By Tony Collins
The police, and civil and public servants in central government, the NHS and local authorities criticise journalists for biased reporting – taking selected facts out of context.
They’re sometimes right. Journalists working for national newspapers can draft an article that is diligently balanced only to find, by the time it’s published, it leaves out facts which would have complicated, blunted, or contradicted the main points.
It’s one thing for this to happen in the world of journalism. You don’t expect public bodies to report on their own affairs with a partiality that rivals out-of-context reporting by some newspapers.
But it appears to be happening so regularly that one-sided self-reporting on organisational performance may be becoming the norm in the public sector.
In the NHS subjective, positive reporting in board papers – where managers tell directors what they think they want to hear – could help to explain why Cerner patient record implementations have, for years, gone badly wrong for the same reasons.
In recent months reports without balance have been published on the performance of Avon and Somerset Police’s IT outsourcing contract with IBM.
Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police are minority shareholders in a private company, Southwest One, which is owned by IBM.
Confusingly, Taunton Deane Borough Council issued positive reports about its successful partnership with Southwest One – and then it decided to take some services back in-house.
Now it has emerged – only as a result of FOI requests by Somerset resident and campaigner Dave Orr – that two independent organisations, the National Audit Office, and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, have commented positively on Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s partnership with Southwest One, based entirely on the unaudited opinions of the police force itself.
From his FOI requests Orr learned that the Avon and Somerset’s outsourcing deal with Southwest One has not gone entirely as expected. The National Audit Office’s FOI team has released notes of a joint visit by the NAO and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to Avon and Somerset police in December 2012. The visit was to find out about how well Southwest One was delivering services to the police force.
The NAO’s notes are positive in parts. They say that performance has improved considerably since the implementation of the contract.
“Implementation of SAP improving the accounts close-down process, initial issues being resolved and a good quality of service being provided regularly.”
But there is another side to the story that is not reflected in the published accounts of Avon and Somerset’s relationship with Southwest One. The NAO’s [unpublished] field notes say:
“Fewer than expected benefits have been realised from IT due to the considerably different security requirements of the Police compared to the Councils.
“It also took a long time for SAP to be implemented. There has yet to be a duty management system implemented by SWOne which is part of the contract… SAP would have benefited from some pre-launch testing or piloting.”
A letter to Orr from the Home Office appears to confirm that Avon and Somerset Police’s participation in Southwest One is an unequivocal success.
“The private sector can help to deliver police support services better and at lower cost. Every pound saved means more money for the front line, putting officers on the streets…
“In its report “Policing in Austerity: rising to the challenge  Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary identified the Southwest One partnership as being a key element in achieving savings for Avon and Somerset Constabulary while ensuring better procurement, streamlining business support processes, and ensuring better use of police officer time.
“The report also noted that the Southwest One collaboration was the first of its kind for policing in England and Wales and that to date, no other force has delivered this level of partnership with local authorities.”
A little of the other side of the story comes in the last sentence of the Home Office letter to Orr which says: “We understand that Avon and Somerset Constabulary continues to work closely with IBM to resolve any technical difficulties and improve the services provided by Southwest One.”
Indeed a table on page 155 of HMIC ‘s 2013 report Policing in austerity: rising to the challenge indicates that Avon and Somerset Constabulary has one of the worst records of any police force when it comes to savings delivered between 2010/11 and 2012/13. [Table: Key indicators of the challenge – quartile analysis.]
Southwest One began a 10-year contract providing services to Avon and Somerset Police in 2008. The services included enquiry offices, district HR, estates, financial services, site administration, facilities, corporate human resources, information services, purchasing and supply, and reprographics. The contract involves 554 seconded staff.
Police forces, councils, the NHS and central government departments need a few Richard Feymans to report on their organisation’s performance. Feynman was a gifted scientist, MIT graduate and noble prize winner who was chosen as a commissioner to report on the cause , or causes, of the Challenger Space Shuttle “O” rings accident on 28 January 1986.
He reported with such independence of mind and diligence that his hard-hitting findings were not considered acceptable to be included in the main report of the Presidential Commission of inquiry into the accident. Feynman had to be content with having his findings published as an appendix to the Commission’s report – and an edited appendix at that.
He suggested in his book “What do you care what other people think?” that his appendix was the only genuinely balanced part of the official inquiry report.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled,” said Feynman.
One of his questions was whether “organisation weaknesses that contributed to the [Shuttle] accident [was] confined to the solid rocket booster sector, or were they a more general characteristic of NASA.”
One of Feynman’s conclusions:
“It would appear that, for whatever purpose – be it for internal or external consumption – the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”
If such exaggeration happens at NASA it can happen in UK police force IT reports, and in board papers on the performance of councils and NHS trusts.
When journalists get it wrong it’s usually to their eternal regret. In the public sector positive unbalanced reporting is so “normal” that hardly anyone involved realises it’s a deviant practice. The US author Diane Vaughan coined a phrase for such corporate behaviour. She called it the normalisation of deviance.
It’s surely time for public bodies to move away from the norm and start reporting on their performance, and the performance of their outsourcing other private sector contracts, with balance, objectivity and independence of mind.
If managers knew that reports on the progress of their contracts would be audited for impartiality and competence over organisational self-interest, perhaps they would have a greater incentive to avoid badly thought through outsourcing deals and IT implementations.