Wasting Professionals’ Time

Under Section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 a person can be charged with wasting police time, and if the case is serious, a sentence of six months in prison may be passed. The guidelines suggest that wasting ten hours marks the watershed for action to be taken.

I suggest that it is time this principle is applied to other professionals : why just the Police?

I took part in an Employment Tribunal appeal some years ago, overseen by a fierce lady chair person. At intervals, (whenever she thought things were getting boring?) she would announce, “I am giving a Time Penalty Warning”. None of us had a clue what she meant but it sounded dire, and we thought it might have an impact on the allocation of costs at the end of the case. It certainly made us smarten up our act – no dithering, no hesitation, no unnecessary repetition.

In America, research showed that, on average, social workers in voluntary agencies spent half their working life seeking funds to pay their salaries for the half of their time which they actually spent on social work. Now there’s a good use of time! If the country had found a way of funding social workers directly, it could have doubled their output, or halved the number needed, with a real financial saving.

Why stop there?

I once saw a video of a case allocation meeting in an unnameable inner London borough. The whole area team took part – over thirty people. They waffled and droned on. No one volunteered to take a case. It was not clear who was meant to be managing the meeting or even who held the informal reins of power. Hardly any decisions were taken. The whole event appeared to be geared to generate inertia. The job should have been done by the team manager in half an hour. Instead, thirty people spent over an hour, completing about a quarter of the job. The full-time equivalent of a working week was wasted. Presumably, being an inner London borough, they were well-funded, and the wastage went unnoticed.

But wastage can happen at all levels

If an inspector reports that an agency needs a policy statement on some new subject, and is taken seriously, think what the agency has to do. First, there is the research, probably by a senior officer, to find out about the subject and learn what other policy guidance is already available. Then other people who may be affected have to be consulted, and the reports have to be drafted, debated by senior staff, revised and put before the decision-making committee or board. Then the new policy has to be implemented, with detailed guidance and training programmes for everyone affected. And of course the implementation has to be monitored. Year by year by year, from then on. Add up the time all this takes. In a modest-sized agency, the comment by the inspector may cost the agency the equivalent of a full-time member of staff. The cost presumably gets passed on to the authorities commissioning the services, and so to us, the tax payers, and we keep on paying, long after the inspector has retired.

Wastage happens at the top too

It is the Government which brings out the mountains of law and reams of regulations which everyone has to obey. They seem to think that if they instruct people to do something, it will be done. And if it is done according to their guidance, it will be good practice. They then set targets by which people can demonstrate that they have pleased the Government.

The unforeseen outcome of this approach is that everyone plays the games so that they score highly. It does not seem to matter if it means that staff have to sit in their offices hour after hour instead of working with their clients / residents / tenants / pupils / patients. The key to success is to tick the boxes, write out the policies that are required, undertake the risk assessments, send in the forms on time, and so on.

The lesson which managers and staff have been taught by the Government is that if, to meet a target, the real needs of people have to be overlooked, that does not matter. If people should only be on a waiting list for a limited time, make them wait to get on the waiting list. If ambulance response rates depend on when the caller put the phone down, keep them talking. If pupils’ academic success is the criterion, exclude the failures.

Or what about the systems for bidding for grants and other funding? Incredible volumes of paperwork – always slightly different for each funding agency, entailing copious data-gathering, even for small sums of money. And often tendering is competitive, so that all but one agency are simply wasting their time filling in all the forms.

Time is valuable, and finite

There is a finite number of trained and qualified professionals. Every time that one of them has to waste time on an unnecessary form or is diverted to try to meet an inappropriate target, it means that there is less time to spend on clients. It is generally the most senior, experienced, creative people who get put into the posts where this time is wasted. If they were all involved face to face with clients, people’s social care / housing problems / education / health needs would be dealt with better.

If ten wasted hours are grounds for police to take action, how many hours have the Government wasted with unnecessary bidding systems, targets and regulations? The Government is not only wasting professionals’ time but preventing its use to meet people’s needs. They need a Time Penalty Warning – or even better, six months inside. After all, they have increased the numbers in prison from 60,000 to 81,000 while they’ve been in office, and there’s another waste of time. But if they think that prison makes offenders think again, maybe it would do them some good too.

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