By Anna Williams of Reform.
In June, when the Government set out how it was going to conduct the Spending Review there were high hopes for a highly engaging and constructive process - a process that would really captivate the public and involve it in public sector reform.
The Treasury’s Spending Challenge set out to create the most collaborative Spending Review ever, with over 100,000 ideas submitted from the public and a further 63,000 from the public sector. From this, however, only 25 ideas were taken forward as Government policy. This consultation should and could have gone further. Rather than just being a process of generating individual ideas for efficiency, it should have begun an honest debate on the magnitude and general nature of the budget actions that the country needs. After all whilst cutting the deficit is a priority, even before the economic crisis there was a need for a high level of structural reform.
A contrast can be made with Canada in the 1990s. In 1993 they had one of the highest debt levels bar Italy of the developed world, but by 1998 the deficit had been eliminated and the debt ratio was dropping. Central to this success was the Canadian Governments’ approach to engaging the Canadian public in the development of their fiscal plans.
This included a consultation process that began more than four months before Budget day and included the release of major background papers and public hearings by the Parliament’s Finance Committee. This stimulated an outpouring of detailed mock budgets by various interest groups, media columnists and individual citizens. The then Finance Minister, Paul Martin, has argued that this consultation contributed importantly to creating reasonable expectations about the cuts and reforms that were going to take place as well as helping ensure that no stone was left unturned in re-examining the Government’s role.
The approach in the UK has, in contrast, left local people not fully aware of the difficult decisions that lie ahead. This can be shown in the response to a public consultation that Reform held in Cannock Chase. As Julian Glover blogged for the Guardian “there was an anaesthetised acceptance of impending pain.” Surprisingly, this event was also the first time that many of the local leaders had met each other. The value of the event was that it opened up lines of communication and moved the debate from one of cuts to one of meaningful reform. A dialogue like this, between different areas of the public sector, constructively allows areas of overlap to be recognised, and solutions to be created that are shared rather than isolated.
The government has made it harder for itself to take part in a real re-examination of the role of government in society by not engaging effectively in an honest public debate. Experiences from Canada and Reform’s own work in the run up to the Spending Review have shown that sparking debate, igniting innovation and public understanding could have added real value to reforms now taking place. The Spending Challenge as much embodied an opportunity as did a threat. Unfortunately this opportunity was wasted.