Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Putting the C into the CSR

All parties are going for some rhetorical slash and burn to prepare voters' minds for the spending cuts ahead. Lord Mandelson yesterday announced that "everything is going to have to be examined".

It was less than two years ago that we reached the end of the last Comprehensive Spending Review, agreeing budgets for 2008 to 2011. Comprehensive it wasn't. For all the macho talk from civil servants about tough choices and total line-by-line examinations of Departmental budgets, ultimately nobody really suffered. If there were any major losers, they didn't shout too loudly. This contrasted with a concurrent Arts Council portfolio review that did dare to make some unpopular choices, although its communication and justification of these choices were more than flawed.

Any government genuinely committed to cuts in public spending will
need a new language to admit its limitations, a polite way of saying that shit happens. I remember one Minister came close when, commenting on a couple of train crash deaths, he compared this to the numbers killed on roads. He was heavily criticised, as was Boris Johnson when responding with justified humour to the transport problems caused by last Winter's snow in London.

A recent
DCSF Press Release on youth crime proclaimed: "Ministers are clear that there is no room for failure when it comes to protecting the public from crime". No room? None at all? Does this mean that whenever a crime happens, some part of Government has actually failed?

George Osborne this weekend praised Tory Councils for providing us with fully itemised details about how our money is spent. Would it be possible to start this openness earlier, to render more transparent the decision making processes about how our money is allocated, well before it's actually spent? The opacity of the current process, conducted in spreadsheet-filled rooms, feels archaic. We need an honest discussion between politicians and voters about why and where cuts might happen. As an addition to recent debates about co-production of public services, is there time and space for some thinking about co-reduction?

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