When I walked into one Ministry to take over as the Minister in a previous government, one of the first questions I was asked by my officials was what additional magazines I wanted to see. There on a large side table were set out an impressive range of glossy publications. They must have reflected the interests and passions of previous Ministers. It was a cameo of how the government traditionally does business.
The question was what extra ones did I want? No-one mentioned the budget for newspapers and periodicals. No-one suggested I might like to cut out ones that previous Ministers valued but I did not. The public sector proceeds by base budgets plus growth. It accepts that all previous magazines ordered for good or bad reason need to be taken permanently thereafter. Any Minister who queries the base is upsetting the applecart, giving ground to the Treasury, taking money away from the Department. It assumes it is good to add some more. It seeks to take the decision without informing the decison taker of the relevant financial information.
As a businessman joining government I just saw a cost. I wanted to know how much the bill was. As a politician I saw a potential bad story. Say a journalist found out the names of the publications the Department was buying for the Ministerial office? Wouldn’t they unkindly have suggested some were a little off the mainstream of the Department’s duties? I pruned the magazine budget. I looked at the budget for the department as a whole, not just for the Ministerial office. I asked them to review how many copies of needed periodicals the whole Department required. If I had a personal interest and wanted a magazine about it, I had a salary and could buy it from that. It was a small drop in a large ocean, but it was meant to illustrate a more business like way of approaching spending.
Too many proponents of more public spending are like children in a sweet shop with a rich and friendly uncle. He takes care of the bills. There is no need to ask how much each item costs. The child is spared the bitter sweet task of having to weigh up the delights of each sweet against the dent it makes in the pocket money. Public spending to some in government is not about choices, and seeking value. It is about finding the rich uncle, and then just ordering what you think you will like, even at the risk of too many sweets making you sick. The big difference of course is when the state finds the rich uncle it does not presume on his voluntary generosity, but threatens him with prison if he does not pay up. This can make a lot of rich uncles go missing, or hide offshore. It has even been known that leading proponents of more state spending find ingenious ways of avoiding tax for themselves.
Any government or Council that wants to cut spending without damaging services has to change this approach to buying and budgets. The base budget has to be reviewed at least annually, as well as the incremental items that officials and lobby groups say need to be added. The Treasury’s public spending division should constantly be challenging the cost and delivery of all programmes, as well as the need for the more marginal ones at all.