Friday, 26 September 2014

Local Government Accounting - Warrington style

Warrington BC is the host authority for the Police and Crime and Panel ('PCP').  As host authority they are entitled to a Home Office Grant to pay for the work they do in facilitating the work of the panel.  The council is entitled to claim £53,300 for supporting the panel.

As panel members we asked for a report indicating how the money had been spent.  I was very unhappy with what we were told.

It appears far too much has been spent on administration and not enough, in my view, in providing research and assistance to the panel in fulfilling its role in scrutinising the Police and Crime Commissioner.  If you want to see me raising the issues you can watch the webcast of the panel (which incidentally saw 410 viewers watching at least part of the broadcast live.)

The following passage is a quote from the report considered today - the parts that piqued my interest I've highlighted in bold:

'The host authority undertakes a system of informal time-recording to estimate the number of hours spent by staff on activities related to the ... panel.  The process captures information by way of a spreadsheet, about the activities undertaken by key staff in units equivalent to one day (7.4 hours) based upon the salary rate of each member of staff.  The actual time logged by staff is normally rounded up or down to the nearest half-day (i.e. 0.5 unit) ...
...
The total hours worked by the 5 employees identified is 172, which is split between 136.5 hours (Solicitor to the Council and Monitoring Officer) and 35.5 hours (Performance and Policy).

Now as I work as a solicitor I know something about how solicitors work and how they calculate their fees.  I am expected to work to 6 minute units - not half day units and use a formal time recording system.  I noted the 'weasel words' about 'normally' rounding the figures claimed to the nearest half day.  Does the use of the word 'normally' suggest that, on occasion, the rounding (which I found excessively crude) didn't take place?  Could this mean that a short telephone call may have been charged as half a day's work?

Returning to the report - having set out the basis of calculation the report then indicated the figures used to make up the claimed £53,300.  It included the following two items:

Solicitor and Monitoring Officer team    £36,327
Performance and Policy  team                   £7,313

So we know that the Solicitor and his staff worked 136.5 hours for their claimed £36,327 and the Performance and Policy team worked 35.5 hours for their £7,313.  With these figures and a little division we can work out the hourly rates.

Solicitor and legal team  £36,327/136.5 = £266.13.  This is an average hourly rate for the 5 officers - and surprisingly in the range of reasonable commercial rates.

For the Performance and Policy Team £7,313/35.5 = £206 - a very high figure for administrative staff.

Unfortunately the council solicitor wasn't present to explain the figures so I asked, and the panel agreed, to defer this matter so that he can be present to explain himself.  Just as the discussion was concluding one of the council's administrative staff indicated that an apology was due.

Where the report referred to hours, it should have referred to days!

Now this in itself is astonishing.  Is it right that the report was so poorly written and checked that such an error had been made?  Was everything mis stated by a factor of 7.4?

Lets assume the we should read 'days' for hours we get the following calculation

136.5 days - with 7.4 hours per day - equates to 1,010.1 hours;
35.5 days - with 7.4 hours per day - equates to 262.7 hours.

So doing the maths again:

Solicitor and Monitoring officer team £36,327/1,010.1 = £35.96 per hour;
Performance and Policy team £7,313/262.7 hours = £27.84 per hour.

As anyone in the commercial world we know these figures are also highly questionable.

All this begs the question whether the council really knows what it is doing and whether its financial information is credible.

Now this isn't just an academic exercise.   The more money spent on administration means less money available to support the scrutiny function of the panel and all of us have to careful with public money.

I will be pressing for answers at the next panel meeting.