“You can’t handle the truth!”

That impressionable line from Col. Jessup played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men – a drama about two U.S. Marines accused of murder – resonates with me every time I hear politicians speaking about the ‘truth’.

Some years back I had an email exchange with a government minister and mentioned the now often used term “one instance of the truth” in relation to the seeming profligate waste by the then government. This was in the context of writing off huge technology investments which were abandoned through seemingly lack of appropriate specification and due diligence – in other words lack of accountability by both procurer and supplier. The minister was impressed with my point and referred me to a senior mandarin who said, without any sense of irony, that the problem with accurate measurement is that it left no “wiggle room”. In other words, politicians would rather not be held to account without some space to wriggle (subtle change of word intended!).

As you can probably tell, I have never got over that encounter. It implies that accurate measurement isn’t favoured by legislators as they will always want room to manoeuvre their position or modify policy. Statements on ‘Brexit’ from all political sides provide the clearest of examples.

The recent shocks in the broad FM industry such as the collapse of Carillion, profit warnings from others and the consequent slide in share value of the larger support services companies, signal uncertainty and possibly distrust. Apart from the obvious calls on the directors and senior management to be accountable for the running of the companies, the other key question at stake is the way in which large public-sector contracts are specified and procured. And, more to the point, how performance is measured, reported and checked within those contracts.

Facilities management at the operational level is necessarily focused on the detail requiring the right people in the right place supported by the right process and, I might add, the right data. Business leaders and politicians, it seems, are captivated by the bigger picture with mega contracts and headline grabbing projects and with little interest in the detail and how this will be enacted further down the pecking order.

The good people delivering at the customer-facing end of the service chain are, in the main, doing their best to provide a good service, be it in healthcare, transportation, education, prisons or any public service. Outsourced, or not, doesn’t really affect the ability to provide a quality service, but in the macro financial deals, squeezing margins, fudging performance targets and not understanding the truth leads to assumption fuelled by short termism and a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of margins and quality of service.

The fact is there are successful contracts and poor contracts, good suppliers and poor suppliers, dedicated managers and lazy managers. How can we tell the difference? Through accurate, relevant and timely performance measurement. In other words, establish the truth, analyse and improve.

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