Tuesday, 2 November 2010

UK Spending Cuts - a Damp Squib?

I have to say that I was heartily disappointed by the spending cuts announced last week. Not so much for what was said - though the asymmetric impact on the most vulnerable in our society is in itself disappointing. No; it was actually more for what was left unsaid.

What I see now is effectively 'target savings' that UK departments have to meet. That is - their budgets have been reduced going forward. But there is no detail saying how those savings will be delivered. So my fear is that we will have a non-strategic, 'salami-slicing' approach, where departments cut internal budgets by an arbitrary percentage across the board.

In my view, this is an opportunity missed. Times of pressure and challenge are precisely the times during which a more strategic approach is required, so that service provision can be prioritised around key outcomes - those things that can help make the UK a better place.

As highlighted in the recent report from the Public Administration Select Committee entitled 'Who does UK National Strategy' (click here for a link to the report), I suspect the problem lies in a lack of both appetite and capability in strategic thinking. Sadly, the report concludes that the problem is pervasive amongst both the UK Senior Civil Service and minsters - with some honourable exceptions in both camps. So there is often a lack of clarity about what the key strategic outcomes are for any given department. That makes it pretty difficult to prioritise sensibly.

I fear that the result will be further asymmetry in terms of impact - despite the conspicuous overuse of the word 'fair' during the announcement itself. That is - the most vulnerable citizens, businesses and communities in our society are often the hardest (and therefore the most expensive) to reach. My guess is that, as the cuts translate into operational reality, it will be precisely those services that are reduced or eliminated first.

Hopefully I am wrong and the key Department's of State do indeed have their Baldric-like cunning, strategic plans in place for safe-guarding outcomes and prioritising services. Time will tell.

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