Government goes over-the-top in boasting about how it is centralising decisions

Philip Green’s report into how the government could save money was initially rather dominated by the way he has arranged his own personal tax affairs. Some of his ideas were also far from good – such as the idea that the government should become a slow payer of bills to small businesses – but there were also good ideas in the Philip Green report.

The government has now come up with its response to the report and its plans for implementing many of the recommendations. What particularly caught my eye was the boost to open data:

Spending on new information and communications technology (ICT) contracts with a lifetime value of above £5 million will be subject to central approval. This will ensure best value is achieved and that ICT solutions bought have a common infrastructure and open standards, allowing them to be used across public bodies.

Many of the other recommendations are also of the form – “if you want to do it, you have to get central government permission first”. The motivation behind that is understandable given how often poor procurement judgement has been exercised across the public sector, whether at the detailed level of paying very high prices for A4 paper through to multimillion pound website projects with very little to show for them.

And yet, and yet – thinking the answer to this is to centralise because those at the centre know best is just a bit New Labour, isn’t it? All of the points highlighted in a bullet point list near the top of the Cabinet Office’s press release are about centralisation. In fact, the government’s overall record is rather better than this, with in other areas budget responsibility being devolved and the opening up of data adding extra public scrutiny to spending decisions.

But it’s a rather off-message message from the Cabinet Office of all places to be boasting so heavily about centralisation without even a nod in the direction of centralisation not being a magic cure-all.

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  • Localism is not a true aim of Tories and I think Pickles has proved this. His recent comments about ring fencing of charity funding, effectively forcing councils to follow his prescription of how to implement cuts is a good example.

    I could be wrong, but the impression I get is that central Gov are the worst at large IT projects and therefore perhaps it should be the other way around. They should ask the councils for some advice!!

  • This whole exercise speaks volumes about the deliberate ideologically based destruction of the idea of what the public sector is. We are constantly asked to defer to private enterprise in determining how to run public services, as if the only source of knowledge about efficient administration and organisation could come from there.

    We have a constant stream of people drafted in from commercial sectors (retail, banking etc.), who may be very skilled in running their own businesses but whose knowledge may be of limited applicability to public services. Phillip Green, for instance, was brilliant at driving down costs by hard bargaining with suppliers, centralising some core business functions and sourcing from the Far East, while giving his brand managers within Arcadia freedom to run e.g. Top Shop more independently. But how does this transfer to running massive government projects where consistent service standards not profit are supposed to be the motive of the organisation?

    We have such an impoverished sense of public administration that we have been reduced to drafting in outsiders from the private sector, when what we need is to be building up the UK equivalent of French “énarques” – top grade people trained specifically as experts in public administration. They could be seconded to “best of class” organisations worldwide (e.g. Swiss railways, French healthcare, Finnish schools) in order to build up our knowledge base and trained in a dedicated postgraduate college of experts so we have the very highest quality of public administrators.

    Until we rebuild the legitimacy of public service as a distinct activity as opposed to force everything into a pseudo-marketised intellectual straitjacket then we will continue to see a steady and inexorable decline across standards of administration across the whole of our public sector.

  • I will say it – ( before Cuse jumps in )
    This does rather look like the government is decentralising decisions about cutting spending
    while centralising decisions about spending.

    Steve is also correct about IT projects, take what works locally and expand it , rather than a top down design.

  • I would go even further than that, Tom. (though it might not immediately seem so)

    I would only define the powers that are reserved at the Westminster level. That way, the next level down (Scotland, Wales, the GLA and hopefully other regional equivalents) would be free to organise themselves and distribute power and responsibilities as they saw fit. That way London could choose to have appropriately powerful borough councils below the GLA, while the Cornish Assembly might decide to forego intervening districts but to empower parish and town councils instead. The exact split and structure within each nation or region would be down to the people in that region.

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