Two fiascos last week gave the impression that the government has not properly thought through its programme of spending cuts. The confusion over school building programmes was widely reported but the planned changes to the civil service redundancy scheme showed a lack of coherent thought too.
Last week, central government organisations were instructed to hang fire on any redundancies already agreed which would see employees leaving after 15 September. The reason for this was the government’s plan to reduce the redundancy entitlement by that date. After realising that this would need an Act of Parliament and that there was almost no time left in which to do it, the government changed its deadline to sometime before the end of the year and government bodies were told to go ahead with the redundancies as agreed. Now, if a bungling amateur like me could see that the timescale for this change was impossible, why couldn’t the government?
Next week’s fiasco will almost certainly be the plans to reform the NHS. Even before the white paper has been published, the holes are starting to appear. The HSJ’s Sally Gainsbury has calculated that Andrew Lansley’s proposals will add £1.2bn to the cost of the NHS. Right-wing think-tank Civitas has warned that such a large re-organisation will see performance drop for at least the first year.
Lansley’s proposals are symptomatic of a further confusion in government policy. If the Coalition wants to move towards place-based budgeting, where local councils, government departments and the NHS share resources, surely any proposal to further marketise relationships between organisations makes such collaboration less likely. Likewise, as Jane Dudman ponited out, if localism is to be the order of the day, how do you square that with demands for economies of scale and the merging of public sector back office services?
Over the past few weeks I have carried out some extensive research using the sort of rigorous methodology readers of this blog have come to expect. I have had coffees, lunches and beers with a number of senior public sector executives. They all complained about the mixed messages coming from the government and a feeling that there was no overall strategy for spending cuts and public sector reform. As one chief executive said:
I don’t think the government really know what they are doing. I think they are making it up as they go along.
The blunders, volte-faces and seemingly contradictory policies certainly give that impression. The government’s strategy, such as it is, seems to be that devolution and people power will miraculously make everything cheaper. But, as many of the contributors to this comments thread have worked out, localism doesn’t necessarily mean things will be cheaper. It might be that ‘the people’ make all sorts of demands which, when totalled up, end up costing a lot more.
Last month, Jane Dudman described the government’s spending cuts strategy as incoherent. With every new speech or ministerial announcement, it looks that bit more incoherent. I think my CEO friend might be right; they really are making it up as they go along.