Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/12/lights_budget/

Keep the lights on, the budget needs it

Going green in a penny pinching world

By Guy Kewney

Posted in CIO, 12th March 2007 12:22 GMT

Column Lights don't turn themselves on.

I hesitate to offer this bit of technological know-how to such an intelligent audience, but after last week, it has come to my attention that there may be people who don't realise this. And they may work in Accounts.

The trigger for the observation was a report on the TV news last week that the UK Government was falling behind its targets on carbon consumption (reduction in). To illustrate the point, the newscaster dug out a lot of Official Figures, which gave us percentages. And then - realising that only people in Accounts would understand those, the camera crew went out into Whitehall, to show us what it looked like in the real world. (OK, Whitehall is the centre of the Civil Service, but unreal though that world may be, it's still geographically non-virtual).

It was late at night, and the days are still short in Britain, and yet the images that flared onto the screen were brighter than day, because every light in every office in the background was switched on. Not a soul was in the building - not even the office cleaners who are so often quoted as the reason big companies put their lights on at night. And the newscaster represented this as carelessness.

It goes to show how little the BBC knows about Accounting. Anybody who has ever worked in a large commercial corporation will know at once what those lights are doing.

Clues for the rest of you: 1) It's March 2) It has been a very warm winter in the UK.

Got it? OK, here's another clue: 3) the financial year ends at the beginning of April.

In a warm winter, the amount you need to spend on heating office buildings is down - way down. People recently made some capital out of the fact that although the UK is culturally careless about switching off TVs and leaving them on standby, thus consuming unnecessary energy, the spend per household on energy in the UK was low. The inference drawn was that we "weren't that bad" in Britain. The real implication, of course, is that winter in Britain is a lot warmer than in Germany. And when it's warm, you spend less on heating the building.

So the nation's accountants are facing a real problem. They have budgets for heating. The winter of 2006-2007 will have seen a huge under-spend - as much as 15% - on the energy budgets. And that - as we all know and understand - means that unless urgent action is taken NOW, next year's budget will be reduced by 15%.

Why?

What a very ignorant question! That's how budgeting is done! You take last year's figure, and you set the budget for next year as being the same.

Why?

Because that's how it's done! Goodness gracious, what monumental innocence of the real world. You have to have a budget! How are you going to work out a budget if you don't base it on last year's budget?

I suppose you might argue that you could work out what you actually need to spend. And then you might work out what the costs of doing that are. And you might find ways of reducing the amount you spend on things that aren't needed.

A friend recently rang me up, almost in tears. His company had just purchased three hundred brand-new laptops. The budget rules are: "Get the cheapest available model." So they'd gone onto a web site, and ordered three hundred, lowest price being for a 20 GB system. But the budget rules weren't created for this situation, because the software they had to run required an 80GB disk. So 300 80 GB disks were ordered. And staff then spent hours pulling the 20 GB disks out, and putting the 80 GB disks in, and re-installing Windows and other utilities and drivers; and the spare disks were disposed of according to budget rules.

Why?

What a very ignorant question! That's how we do it here!

Or take my friend who has a top-rank, privilege, diamond-encrusted contract with a mobile phone company whose name is a colour, and who decided to buy pay-as-you-go phones for his nephews (their mother couldn't afford it) and charge the bill to his contract account. "Put ten pounds a month into their accounts from mine!" he told this mobile company (speaking French, to make life easier for them, of course). And they said yes, that would be fine.

And then they treated him like dirt. Pay as you go customers are, as we all know, chavs in council houses. You don't have to send them the phones they order next day. Actually, you don't even have to send them when you say you will. And when they finally get the phone, they're people with low self-esteem, and they won't complain if you make them dial an 0800 number to unlock the SIM. And having dialled that number (it's NOT free to mobile users!) they won't care if you can't be arsed to actually unlock the SIM till tomorrow. You can tell them that it's not technically possible, and they won't know any better...

Does all this actually save any money for this colourful, French-speaking company?

"Pour quoi faire?" (Eh? What's that got to do with it?)

My friend is planning a rather special revenge, which I'm sworn not to reveal until he unveils it to his account manager. But there's no reason for this behaviour, other than "well, we always did it like that."

We can all tell budget tales. There was the time I was supposed to go to Palm Springs for a convention. The company booked me business class, into a five star hotel (if you've never been to Palm Springs, trust me when I tell you that five star hotels in that bit of California are not budget deals) and the total travel bill came to just over 5K - pounds, not dollars. I decided to take over the travel planning, and, spending just two grand (pounds, again) booked myself and my wife on a round-the-world trip, including Palm Springs, Auckland, Hong Kong and back to London.

Next year, the company couldn't afford to send me to Palm Springs. "It costs five grand, and we've only got two thousand pounds in the budget."

Global warming? There's not the slightest chance of averting it. If it were just a question acting like intelligent beings, and turning down the thermostat when it gets hot outside, we'd have carbon consumption down by 50 per cent in a decade. But what's that got to do with it? We've got a budget... if we don't spend it all, we won't have one next year!

Lights don't turn themselves on; accountants do that.