Archive for February 5, 2012

A Shared Disservice

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2012 by telescoper

If you’ve never heard of the Shared Services Centre then you’re a very lucky person. If you have heard of it, and especially if you’ve had any dealings with it, then the following excerpt  from the SSC website description of itself will make you either laugh or cry:

The UK’s seven Research Councils, working together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), set up a shared services centre to reduce spend on administration. Sharing and standardising processes simply frees more funds for keeping the UK at the forefront of research and innovation.

Each year the Research Councils invest around £2.8 billion in research into understanding and improving the world around us. They’re involved in everything from tackling superbugs or studying social trends to analysing the geo-climate of the Antarctic. So, operating efficiently benefits our whole society.

What is more, sharing services does not mean compromising quality. The RCUK Shared Services Centre Ltd (SSC) is dedicated to providing exceptional standards of service in Human Resources, Finance, Procurement, IT IS and Grants administration. Our people achieve this by sharing their skills, knowledge and our vision:

‘Professional people working together, delivering quality services for the benefit of the research community’

The italics are mine. I added them  to sections that made me laugh out loud.  In fact almost all the above description of the SSC is complete tripe. The organization is a  fiasco. It has cost more than twice its original budget to implement and since its inception the quality of research administration has deteriorated beyond all recognition. The only thing I’ll say about the statement quoted above is that George Orwell would have been very proud.

This has serious consequences for those dependent for funding on the Research Councils, including the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has been forced to use the Shockingly Shambolic Catastrophe to administer the grants it issues.  The time taken to process and issue grants is now far longer than it was previously, when such tasks were done by people who actually knew (and cared about) what they were doing.

I’m told by reliable sources that the whole SSC debacle is such an embarrassment that staff employed by the Research Councils have been forbidden to say negative things about it and have instead to pretend everything is just hunky-dory lest the mess damages the reputations of their political masters in BIS.  The result of this strategy is that BIS now think the SSC is doing a fabulous job and are going to expand its activities across other departments. If nobody blows the whistle on it, the SSC behemoth will gradually take over the entire government and turn everything into crap. Or perhaps that has already happened?

Anyway, I’m far too old to play David versus Goliath in this particular battle. I’ll leave that to the continuing efforts of, e.g., Private Eye. But I will give you a tiny – and not particular important – illustration of how useless the SSC really is. I’m one of those people who has to fill in a self-assessment tax return every year. It’s not too difficult to do because I retain a chap to organize my accounts and in any case   income I receive on top of my main salary is usually documented in the various P60s I get at the end of each tax year. Except this year I didn’t get a P60 for the work I did for STFC on the Astronomy Grants Panel. Such payments are also administered by SSC, and it is their statutory responsibility to provide a P60, but despite repeated attempts to extract one, I didn’t get it  in time for the January 31st deadline. I therefore filed my return with estimated figures and an explanatory note.

Finally SSC replied. It seems they had decided to send my P60 to my old address in Nottingham, along with a number of other items of correspondence. Why they did so I have no idea, as I moved from there in 2008. I told STFC my new address at that time, and have been receiving various bits and bobs from them at my correct address since then. Moreover, SSC have been sending items here too, so they do have the right details. Only it seems I’ve been getting letters from Finance, whereas the tax stuff is dealt with by the dreaded Human Resources. As seems inevitable with large bureaucracies, the different parts clearly do not communicate with each other.

Anyway, to cut a very long story very short, after I filed my tax return I finally received an email from SSC explaining what had happened. It also said that it was not possible to issue a duplicate P60, but they were attaching a statement of earnings and tax paid. Only there was no attachment. I emailed back to ask what had happened to the attachment. Three days later I got a reply with the attachment. The email began “Dear Professor Collins…”.

Curiously the attachment – when it finally was sent – arrived in encrypted form “for security”. A bit of a waste of time, methinks, when they’ve been posting confidential documents to the wrong address for more than three years!

I’ve corrected my tax return in the light of the new information they sent, but I may still be liable for some sort of surcharge. It’s clearly the fault of the SSC, but there’s no symmetry in tax affairs. If Joe Bloggs is late or makes an error, he gets stamped on by the Inland Revenue. If a government agency messes up it probably gets away scot free.

This is all small potatoes of course, but the dire state of their record-keeping in a trivial case like mine makes me worry about what might be going wrong with more serious things…

I have the feeling that there might be one or two people out there with SSC stories of their own. Do feel free to share them via the comments box.