Sunday, September 10, 2006

Warriors Against Waste- No 1

Some of William's decorations

Still catching up from the hol, I've just had a rootle through William Norton's magnificent 145 page tome The Machinery of Government (and how to reform it) . William is a veteran Waste Warrior, with many battle honours including the James Review campaign medal.

His latest work was published last week on Conservative Home. On the overall government waste picture he says:

"It would be reasonable to assume that from a total estimated expenditure of £523 billion for 2005/6, some £45-50 billion of waste can be attributable to structural or policy issues which can be eliminated and a further £30-£35 billion of waste could be minimised (but perhaps not totally eradicated) by better financial management. That gives an estimate for waste in the region of 14-17% of total expenditure."

Reviewing the history of government's size and structure, he spells out how complex and unwieldy the whole thing has become. Among other things, he reckons there are now 2,467 quangos- up from 1,824 in 1997. And he gives us- for the first time in one place- 90 pages of detailed background on each department and its flock of quangos. A treasure trove for future reference.

Of course, it's one thing to see the waste- quite another to reduce it. As William notes, all bureaucracies have well established survival and growth strategies. But he does have a proposal:

"A virtual Taxpayer Value Unit, drawn from Downing Street, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office should be established to oversee Value For Money teams in each department. Those teams would comprise career civil servants, not external consultants or special advisers, and be headed by a Deputy Secretary whose promotion prospects depend upon his or her success in delivering reforms. They would report to a Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister to monitor progress."

A solution? He recognises it's ambitious, with success dependant on a massive culture change inside government. And he quotes one battle scarred vet from the Major government who laughed out loud when he told her: she'd tried and failed to reform the Civil Service and now believes it to be beyond reform.

William reckons that's a defeatist attitude, and of course it is. But having worked in both the Civil Service and the private sector, I must say it strikes a discomforting chord with me.

How much better if we could just downsize government altogether and replace bureaucratic anti-waste programmes with some of that Old Time choice and competition. Because markets not only sniff out the waste- they deal brutally with organisations that don't keep it under firm control.

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