Thursday, January 27, 2005

Government waste: the Gershon Review

At long last I’ve summoned up the energy to read the Treasury commissioned Gershon Review (‘Releasing Resources for the Front Line’). You know, that’s the Review that allows the government to claim they’ve identified £21 billion of public sector efficiency savings that can be redirected to front line services. And to rubbish the Tories’ rival James Review, which comes up with £35 billion of savings.

Crikey- it’s even more vacuous than I’d imagined. To start with, only about half the trumpeted ‘savings’ are actually savings in the sense that you or I might understand the word. That is cash savings we could choose to have returned as tax cuts.

No, to Gershon, ‘savings’ encompasses government departments changing how they allocate their unchanged spending. For example, the Department for International Development undertakes to ‘substantially raise support for the next International Development Association
(IDA) replenishment round.’ Sorry, come again? How does substantially raising (almost certainly costly) support for something, make savings?

This kind of bureaucratic deckchair rearrangement doesn’t constitute savings in any normal sense of the word.

But even the so-called ‘cash releasing… recyclable elements’- ie the real savings- are little more than vague aspirations. One widely quoted example is the Department for Education and Skills undertaking to make £1.3 billion of savings by enabling ‘frontline professionals in schools, colleges and higher education institutions to use their time more productively…through workforce reform, investment in ICT and reducing administrative burdens.’ No word on how this ‘enabling’ is to be achieved in the real world, still less measured.

It is true that the report gives a figure of 70,000 for the planned Civil Service reduction. But again, the detail reveals that this is little more than a set of aspirational efficiency targets doled out to the various departments. There is no analysis of what functions might need to be dropped. And anyone who has watched Yes Minister will know the many ways that Civil Servants can be redefined as non-Civil Servants at the stoke of a quill pen.

To cap it all, the report reckons that ‘implementing the efficiency programmes will require upfront investment…and the Government…will be providing assistance…both through temporary administration cost flexibilities and via allocations from the £300 million Efficiency Challenge Fund.’

Holy Cow! In order to pursue this raft of hopeless wishful thinking, we’re actually going to have to shell out even more!

I’m sorry, I need to lie down.

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