“What we want to do is make sure that all political parties, that the brightest and best brains across Whitehall and the public sector, that voluntary groups, think tanks, trade unions that members of the public are all engaged in the debate” ~ UK Chancellor George Osbourne
UK Chancellor George Osbourne today laid out the ConDem plans for opening into a discussion on the way UK government spends its money. The great British public; its politicians, its volunteers, its charities, its concerned citizens, will all be consulted on the question: what do we actually want the government to do? In plainer terms…what do we want to fund through taxation and execute via government, and how are we going to do all the other stuff? As the Labour party hit the spin trail with attacks on Tory attempts to launch ‘The Axe Factor’, Scriptonite asks: but really…what DO we actually want the government to do?
Big idea – So What’s All This About Canada?
The Canadian government launched a similar exercise in the early nineties when up against a $39 million dollar (9.1% GDP) deficit. The government ended up cutting each department’s budget by roughly 20% and in five years….surplus! Some essential departments were spared, but at a clear cost to others. Hospital waiting times shot through the roof as nurses were sacked following cuts to local health budgets, infections rates escalated to a similar degree as cuts to hospital building programmes set in. The Program Review, as called in Canada, was roundly approved as the country suffered but, as Jocelyne Bourgon, cabinet secretary for the Canadian civil service at the time, said: “It is preferable to move expeditiously. It creates hope at the end of the tunnel.”
I could get used to that kind of pragmatism from the UK government and the rest of us.
So What Do They Want Us To Do?
If we begin to engage in these kind of grown up conversations and make it our business to be responsible for the link between our tax pounds and the way they are spent ….we may very well just get a taste for it.
I for one am thrilled by the prospect of people saying….’hang on, why are we spending this much on this war?….we want to spend it on health or international aid’. How about ‘Hmm, we spend so much on elderly care, I want to have my parents live with me for as long as they can before needing care I cannot physically provide’…..How about ‘We spend WHAT on local educational authorities?! I want to create a community of fellow parents and interested people to lead our local education service.
AGH! That’s LOADS! But isn’t that what we pay THEM to do?!
Well yes that is the way things work right now actually. We pay through the nose for an ever increasing amount of decisions to be made on our behalf and then spend half our lives complaining about how ‘out of touch’ the government is. There is a constant rumbling of discontent on everything from expenses to cleanliness of hospital wards to wages of civil servants to town planning…on and on and on.
Now, for the most part, this is attributed to the incompetence of one party or another that happens to be holding the reigns at the time.
However, have we not missed a trick?
What if the problem isn’t (just) the incompetence of MPs but the very system of deferring these major decisions which affect our lives to such a degree that we no longer have a say in ANYTHING except who we pick to make the decision for us? What if the problem is OUR lack of engagement and not theirs?
There is huge self interest in this for us. Let’s take the outcomes of the 2003 Desforges report for the Department of Education and skills for a starter. The study found that:
“At primary school age, the home learning environment and the nature of parental involvement has a greater influence on achievement than variations in the
quality of schools”
Healthcare reports equally have attested to the link between hospital performance and public/patient involvement, provided it is focussed and well thought through.
There are endless possibilities to us getting our grubby little mitts all over that little red briefcase they are always waving about Downing Street!
As a bonus….the deficit could also be taken care of. I’m not the world biggest fan of a fiat currency based economies founded on the monumental unfairness of debt and interest…but if we’re going to have one then we may aswell make it work the best it can. Perhaps that’ll be what we take on next?
The Program Review Scheme also received praise for successfully preventing the outcry of other MPs by sharing the responsibility for the cuts broadly. Through the period of pain the deficit transformed into a surplus, the economy got going again and taxes rose only 0.3% through the period. So we may also benefit from less outrage and blame and keep the taxbill down at the same time.
Will there be pain? Hell yeah. But we really do miss the opportunity in this at our peril.
“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life” ~ Dalai Lama