Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Armchair auditors or ill-equipped cost cutters?

I've been intrigued by recent pronouncements by politicians about converting us into a nation of armchair auditors (see these thoughts from David Cameron and Eric Pickles).

Apart from a mild anxiety about us all becoming curtain-twitching nosey neighbours, I have a more fundamental concern. If we are to be auditors, we need the tools to do the job . . .

As a nation, as communities and as individuals, what should matter to us are the results that public services deliver, as well as what they cost. We can then make judgements about whether we believe those results to be 'value for money' (and each election, we exercise our democratic right to vote for the sets of results that most closely matches our views of the world).

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that I will return to in a separate post, such results are not always well articulated and even less often measured in any meaningful way. In addition, results for building communities (for example 'the big society'), tackling obesity, reducing the fear of crime, improving social care or national security etc. all take time. So results measures, even when present, will lag behind cost and resource measures (examples of inputs used to achieve results).

My fear is, as armchair auditors, all we will have access to is the easy to report, readily available information about inputs, with little or no output measures - let alone the measurement of results. So we might be tempted into making judgements about how (for example) money is spent, without knowing why it was spent or whether it successfully achieved the desired results. As a result, particularly in times of austerity, everything will seem an expensive luxury; so we will want to spend less. And spending less is likely to achieve less - though we will only find that out much later. In the meantime we may have dismantled the very services that could deliver the results for which we voted.

This is not meant to be a dig at the 'Big Society'; whilst I would like to understand what that means in terms of results a little better, if it means strong, thriving communities, I'm very much in favour. I just fear creating an army of armchair auditors without the tools or information available to allow those people - us - to function properly.

Of course what that requires is clarity of thought over desired results and how to get there (direction-setting - or that hackneyed term 'strategy'). For more on how to achieve that clarity, why not visit here.

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