The writing is on the wall for the public sector

Via Stumbling and Mumbling I discovered a series of posts on public service reform by RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor.

He quotes the Audit Commission’s Steve Bundred:

Tax increases and spending cuts are inevitable immediately after the election….

…any managers of a public service who are not planning now on the basis they will have substantially less money to spend in two years time are living in cloud cuckoo land.

That fits with what a friend of mine who works in local government said to me last week:

Our budgets are going to fall off a cliff sometime during 2011.

Matthew Taylor makes an appeal for intelligent spending cuts to start now. Radical and innovative thinking is needed, he argues, together with a recognition that some hard choices will have to be made. He warns that the public sector has got about eighteen months to sort itself out before the spending squeeze starts.

But in his latest post on the subject he expresses some frustration that many executives in the public sector just don’t get it:

Put simply, we are talking about a period of at least three years, starting next year, in which public spending budgets will be squeezed more tightly than in the living memory of most public servants.

Which means three issues should be getting focussed attention in the public sector – but I see little sign of any even being seriously discussed.

He’s right on both counts. As I argued a few weeks ago, if public sector savings are not implemented in an intelligent way, the government will eventually use the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts, and these always fall disproportionately on front-line services. Like my metaphorical knot of wires, if you simply take a knife to it, lots of things will just stop working.

This piece from Ben Lucas in the comments thread is telling:

It is striking how both Government and Opposition seem to be avoiding the issue. Nether wants to talk about the reality of the challenge which public services will face in the future….

Again, as I’ve said before, many politicians don’t understand large organisations and most of them don’t want to be bothered with the detail. They like quick wins and big headlines. Reforming the public sector in a way that won’t leave it to fall apart will be a hard slog. It seems that, at the moment, it’s not one that most politicians or senior public sector managers are up for.

Which is a shame, because, as Matthew says, if they don’t deal with it now and control the process of cutting public spending, the axe will fall anyway in a couple of years. And when it does, it will be savage and indiscriminate.

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5 Responses to The writing is on the wall for the public sector

  1. CherryPie says:

    It is always savage and indiscriminate. It has been going on, on and off for years!

  2. Bina says:

    Rest assured the good people and the good services will be the first to suffer. The remainder just don’t appreciate how hot their seats are going to get.

  3. Laban Tall says:

    re Ben Lucas – the Govt aren’t going to tell the unions and the massed ranks of the tax-funded that there are going to be huge public spending cuts in a year or two. What’s in it for them ?

    And the Opposition will say nowt for fear of being depicted as enemies of the NHS, schools, and lollipop ladies.

    “the axe will fall anyway in a couple of years”

    i.e. after the next election, so who (in Government) cares ? Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

    Anyway, since Gordon discovered the printing press his financial worries are over …

  4. Rick says:

    Laban, if the union reps read the papers they’ll know all this.

    Managers, unions and politicians know there are going to be cuts but, from my anecdotal experience, and it seems Matthew Taylor and Ben Lucas are saying pretty much the same, a lot of them are burying their heads in the sand and hoping the axe will fall elsewhere.

    Either that or they’re hoping some miracle will deliver them from the inevitable.

  5. citizenr says:

    As a victim of indiscriminate cuts, I agree but I also agree that inefficiencies are rife in the public sector and need sorting out. Have a look at my blog for a light-hearted look from a local government point of view ‘I was a public sector worker.’ http://citizenr.wordpress.com

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