Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cam, Cuts, And Culture

How it was the last time around

We've been reading Cam's speech on the new Age of Austerity. And we like the sound of it a whole lot more than most of his previous offerings.

Forget sharing the proceeds. He now tells us:

"The money has run out."
Damned straight. And there's more:

"... some people say: let’s get through the recession, let’s get through the election we can keep on spending more, keep on borrowing more, and deal with the debt crisis later.

Wrong - seriously wrong.

The alternative to dealing with the debt crisis now is mounting debt, higher interest rates and a weaker economy.

Unless we deal with this debt crisis, we risk becoming once again the sick man of Europe. Our recovery will be held back, and our children will be weighed down, by a millstone of debt."

This could be Tyler talking.

"Everybody knows that Labour’s Debt Crisis means public spending cuts."

Spot on.

But what? How about a few of BOM's old favourites?

  • "scrap the ID cards scheme" - we say Yes, along with all those other grandiose and unworkable government supercomputer projects (see many previous posts eg here);
  • "get rid of Regional Assemblies and all that useless regional bureaucracy" - we say Yes, and have blogged it many times (eg see here);
  • "government spends nearly £400 million a year on advertising"... slash it - we say Yes (eg see this post)
  • replace the NHS supercomputer with "Google Health or Microsoft Health Vault" - we say Yes (see this post)

So yes to all of that.

But as we've said before, it won't be nearly enough. We all need to dig much deeper into the spending mountain.

Which is where another of BOM's long-standing enthusiasms comes in - a Transparency and Accountability Act, modelled on the new US system, and giving public spending a good dose of sunlight disinfectant (eg see this post). Cam now says:

"I can announce our ‘People’s Right to Know’ plan – a democratic check on wasteful spending. Every item of government spending over £25,000, nationally and locally, will have to be published online.

...it can have an especially powerful effect when it comes to salaries. Spending on public sector salaries has soared under Labour... [especially] the wage bill for the swarm of unaccountable quangos that has infested our country.

People have a right to know exactly how much they’re getting. So we’ll publish online all public sector salaries over £150,000. Let’s see which officials have been getting rich at the taxpayer’s expense - and whether they’re worth the money."

Information being power, we say hurrah!

But Cam wants something beyond cuts and taxpayer scrutiny: he wants nothing less than a change of culture in government:

"We need a massive culture change at every level of government, to make the state careful, not casual, with public money...

It’s not government money, as Labour like to say.

It’s your money."


Just one small thing - how do we change an entire culture?

Because we've had quite a few attempts to change government culture, and they've never been what you'd describe as a rip-roaring success.

Cam says he'll require all government departments to have a professionally qualified Finance Director who will focus relentlessly on matters money. But since that's supposedly a requirement already (eg see this post), you shouldn't hold your breath for any discernable effect.

He also says he'll "impose a new fiduciary responsibility on senior civil servants – a contractual obligation to save the taxpayer money". But as the Gershon "efficiency programme" illustrated all too well, the question then becomes what's a saving? Will Cam be happy if they cut spending but a thousand pensioners freeze to death?

And then there are his backsliding cabinet "colleagues":

"With a Conservative government, if ministers want to impress the boss, they’ll have to make their budgets smaller, not bigger.

On my watch it will be simple: if you do more for less you get promoted if you do less for more, you get sacked."


Cam is far too young to remember how this worked in Thatcher's first cabinet. It too had a mission to cut spending, and one of its strongest advocates was Sir Keith Joseph - the Mad Monk. But Joseph was Secretary of State for Industry, and as Britain tipped into the early 80s recession (much less severe than now), he appalled himself by being forced to ask Thatcher for more money to support the many lame duck industries under his departmental wing.

Government spending departments are not called spending departments for nothing. Spending money is their culture and nothing will change it.

The only way you can hope to grip it, is to do what Thatcher/Howe did.

You have to impose tough top-down cash limits, driven by affordability not departmental pleading.

You have to close your ears to the screams of spending "colleagues".

And you have to be prepared for a life of evil - because that's the way you will be portrayed for ever after by the BBC and the rest of the lib media.

PS There is of course one thing that Cam could do to really change public sector culture. He could follow through on all those promises of decentralisation by breaking up the big spending blocks. And just to remind him, that means school vouchers, social health insurance, fiscal decentralisation, and more directly elected officials (eg the sheriffs). Choice and competition are the only way to drive real culture change.

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