Last Friday I was in London for the Universities UK Task Group on Efficiency and Modernisation - made up of Vice-Chancellors, and a Director of Finance, HR, Procurement, Estates and IT (me!). It's a group set up in response to the funding cuts, and the challenge of managing efficiencies whilst charting a growth path out of the current financial position. Retaining the quality of teaching and research with fewer resources, without damaging future prospects will be a key objective. The group is looking at what drives efficiency in the sector, and then analysing whether there are specific areas in which the sector can achieve large scale savings by introducing more efficient operations, so that resources can be targeted towards supporting teaching and research.
Several areas are being looked at including Procurement, HR processes, Estates and Facilities Management (including utilities), and of course - administrative processes, back office systems and shared services. A report showing savings which had been achieved in other sectors including local authorities and the NHS was discussed - and there were some hefty savings. But, and I did make this point, these figures don't mean a lot unless you know how efficient they were to start with, and what their baseline costs were. But, these figures showing huge savings in, for example the NHS, do get bandied around government, with the implication that we can achieve similar ones.
Of course, I'm not saying there aren't efficiencies to be gained - there are. And we probably all know where they are in our own organisations! We have to start sharing services within our own institutions before we can begin to think about sharing them outside. Standardising and simplifying business processes and using the same systems are an absolute prerequisite to sharing services between institutions, or to looking at different models of service delivery. I know there are Universities still running multiple email systems for example (more than 20 in some cases) - fairly soon we won't run any, but that migration to Google was made so much easier by only having one system in place to start with.
The other thing we all have to do is understand our costs better - we need to know how much services costs, and in some cases drill down to the cost of a process - or how can we make sensible decisions about achievable savings, what services or processes might be suitable for sharing, or outsourcing.
So, an interesting meeting, and I look forward to seeing how this agenda progresses. The only thing that slightly amused me, was that the group is about modernisation, and I was the only person in the room using anything digital to read the papers - everyone else had printed copies, carefully placed in folders and labeled - by their PAs I imagine. Maybe I'll leave tackling that one till next time....