Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Will the government regret publishing all expenditure above £25K?

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.


Joe Otten said...

Crowdsourcing the cuts. Excellent.

Even David Laws doesn't know what everything is worth, but for each item on the list, there will be lots of us who do know what it is worth.

But presumably (unfortunately) there will be a general get out for commercial confidentiality?

johan said...

I very much like this idea. even if the descriptions are short, it's difficult to hide "consultancy fees" as anything but what they are. and I hear that the figures must be published on an annualised basis, rather than being able to be broken down month by month to come in under the limit...

Anonymous said...

In theory there is a database in Treasury that could be exposed, so the principle is that it's very low cost to publish all of this. The practice will be somewhat more complex so I don't see a direct exposure of the database, possibly a scrape that's published on a routine basis.

I agree with you about the risks, both in terms of chunking contracts and what people make of them. Take a consulting engagement as an example, is it more sensible to let a contract for six months worth of effort or six contracts for one month each. Bluntly the latter will be more expensive as better rates are likely to be available on the longer commitment? It'll also cause the client to have to chunk up the work in unrealistic ways. That said, consultancy probably isn't a great example as it's being addressed in different way.

The biggest risk I see is that the figures will end up being pored over by those with an agenda, and the available information won't include the decisions and options appraisals that led to the expenditure. Why was that spend made, instead of an alternative?

Transparency is all very well, but unfortunately I'm not convinced that it'll have the desired effect.

Anonymous said...

@Johan it's quite straightforward:

Project Management, Programme Risk Manager, Requirements Management, Training, Commercial advice, procurement management, contract management.

Given that most of that expertise isn't actually available in the public sector it needs bought in either on a consultancy or interim basis.

Duncan said...

Perhaps, but like a lot of liberals my heart flutters when I hear the words 'the government may regret...' in connection with some new freedom of information: that shouldn't change now just because we're in government.

Anonymous said...

Another thought, this is likely to significantly slow down decision making. If values above 25k are published then ministerial decision making will be needed for anything above 24k. Getting a ministerial submission through the governance process in most central departments takes a couple of months and at the moment tends to be for values around £100k.

From a fairly classical perspective that could be quite a good thing, it stymies government and should mean that it reduces the things it doesn't need to do in an effort to mitigate for the additional governance load.