I attended a great lecture this week by Professor Andrew Gray at Durham’s Wolfson Research Institute. Not only is Andrew a great speaker, but he has a good way of cutting though the noise of public administration and focusing on the lived reality of people’s lives that receive those services.

One of the points made at the lecture that really got me thinking was a point that public services have a tendency to be capital bound. By this it is meant that the delivery of public services, despite modern technologies, is bound by buildings and geography. The example was given as healthcare where to re-organise or even restructure services always soon got bound up in discussions of buildings, hospitals, machinery, office space, local sensitivities (a sort of reverse ‘nimbyism’). The point was made that this equally, perhaps more so, applies to the private sector hospitals in the US, where an element of the brand and prestige of the service delivery is bound up in hospitals.

I think this capital boundness also applies to many other services. Universities with their bright and shiny buildings and colleges, private sector companies with their grand headquarters and factory sites, retailers with their flagship stores. Taken to the ultimate extreme think  Nike’s Niketown or Apple’s Curpertino. Even those companies that are virtually virtual, Google or Amazon have large headquarters in grand style.

This got me thinking further. Is it that companies are more than capital bound, they are capitalist bound? By this I mean that services are delivered not by humans acting in a human manner with associated meaning and value, but through contract and legal entities. By moving to a world of contracts and procurement, are we losing good old fashioned management. Do we miss the complexity of humanness? It is interesting that as big companies like Starbucks are trying to humanise the process of coffee buying (see my previous post about how successful or not that is) the public sector has found process, metrics, measures and  management science. Thus we end up with the service station loo with its checking every 30 minutes instead of someone using their judgement and skill to just clean it. Contracted carers for the sick or elderly stick to the contracted time for care and do just the contactual requirements rather than dealing human-to-human with real need. Does procurement process actually contract out the process rather than the outcomes? If you look at the UK’s railway system, being a spaghetti of contracts and performance indicators, is it really better?

I guess that the point for us as auditors is not to focus solely on process. Auditors always focus on process. It is not helpful on its own. The means should be focused on, and related to, the end. Yet I don’t want to lose the process focus but to at least put it equal with the end. It was quite keenly observed that if people don’t like an outcome they complain about the process. Yes that is true. If the process was not, however, in some fundamental way, right, then the process will end up unravelling the outcome.

Perhaps though the capitalist corporate world does struggle to cope with making things human and delivering human interactions. The fundamentals of law and our corporate system are based on it contractual, not human, interactions. There is no real evidence that service failure is all to do with this though, as large state bureaucracies of the last and early this century, were no better at making sure that organisational structure did not interfere with or prevent human-like delivery of services.

Perhaps the answer, as is often the case, is to be contingent. What works in the relevant circumstance. Thus the role of auditors is not to be legalistic, nor process oriented, but to make pragmatic, thoughtful, outcomes-based, human, interventions to help our clients achieve a better service delivery to their clients, users, patients, customers and stakeholders. This means an intelligent, bright, thoughtful and creative auditor, not the caricature process auditor we so often recognise.