Tuesday 16 March 2010

Not efficiency at all

The coverage of, and reaction to, the report of the Auditor General has inevitably concentrated on its headline message about the need to reduce staff in the public sector. The overall conclusion is that the sector somehow needs to deliver more for less.

How practicable is that, in reality? I was interested in the conclusions of the report on the mass of so-called 'efficiency savings' which the government and local councils have claimed to be making over recent years. The key sentence for me was:

"The report has also highlighted concerns that 'efficiency savings' have all too often resulted in cuts to services rather than any real improvement in efficiency."

I can't say that I'm in the least bit surprised. Indeed, it chimes very much with a point I made some time ago. The phrase 'efficiency savings' is one that politicians - of all parties - seem to like. Just like cutting waste or reducing 'red tape' and 'bureaucracy' (or motherhood and apple pie) it's something that no-one can really argue against.

However, the way it is implemented is usually for a budget to be cut and the relevant budget holder told to manage on less. How that is achieved is up to the budget holder, and more often than not, the savings owe more to reducing (or 'redefining' - another good jargon word) the services being provided, rather then delivering them more efficiently.

The Auditor General has bluntly summarised what a lot of us knew already - that an awful lot of public sector 'efficiency savings' are nothing of the sort; they are cuts to the services being provided, just re-labelled to sound like something rather less unpleasant.

Does it matter?

At one level - no, not really. We all know that there is a need to re-evaluate priorities, and some of the savings being made (cutting the grass less often, for instance) are hardly major threats to the quality of life for most of the population. But at another level, I think it does matter. Politicians who pretend that budgets can be cut purely or largely as a result of being 'more efficient' or 'cutting out waste' are being less than honest with the electorate.

Public bodies which simply list all their budget reductions as 'efficiency savings' make it difficult for the public to identify where there are real cuts being made. And it's hard to have a proper discussion about priorities if politicians continue to give the impression that budget cuts can be somehow painless.

It would be nice to think that the report of the Auditor General, in highlighting the transparency of the politicians' cloaks, might usher in a more honest debate about the effect of budget cuts. I won't hold my breath, though.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Your last sentence in the penultimate para says it all.Over the next 8 years there are going to be BIG cuts and I trust some "creative distruction" to use Adam Smith words to remodel the services that local government provide and I hope release Local Government from the nonsences that HMG in Wales and England put on them.
Cutting the grass is a classic case that managers do- WRONG !!Its a service usually contracted out to people on minimum wage, but it will not save the Nation, but it is visual and people can see they are doing something. It is also easy to do and will add a few more to the unemployement line.What they should do is find out what people want ,without being told by central beuarocracy and respec the big ticket items.This will also end the "national wage "structure and one of Plaid`s Aims of decentralised government will begin to flourish.