Simplifying financial planning and analysis in Local Authorities and schools

4 September 2015

Andrew Gunn

Andrew Gunn

Consultant

In the recent budget, George Osborne set out his plans. Unsurprisingly, it was all about budget cutting and further public sector bashing. Like any parent who cares about the state of education, my fears include a ticking budget time bomb.

We all know that education is a long game and that the impact of inadequate, poorly funded, or inappropriate use of funding in schools, can take a while to percolate through the educational establishment.

History tells us that financial planning, analysis, and governance, can so often be far from consistent.  If school budget planning is not managed properly, the costs of failure can be dramatic for society. In England there are some 22,000 such micro-businesses in operation, each focused on the lifelong project of educating our future.

Local Authority managed schools have funding driven through Local Authorities. Some, such as academies and independent schools, are autonomous and therefore immune to political and financial meddling.

This week Mr. Cameron stated in a speech that he “would like all schools” to have absolute control over their finances, whilst positioning another 500 ‘free’ schools.  What kind of CFO would operate a £26.5 billion business on using Excel spreadsheets using outdated technology? Let me see….well none…or certainly not a good one.

So how is this the case for many schools today? A recent survey suggested that financial planning and analysis in schools is problematic. For example, a school governor turns up to review reports across several excel spreadsheets. He/she then realises that there is no cash and makes an unplanned decision, such as letting a formally qualified teacher go and replacing them with less qualified teaching assistants or supply teachers (who do a cracking job by the way).

This because they did not see it coming, or made a bad financial decision or commitment without the ability to perform proper ‘what if’ analysis over the long-term three year budgeting cycle.

Would we get on a plane piloted by a flight attendant? No! So why do we consistently leave best practice financial budgeting planning and analytics to the gods (or in this case, Excel spreadsheets) with something as precious as educating our future?

The fundamental issue with school financial budget planning and analytics is that Excel spreadsheets are not the best tools, and certainly not in context of Local Authority financial management for schools. They are complex, high risk, and resource consuming for schools (SMB’s, bursars & governors) and Local Authority financial management teams.

How can we defuse this situation?

I am a great believer in using simple technology to disrupt the accepted norm. Simple, affordable and subscription based Cloud financial planning and analytics tools can offer so many benefits to Local Authorities and schools.

If Local Authorities made available affordable, simple, forecasting and analytics tools to schools, delivered within a highly collaborative environment online environment, i.e. Local Authority to school, or school to many schools (where one schools operates as a SMB ran cluster), they could have instant visibility of a schools’ total financial picture within its span of influence. This would allow Local Authorities to take a more proactive approach to school financial planning, and school clusters would be able to collaborate much more efficiently. Schools could also better align their financial planning in-line with their development plans in a much more informed manner.

As mentioned, the ability for schools to self-serve financial planning and analytics using a standard template wrapped in online social collaboration with other schools or the Local Authority concerned is an incredibly powerful concept. Rather this than reliance on purchasing financial advice from a Local Authority, or paying fees to commercial organisations to provide guidance.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of adopting simple, affordable (utility pricing), collaborative, state-of-the-art budgeting, planning and forecasting solution in the Cloud include:

For Local Authorities

  • Real-time visibility of a schools’ budget planning activity, i.e. current budget position and plans, without exchanging and wading through clunky Excel spreadsheets
  • Provide advice and guidance to schools over the internet using social technology. This will remove  the need to visit schools as often, and move to a more innovative charging model for council time
  • Place the customer, i.e. the schools, at the heart of Local Authority financial service management
  • Remove the complex processes of dealing with schools’ finances using Excel  and email

For schools

  • Replace clumsy, dangerous, home industry use of Excel spread sheets in schools with  a standard web template with no complex formula to worry about
  • A real-time view of actual position against budget accessed over the internet or mobile devices
  • Perform multiple ‘what if?’ scenarios for schools bursars and SMB’s to plan in the impact of changes in a more measured and informed manner with full 3 year planning
  • View simple graphical representations of the schools’ overall, and detailed, position
  • Seek advice from Local Authorities over the internet using social collaboration around your specific financial plans removing the need to pay for expensive visits by either commercial or public sector representatives
  • Assurance you are using a standard financial foresting model template, designed by schools for schools
  • Very low cost of entry for IT provision, in fact it could be self-funding for schools when netted off against typical benefits of adoption

A note to the Department of Education

Finally, my reach out to the Department for Education. Imagine a world where a solution such as this could provide a near instant consolidated view of finances right across the school system in England, Wales and Scotland, in just seconds. Furthermore, imagine a world where analysis of this acquired data is aligned to educational outcomes in seconds, and used effectively for long-term financial planning decisions.

Should you endorse the above standardisation across your school systems, your £1.5 billion in Whitehall savings could be met more easily. This by challenging the normal administrative processes of managing all the data you capture with a simple in-memory big data solution wired into your schools systems.

 

Challenge the normal DofE; remove the massive data-processing administrative burden you are faced with, and support the improvement of standardised, collaborative and effective financial planning and analysis driven decision making within the schools systems at a grass roots level.

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About the author

Andrew Gunn

Consultant

Coming from Newcastle my simple analogy to my entire career is to think about the many marvellous bridges across the River Tyne. I have spent over 24 years bridging the gap between client’s business challenges and technology helping my clients spend wisely. I am a highly experienced Digital Transformation evangelist specialising in the field of Information Management using Big Data and Mobile technologies delivered through the Bluefin Solutions Public Sector and Services business unit.

Simply speaking, I work for my clients in local government in either Customer services, Finance, Procurement or HR, helping them to get more value from the right data at the right time. These challenges are not new, they are simply bigger because there is more stuff to process.

I have worked on more than 15 projects in Public sector over the years - ranging from client side digital strategy engagements (£20k+) to forming an integral part of larger teams delivering mega projects (£500m+) for my clients in various roles such as Technical Design Authority, Digital Strategist, Business Architecture Design and Programme Management. A key aspect of my Digital Transformation passion is to ensure that I identify and deliver real transformational led savings with examples ranging from £0.5m to £20m per annum saved across a wide range of organisations.

What frustrates me is that many firms bamboozle their clients with complexity. Often recommending unnecessarily overly engineered solutions costing in excess of £5m. Big data challenges are not new, it’s about the right data at the right time in the right format, managed properly. I believe that working collaboratively with our clients to deliver complex Enterprise Information Management challenges simply is vital to achieving sustainable results. This, rather than doing transformation to our clients, as adopted by certain organisations, is the way I like to work.

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race