On Bob the Builder, balancing the books and assurance without certainty.
Can we fix it?
Bob the Builder was a big thing while my kids were growing up. No problem can withstand Bob’s relentless, positive, can-do attitude - even if it is a bit wearing for his colleagues now and again1. This kind of spirit is helping to make our Team Bumblebee2 catch ups one of my weekly highlights.
Some new people joined in this week and we bolted through 6 items. We didn’t find an owner for a couple of the ideas but we are going to get on with the rest. That is probably a good ratio given the team all have day jobs to do.
I wonder if I am allowed to play Bob’s theme tune at the start of the meetings?
Balancing the books
Making sense of the financial aspects of IT has always been difficult3. Adding agile and digital ways of working into the mix may solve some of the problems but it also creates new ones. We use a mixed approach at Cornwall Council. IT costs are handled by a mixture of:
- bulk allocation of budget to the IT department
- direct pass through of costs from suppliers to user teams.
- internal transfers based upon standard service charges or at an hourly rate, often for engineers’ time.
Just as for any large organisation, this is a compromise which tries to put cost-benefit decisions in the right place (usually the end-user or someone close to them) without wasting a lot of effort administering tiny amounts of money. Public sector organisations usually have a hard time with this, as we can’t keep profits to invest later or borrow against future benefits in the same way as a commercial organisation.
This week I have been working on various aspects of IT finance. One example is automating some of the steps in our financial process. We can’t always eliminate administration but it is good to minimise the manual effort we need to put into it. Another example is making ongoing costs clear in the early stages of developing a new system or service with our customers. Ongoing costs include things like regular maintenance upgrades, or periodically moving onto completely new technology.
It helps to keep in mind that there isn’t one perfect way to manage IT costs. When choosing between different approaches, money might not be the deciding factor at all. Other things to consider include:
- aligning incentives
- bringing authority and accountability together
- placing risks with the people best able to manage them
These can have a big impact on what IT costs and who picks up the bill.
Assurance without certainty
Another topic that has come up a few times this week is how assurance and risk can bump into each other.
From my background as a management consultant, I know the correct answer to many questions is often the unsatisfying one:
Quite a lot of our IT work involves product development or analysing problems and this is inherently creative and uncertain work. For someone in an assurance role, it can be incredibly frustrating to get inconclusive answers to apparently simple questions like:
- Will it work?
- When will you be finished?
- How much do we have to pay?
It can be just as frustrating for our engineers to be asked for detail and certainty that just doesn’t exist, or to follow a process which assumes it does.
I am trying a few things that have helped in my previous roles including:
- using stories and analogies to help people understand the nature of our work, the inherent risks and the limits to what we can do about it
- making sure the consequences of decisions (or indecision4) are understood
- trying to be clear about who is advising and performing assurance, and who is accountable and takes the decision
- running experiments to provide more information quickly and cheaply
- helping decision makers understand the calculated risks they often need to take.
A word about a good cause
It has remained relatively mild outside my home recently, but it sometimes passes 30°C in the attic room which has become my office during the lockdown. With a lot of summer still to go, hopefully, I needed to look at cooling.
A small air conditioning unit would tackle the absolute temperature but I would rather not be the source of all those kilowatt hours and emissions in the middle of a climate emergency. If that wasn’t enough, air conditioning can be expensive and too noisy for video calls.
The breeze from a cheap fan can make it feel like it is 10°C cooler but they aren’t very quiet and I was surprised at how much power they used.
Instead, I’ve spent a little bit more on a table-top fan which is efficient and very quiet - it makes about the same amount of noise as the cooling fan in my laptop. The motor technology means it shifts a lot of air without using a lot of energy - it uses the same sort of USB supply that you use to charge your mobile phone. The manufacturer claims it will also last longer than the motors in cheaper fans but let’s see.