Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Everything Government Does Should be Reviewed

Eamonn Butler thinks five years ahead of the rest of us. He has got that sort of brain. Today he writes on the ASI blog...

I have a new job for Philip Hammond MP. Currently he if the Conservatives' spending spokesman, and what he doesn't know about public spending isn't worth knowing. But he needs to become instead the spokesman on public service renewal – and minister for that if the Conservatives win the election.

You will never streamline the public sector by Treasury ministers bullying departments over money. Instead, you need a complete review of what government does, what it has to do, what it can do better, and what can be done better by other people and by the public. All departments need to buy into that, and it needs a reform, not a finance minister in charge if everyone is going to trust the process and be a part of it. After all, the process may find that spending in some areas should be increased, even if other departments are found to be doing a lot of pointless stuff.

The good news is that this reforming approach worked for Canada, which reduced annual borrowing from 9.1% of GDP in 1993 to zero just five years later – and has been running surpluses for most years since. Our black hole this year, at 12.4% of GDP, is deeper, but I reckon Philip Hammond is up to that job. He should resign his Treasury brief and instead demand to become Shadow Secretary for Public Service Renewal.

I dojn't go along with the last bit - but I so agree with Eamonn's exhortation for the government to review everything it does. I hope this will form a key part of Conservative strategy over the first six months. Each and every programme in each an every department needs to justify its existence. And if any of them are found wanting, they should be axed.

20 comments:

Stepney said...

Believe me you're going to need a truckload of axes for the DCFS, and that's the bare minimum needed to tackle the filing cabinets on the first floor.

It'll take a full term of Parliament to hack your way through the inter-twined shitheap they've created over the last 12 years.

A bonfire of the initiatives? The smoke could fill Whitehall for a decade.

bustop said...

Iain

I think you have shown that Eamonn Butler is at least five years ahead of one person - you! I am afraid your summary of the Government reviewing everything it does is NOT consistent, in approach, with what Eamonn is proposing. Rather what you suggest is the piecemeal review of projects (dare I say bullying) that has happened before. Sorry if this sounds pedantic or unfair but to my mind Eamonn, rightly, is proposing something much more revolutionary and fundemental that would have to be addressed at a far higher level than individual projects. Rather I see it as each department justifying it's function, it's structure, it's location (e.g. in the public sector) and ultimately it's existence. I am all for it.

Paddy Briggs said...

The parliamentary committees need to be beefed up. Reviews should not be in one person's hands. There should be more opportunities for MPs, members of the hOL and others to reiew government actions and proposals.

bustop said...

Iain

I think you have shown that Eamonn Butler is at least five years ahead of one person - you! I am afraid your summary of the Government reviewing everything it does is NOT consistent, in approach, with what Eamonn is proposing. Rather what you suggest is the piecemeal review of projects (dare I say bullying) that has happened before. Sorry if this sounds pedantic or unfair but to my mind Eamonn, rightly, is proposing something much more revolutionary and fundemental that would have to be addressed at a far higher level than individual projects. Rather I see it as each department justifying it's function, it's structure, it's location (e.g. in the public sector) and ultimately it's existence. I am all for it.

Libertarian said...

Zero based budgeting.... works every time

Pugh said...

Let's hope he's immortal then. That job'll only take the odd 900 years or so.

Tim Carpenter said...

"Instead, you need a complete review of what government does, what it has to do, what it can do better, and what can be done better by other people and by the public. "

For this to make any sense one must start with the premise that the Government does nothing at all. Unless you do this, you are knocked flat by a bootstrapping tide of "wants" puffed up to appear as "musts". You end up arguing what to cut instead of making others argue what to include.

From nothing one establishes the actual "musts" based upon what a State is there to do, whit it alone can do - defence, courts, prisons, police. After that, you have hard commitments such as pensions (until one can reform it) and provision for the infirm and mentally ill which, in my book, comes before even unemployment benefits. Street lights or The School Food Trust? Sometimes the granularity of departmental budgets may work against the process. Cutting 10% across the board does not make sense. Some departments might have to end up with only KEEPING 10% while others remain almost untouched in terms of output (though cutting costs via efficiencies).

I am sure many understand that one must relieve the productive sector of burdensome regulations and heavy taxes before expecting the unemployment rolls to dramatically reduce. Ah, but to do that one would need to do a single obvious move that goes against Dave's new masters - step down from full (political) EU membership and return to a bilateral trade agreement so that domestic trade (80% of what actually goes on) can ignore EU regulations should they so desire.

thebluelawnmower said...

Gid rid of Harmans pc (in)Equality Unit. How much is that costing us!

Ian said...

Every project should get to do a five minute presentation to a jury of the public (not a self-interested politicised quango) as to why it should get public money.

If they can't convince a majority verdict that they're worth the money, then they don't get it.

Bon said...

"Currently he if the Conservatives"...

He's 5 years behind on grammar. Does no one read before posting any more?

Scary Biscuits said...

Proper reform would simply close the departments of state whose jobs could be better done locally: Health, Education, Environment, Social Security and Communities.

These departments would be much reduced in size as most of their functions would be devolved: Transport, Home Office and the Treasury (as most tax should be collected locally and given up nationally rather than the other way around as at present).

We would be left with at a national level just the following principally: the War Office (for the Army, with the purpose of defending our territory), the Admiralty (for the Royal Navy and the RAF, with the purpose of supporting the army and defending the country's supply lines) - both of these departments would both become significantly bigger as the world becomes more dangerous - and the Foreign Office (with the purpose of supporting the armed forces).

We would be left with a cabinet of just six Secretaries of State with perhaps 2 Ministers each, a total of 18, compared with the 240 on the payroll today. Most MP's would instead go back to being simply local representatives working part time and topping up their income with outside jobs like normal people.

Somehow I can't see MPs ever voting for this, either the current batch or prospective ones like Liz Truss. They just want more money for themselves. The best they'll do is cheese-pare, leaving the vast corrupt edifice essentially in tact.

M said...

What Canada did could not be applied in the UK because (a) the Uk has too many sacred cows, and (b) the EU would not allow it.

John Moorcraft said...

As it would happen, I have just finished an article looking at the FCS circa the St Andrews Set. I dare say his old libertarian brothers in arms would be proud of Dr Butler

Mark M said...

Well, as an employee at a water company that is having to seriously review our plans in the face of serious pressure from Ofwat, I believe that the Government can easily cut great swathes of spending without affecting effective service.

I received a briefing earlier outlining how our spending plans had been cut by up to 20% from what we originally planned and were still going to deliver the same outputs as we expected. This has been achieved by taking a long, hard look at every item of expenditure, asking whether we can do it differently, or more cheaply.

This is in a private company, albeit a regional monopoly regulated one. I don't believe for a moment that the government cannot match those kinds of efficiencies when the cost pressure on their expenditure are so little.

Keith Elliott said...

Hmmm. I live and work in Canada now, and my understanding is that the cuts they made were pretty much driven by the treasury. A lot of Canadians, in my experience, would argue some of those cuts were pretty damaging, presumably because they were so treasury driven.

It's also worth noting that the Canadian deficits were built up during the years of Conservative rule (1984-93) and that it was the Liberal Government of 93-06 that did the cutting and produced fiscal surpluses. Canada has only gone back into the red in the last year, again under a Tory Federal Government.

Just goes to show, what the UK needs is a period of Lib Dem government.

davidncl said...

Is there any real expectation of serious or radical change under BluLabour?

Personally, I'm expecting a more competent face on matters and maybe slightly better fiscal control but with a firm commitment to continuing the drift to a enviro-fascist state.

No doubt there will be some rearrangement of the various cartels – C4 and what not, who will get the railways this time? Maybe they'll do the roads too.

And sure, some of the current functions of state will be decentralised to some the fake charities – NACRO managed prisons, more dosh for Banardoes.

But nothing will really change and above all they'll be no change in the direction of more state, less freedom.

Do you really belive that the tories are in any sense radical?

davidncl said...

Do take a hard look at this chart - you can play with, exploring the data quite deeply.

UK public spending

Particularly interesting is to switch between real billions, inflation adjusted billions and percent GDP.

John Hudson said...

Iain, I would be interested to know how - in practice - you think this would differ from the (Comprehensive) Spending Review process that Labour brought in on election and which replaced the former annual Public Expenditure Survey process.

My view is that the Spending Reviews have taken a step back from the immediate day-to-day issues and have questioned quite deeply where spending should be directed, particularly given that they have been tied to focused efficiency reviews (e.g. Gershon), a stronger link with evidence based thinking (e.g. via the 'adding it up' initiative) and have resulted in the production of some strategically oriented public sector agreements for each department.

I am very sceptical about the efficacy of a similar process driven from outside the Treasury: Harold Wilson's attempt to curb the power of the Treasury with a 'Department of Economic Affairs' was a disaster!

DespairingLiberal said...

This is true and there should be a special focus on the gigantic waste on IT megaprojects, most of which are (a) failures even within their own terms, (b) not needed and (c) the result of manipulation of senior civil servants by greedy contractors.

Classic examples are the NHS intranet and ID cards.

The cost of these projects is staggering, much, much more than the cost of the Iraq and Afghan expeditions for example.

A second line of attack will be on the basis of the hugely wasteful PFI schemes, which are massively overcharging taxpayers for relatively simple schemes such as shool builds. The main beneficiaries of this taxpayer largesse are certain well known foreign and UK banks.

Kate j Norden said...

Yes to DespairingLiberal & Bustop.
Each department could set out, for each of its divisions within, Reason for existence, Why that reason is necessary for the public good, Verifiable Evidence that the division will actually serve the Public Good, and publish it for the public to examine.