a certified policy geek to find much of compelling interest in the manifestos of the UK’s three main political parties, there is the occasional shaft of enlightenment. In the Conservative manifesto of all places, I found a statement so eminently sensible that it was difficult to suppress a small cheer. The Cameroons have pledged to stop government bodies using public money to hire people to lobby other government bodies. Forgive me: I cannot face the Labour manifesto in the same short life, but I think there may be a similar undertaking buried somewhere within it.
     Unfortunately, these undertakings probably carry no writ north of the border. In February, the Scottish Review exposed the startling waste of public dosh being proposed by NHS Health Scotland, which had advertised for a public affairs consultancy ‘to represent it within the Scottish Parliament’ at a cost of between £180,000 and £300,000 over three years. We asked reasonably enough why NHS Health Scotland, a public body, was not capable of representing itself to the Scottish Parliament, another public body, and pointed out that its chief executive, with his background in communications, could very well walk the short distance to Holyrood and chat up whoever required to be chatted up.
     Under pressure, the idea was dropped. I believe SR can claim to have saved the public between £180,000 and £300,000. But it is interesting to discover that the practice of using middle men (they are usually men) to facilitate communication between public bodies has by no means disappeared.
     Endlessly intrigued by Scottish ‘independent think tanks’, I stuck a pin in the board of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and the pin landed on the name Melvyn Ingleson, chief executive of MJI Business Solutions. I know nothing of Mr Ingleson or MJI Business Solutions – only what I learn from its website. No one has ever mentioned his or its name in my company, not that I keep much company. I am quite open to MJI Business Solutions. I observe a Swiss-like neutrality on the subject.
     Mr Ingleson (I read) ‘has an exceptional knowledge of the changing political landscape post-devolution’ and ‘has delivered a wide range of consulting interventions’.
     What is a ‘consulting intervention’ when it’s at home? I cannot tell you; I simply do not know. But ‘Scottish entrepreneur Michael Maltby’ is warm in his testimonial. ‘Melvyn’s Scottish political instincts and networks are without peer,’ Mr Maltby enthuses on the MJI website. ‘Over many years he has successfully built a large group of influential individuals in the public, private and third sectors, who are motivated to make Scotland a more efficient and effective country. Involving Melvyn in your plans will save you years.’
     It sounds impressive. But years of what? Mr Maltby is unspecific.

I turned to the case studies and found among them, to my slight surprise, SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations), which commissioned MJI Business Solutions ‘to manage a series of 1 to 1 interventions at the highest level of Government, Local Government and Third Sector in advance of a Strategic Dialogue Dinner’ with the aim of establishing ‘a baseline perspective of SCVO as a brand representing the Third Sector’. I wonder when the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations became a brand, when it needed a baseline perspective, and what on earth goes on at a Strategic Dialogue Dinner.
     But fair enough: the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is free to do what it likes. Since it is not dependent on public money (so far as I know), it may have as many interventions and as much sticky toffee pudding as it wishes, without the rest of us having any cause to complain.
     The same is not true of NHS Education for Scotland, a public body which ‘provides educational solutions for workforce development’. It does this ‘by designing, commissioning, quality assuring and where appropriate providing education for NHS Scotland staff’. To help it along the way, it receives an annual grant from the Scottish Government of – wait for this – £400 million. At first I assumed this was a misprint on the Scottish Government website. But I have verified the figure. It is not significantly less than the total cost of providing the National Health Service to the entire population of the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. NHS Education for Scotland, I repeat, costs the public £400 million a year – the equivalent of 14,500 experienced nurses at £27,500 a year.
     How alert is it? Not tremendously, judging by the home page of its website, where ‘pandemic flu’, which disappeared as an issue months ago and was never much of an issue in the first place, is still being boldly flagged up. Although the UK Government has been unsuccessfully trying to flog 34 mllion unused vaccines, unused because no one needs or wants them, NHS Education for Scotland is still promoting ‘educational support’ for NHS staff in Scotland in the treatment of the non-existent pandemic. Is this simply an extremely out-of-date website, or do they know something we don’t?
     NHS Education for Scotland employs 539 people. By modern standards, it is a major Scottish industry. Yet, even with its gigantic public subsidy and its impressive payroll, it still requires the services of external consultants. Recently it commissioned MJI Business Solutions ‘to develop a full programme of structured conversations to inform the development of relationships between NHS Education, the National Health Service in Scotland, the Health Boards, and the Scottish universities and colleges’.
     Hang on. Is this not the ultimate absurdity – that the NHS should be hiring external consultants to enable it to talk mainly to itself? If it must have these conversations, could it not organise them off its own bat without the need for consultants? I acknowledge that my recommendation is extremely boring. It amounts to this – that the various agencies of the NHS should be firmly instructed that, if they wish to communicate with each other, lobby each other, have a structured conversation with each other, they should be grown up about it and do it themselves. It would be surprising if this did not save a little bit of public money in these hard times.
     At the same time as it is organising Strategic Dialogue Dinners and structured conversations, MJI notes ‘the need for greater efficiency of delivery and increased de-cluttering of the organisational landscape’. With these sentiments it would be difficult to find fault. The cause of increased de-cluttering is likely to be reinforced by the outcome of the general election, whoever wins it, and we must all play our part. In anticipation of this bracing new era, I am clearing out the cupboard in the hall at 66 John Finnie Street. It is being increasingly de-cluttered before the Shred It van arrives on Monday to remove all records relating to such golden years as 1962. But I do not rate highly my chances of being invited to any of Mr Ingleson’s Strategic Dialogue Dinners. They feel – well, just a little bit pre-election.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review – click here.