There was a good cartoon in the Telegraph yesterday – the main party leaders not wishing to pull the Excalibur of spending cuts out of the stone.
Public budgets are well defended by lobby groups, BBC journalists, underemployed senior public sector executives and even by many MPs who seem to think it their job to recommend record spending levels rather than striving to do more for less like the rest of the economy.As a result in the public debate you are only thought to be serious about reducing spending if you identify important public servcies you would cut or damage. The irony is that the public sector has so much more scope to do much more for less, because it has not been any good at raising productivity or finding “efficiency savings” over the last decade. It has been the lost ten years for productivity gains and for cost control.
Let me defend the government on one thing. They have at last decided they need to reduce the rate of sickness absence in the NHS. They must have the figures and should be able to analyse them to know where the sickness is genuine and where, if at all, it is a reflection of poor morale and sloppy practise. Their figures imply they think there is a big problem in the NHS. I have been probing and recommending that they take on this challenge in the wider public sector for years, and have asked questions in the past about relative levels of absence in different areas.
I did have to encourage the sickness rate down at a private sector company I helped turn round years ago. You can do it, if the high sickness rate reflects poor morale and a culture of offering sick notes or just ringing in to say you feel ill when others would get on with the job. If the sickness peaks around Fridays and Monday, if it is higher near to public holidays, or if staff are heard talking about when they might fit their sick leave in, an employer should know he has to do something. Usually it is sufficient to make it clear you want it to go down, and then to have words with the most glaring offenders. Other employees can then be heard to say “About time too, we have been carrying him or her for years”. So my challenge to the government is not over their new intent, but to ask why haven’t they done anything about it over the last 13 years. Why should we believe this close to an election that they have suddenly discovered how to do it, and now have the will to take on the task?
Let me bring it down to an intelligible level. I have just completed a two year improvement in what I deliver for how much I cost the state as an MP. Starting from 17th cheapest MP in 2007-8, I decided to cut my office costs, staff, travel and expenses budgets by an overall 10% in each of the two years 2008-9 and 2009-2010. I began this programme before expenses became a lively topic of media debate. I have managed to do that, whilst still providing the same level of service. The only “cut” was to replace a printed regular report to constituents with an electronic one, which provides more information more regularly. None of this required redundancies.
Over the next two months if re-elected I have an opportunity to use natural wastage to make a further reduction in costs. The Head of my Parliamentary office has decided to move on to a new opportunity in the private sector, and my part time case worker and organiser in Wokingham is retiring. I currently run my combined Parliamentary office with two full time equivalents, or three people. I am naturally asking myself if we can streamline and improve more. That will require thought and discussion with those involved.
Every part of the public sector should use every retitrement and every departure for other reasons to question how they can run things better and cheaper. Parts of the pbulic sector would work better with fewer people. In some places the bureaucracy is stifling.