The idea of publishing all government expenditure that is more than £25,000 by the Conservatives has been their policy for a while now and it has been confirmed following yesterday's spending cut announcements.
Nick Robinson on BBC News yesterday suggested that it could be a clever move ensuring that the public can go line-by-line through government expenditure and flag up clearly wasteful spending which would then be a target for cuts presumably backed by the same public that flagged it up in the first place.
I am not so sure.
Firstly, what criteria are they using to break down the totals? Are we going to have a situation where some departments (cleverly) break things down into separate chunks and hence have lots of things that come in under the £25,000 limit? Maybe there will be rules to avoid this but if so expect extra bureaucracy to control this hence costing more straight away.
Secondly, what level of granularity are we going to have on the list? Are we just going to have a 7 word description and no way of being able to drill down to see the detail of what the headline expenditure actually means? Without detail it will be a difficult task for members of the public to make a value judgement on individual expenditure. Maybe departments will be made to provide the detail for each item but again, if this happens expect extra costs to be incurred in doing this across all departments.
But finally, and probably most importantly, what criteria will be used to decide which items are too expensive and should be cut? I can certainly imagine some media organisations or highly motivated individuals/groups launching campaigns on the back of some of the revelations to insist that certain items of spending be trimmed. The question is how equitable will this be? Just because a vocal minority kick off about some items of spending does not necessarily mean it is the best thing to cut them. So perhaps it will be balanced out to an extent by other groups arguing to retain the spending. But what about the items of spending that don't have highly motivated pressure groups to defend them?
Related to this, from the government's perspective what about expenditure that is necessary to fulfil its programme? I can imagine a situation where the government spends half its time on the media defending individual spending items and having to cope with "couldn't you reduce it by 5% minister? 10%?".
Now all of this may be a good thing. I am certainly in favour of more transparency and knowing more about how our money is spent. I expect some areas of waste will be identified and we may end up making considerable savings because of it. I just think there could be some downsides too that have perhaps not been fully thought through and that in the short term this measure could even cost us money. Imagine the irony of a department publishing an item of over £25,000 for "Production of public list of expenditure items over £25,000"! The press would have a field day.
I hope after inevitable teething problems that this measure will be seen as a good thing. I like the fact that the government is willing to trust us with this information. Now we need to prove that we can handle it responsibly.