By Joshua.Chambers

01 Jul 2010

The Tribunals Service has increased productivity while facing an increased workload – and it’s done so without the help of external consultants. Its boss Kevin Sadler tells Joshua Chambers about his in-house efficiency team

Tribunals represent the last resort for members of the public who have exhausted the complaints procedures of public bodies. As a result, the Tribunals Service is intimately acquainted with the deficiencies of other government departments – but its chief executive Kevin Sadler (picture above) has worked hard to examine his own organisation just as closely, with a view to saving money and improving efficiency.

Sadler’s manner is somewhat lugubrious, but his message is optimistic, and perhaps even exciting: more really can be done for less. Some of his statistics are startling: one team increased productivity by 136 per cent in a year, by streamlining processes and cutting out duplication. And all this without the help of the private sector: government organisations can develop the right skills and abilities themselves, Sadler argues.

To be fair, Sadler’s organisation started out with plenty of areas of waste and duplication: the Tribunals Service was formed out of numerous public bodies providing similar services for a range of government departments. They were merged in 2006, but it has taken until now to streamline the new organisation.

The lean team
In these straitened times, Kevin Sadler is undoubtedly an evangelist for so-called ‘lean’ techniques: methods of altering systems and processes to remove waste and duplication from your organisation. The idea isn’t new, as Sadler explains: “I don’t think anybody working on lean is saying that this is something the public sector has invented. There’s companies like Unipart which have been doing it for 20, 30 years, and still think that they’ve got a lot more to do on it.”

Yet while lean is a private sector idea, the Tribunals Service has embraced it wholeheartedly, training its own staff in the techniques in order to avoid the need to rely on external consultants and to build in-house skills. Out of the 3,000 Tribunal Service employees, a team of 20 is dedicated to streamlining the department and trimming out unnecessary spending.

“What we have deliberately set ourselves against is the risk that you get a team of consultants who are very good, but come and go,” explains Sadler. “The really important thing for lean is that it engages your people in solving your problems. The people who know where the waste is and where the improvements can be are the people who do it every day.

“To get the enthusiasm, you do need to use your own people because, as I say, I think everybody working in public services has seen consultants come up with a set of ideas, then – because the consultants have gone and because something else comes along – those ideas get neglected. That’s what we can’t afford to do and don’t want to do.”

Don’t forget the little things
Sadler is an evangelist for his lean techniques because, in the case of his department, they have paid off. He accepts that there is an initial cost to training a team, and to piloting their findings; but the risk has been worth the reward, he says.

The team’s approach is to examine a process from a customer’s point of view, relentlessly concentrating on how to strip out the waste. Sadler reels off statistics of savings, improvements and examples of duplication; you get the impression he could enthuse about it all day. But the key point is that his organisation has managed to increase productivity at a time when its workload has been increasing.

Sadler believes that all his staff can find savings, not just his ‘lean team’. To this end, he aims to get out once a week to visit offices and engage with employees. He is quick to point out that he travels by second class rail or flies with Easyjet, “and I haven’t got priority boarding or anything like that”.

Out of one visit came a saving of which he is particularly proud. After speaking to someone on the front line, he’s introducing a drop-down menu into their systems which takes someone’s postcode and produces a whole address, rather than staff typing in the whole thing. “This may take 10, 20 seconds, perhaps a little bit more, but when [an employee is] doing nearly 400 cases a year, all those 10, 20 seconds end up making a big difference.”

Of course, focusing on waste isn’t unique to the Tribunals Service, and neither are dedicated lean teams. Sadler names HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Ministry of Justice as bodies that have invested in lean – the MoJ even has a ‘lean academy’. The big challenge, though, is to encourage staff to raise their eyes beyond their own areas and to look across departmental boundaries, identifying inefficiencies in the ways that public bodies work together.

Breaking down silos
In particular, Kevin Sadler’s team has been looking closely at DWP. An increase in unemployment has led to an increase in social security tribunals – which means more work for the Tribunals Service. So the lean team was sent over to work in DWP, looking at the entire process from the point where somebody receives an adverse decision by DWP, right through to the end of the tribunal appeals process. He points out that “we’ve discovered some quite amazing things – things that neither department thinks is right.” Sometimes, for example, Tribunals Service employees end up gathering and processing data already held by the DWP.

DWP is also piloting a process of calling people to explain tribunal decisions to them. “I don’t think anybody would claim that social security benefit rules are the easiest to understand in the world, and some decisions simply need to be explained to people,” says Sadler. “Having a conversation with somebody may lead to people saying: ‘I now understand the decision and withdraw my appeal’. That’s well over £400 saved through a telephone conversation.”

Whatever next?
For Sadler, there’ll be plenty more scope for savings. He is expecting the merger of the Tribunals Service with Her Majesty’s Courts Service, announced in the previous government’s Budget, to go ahead. “Instead of having two organisations with two separate heads of accounts, two chief executives and two senior teams, we can have one organisation and divert all the resources from those overheads into the front line… and deliver more efficiency,” he says.

It sounds challenging; does he fancy handling another organisational merger? Sadler is coy about the prospect, but does hint at his ambition.

“I’ve done a lot of different jobs in the last 25 years and I’ve never been bored,” he says. “The current challenge is obvious: we’ve got a new government to work with, which is really exciting and interesting. I’ve got to play my part in creating the new organisation which the Tribunals Service and the Courts service will become a part of, and I’ve got a lot of investment in that because I ran the programmes that created Her Majesty’s Courts Service and created the Tribunals Service.

“I’m now part of the programme that is creating the new organisation from both those organisations,” he concludes. “I’ve got a lot of interest in that, so we’ll see whether other opportunities arise.”

CV highlights
1984 Joins Department of Health & Social Security (Harlesden Benefit Office) after graduating in law from Leicester Polytechnic
1988 Enters civil service fast stream 
1990 Becomes private secretary to Nicholas Scott (Minister of State for Social Security and Disabled People)
1993 Seconded to Cabinet Office
1998 Promoted to senior civil service, in the DSS Welfare Reform Unit
2000 Becomes project manager involved in creating the DWP Pension Service
2002 Promoted to director in Lord Chancellor’s Department to head programme to merge 42 magistrates’ courts committees and Courts Service into a single organisation 
2006 Appointed change director at Department of Constitutional Affairs, then the Ministry of Justice 
2009 Made chief executive of the Tribunals Service

Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro

Share this page