The public sector, as we have seen, likes to assume that all last year’s current public spending is a given and should be repeated next year. If you want something extra, as the public sector always does, when budgets are tight, you therefore have to cut something.
Council officials live in hope that their Councillors will raise taxes or car park charges or successfully lobby for higher government grants. So they pile on the nice to haves and the unavoidables extras in their budget papers. Councillors are often forced to say in return that they cannot find all the extra money “required”, and ask for some cuts instead. The game playing officers will then often choose the most politically damaging or the least popular cuts to try to persuade the Councillors that they should look again at getting more money in from some source or other.
The same thing happens in some government departments. Officials reluctantly put forward cuts when they just want their Minister to go off and have a battle royal with the Treasury for more money. Why not, they reason, put forward a clumsy cut. The Minister may spot it and come to see he needs more money to avoid it. If he doesn’t, he may lose the cut in the execution. This may force the government to spend more money after a bruising encounter with Parliament and the media. Either way the department “wins”. It requires a strong and confident Minister to reject the budget paper, and say it is based on false choices.
I never recall as a Councillor or as a Minister receiving a budget paper which recommended cutting the administrative overhead unless I had insisted on it. I was never voluntarily offered big savings on paper, pens, administrative staff, pensions, early retirements, absentee rates, volume of reports, postage, staff travel , conferences and all the rest. On the contrary. I remember letters sent out in government urging Ministers to do more overseas trips and conferences. Some of those were good, but they were always popular with the officials. They wanted to make sure their department kept up its totals and spent a full budget.
In a competitive private sector company there is constant review of overheads. Management is always challenging itself to do more for less, or to do it better as well as cheaper. There is a common interest in buying better, in simplifying systems, in using talent better. In government there is often a common interest in maximising spend for no good reason other than that is what government does. Some politicians even send out claims that service X is better than service Y because more is spent on it, with no attempt to question how well the money is spent or what the users of the service think of its delivery.