Peeling the apple: the issue with government cutbacks

Times are hard right now in government.  Moratoriums are kicking in and spend is being reviewed or curbed in a number of areas.

Consultancy contracts are being terminated.  Not across the board, but I’ve certainly heard of some significant ones that are going by the wayside.  Contractors’ contracts are not being renewed.  And meanwhile, as has been widely publicised outside government, all of the major commitments made between the start of the calendar year and the election have been reviewed by HM Treasury, and all projects and activities above a certain value are next up, for the jury to decide what to do with them.

This is all very well.  It will cut some non-trivial costs out of the public sector, although I’m not sure whether the detrimental impact on the wider economy has been fully considered.  Consultancies will lay people off, builders that were otherwise ready to start building a new hospital in Teesside won’t—this was one of the commitments that was reversed—and the list goes on.  These people directly affected will no longer buy TVs, build extensions, send their children to private school etc.  And those employed in such areas will suffer indirectly.  And so on.

What I feel is missing from the equation however is an understanding as to whether other things should be done in the place of initiatives that are being canned.  At the moment, the movement can be likened to peeling an apple.  Government is not doing anything differently—it will just be slightly smaller than it was before.  Suggestions for subsequent years are that budgets will be cut year-on-year for a number of years hereafter, with further layers of the apple being peeled away.

But no one seems to have thought about slicing the apple up.  taking entire chunks out, replacing sections with orange segments.  No one seems to be challenging the fundamentals of what departments are doing and how they might be changed to better offer value to the public.  Doing this would require some upfront investment—not necessarily vast but certainly non-zero.  And as such, it’s being ruled out.

For example, departments have buildings.  And they don’t share these buildings.  This status quo won’t be challenged.  So each department will likely operate in a silo to deliver its own savings.  But what if the less sensitive departments—Decc, Defra, DCMS, the Cabinet Office, DfE, for example—clubbed together and had white-label buildings.  Instead of each department having buildings operating at 80% capacity, you could shut certain buildings and increase desk utilisation, in the process promoting cross-working.  This won’t happen, because the security pass systems would need to be integrated, which would come with a non-zero cost.

I think this is a shame.  As the apple gets smaller and tighter over the next few years, there will be less and less room or appetite for innovation.  And people will not be able to stray from what they are doing to try to figure out how they might do it better.  Instead, departments will continue to do what they currently do, only not as well.

There are people around who can change the status quo here, both within and outside the civil service.  I know a bunch of them and, given the licence, they have both the vision and passion to radically change the way in which the government operates.  But they won’t be given that licence.

Instead, the apple will continue to be peeled, and what remains will start to turn brown and decay.  I hope I’m wrong.  But given what I’ve seen thus far, it’s looking more and more likely.

Comments

4 Responses to “Peeling the apple: the issue with government cutbacks”

  1. Baskers on June 18th, 2010 23:40

    You’ve articulated some thoughts I’ve been having over the last last month rather splendidly.

    I too am seeing bright talented people leave the Government and it’s leaving a hole that isn’t going to get filled.

    Even more disturbingly I’m seeing system developers resigning because of the uncertainty of whether or not they have a job in the next couple of weeks when their contract expires because we can no longer renew them easily. It now involves filling out numerous HR Justification forms, going through at least 4 separate Senior Management approval stages with no guarantee that you will actually be able to renew the contract – as a manager how can you deliver against your Objectives in keeping the systems running, providing the technical skills, helpdesk, configuration enhancements when your own Senior Management take away the very resources you need to deliver all that?

    There are the people in the background that keep our systems running, performing patches, upgrades, change control, configuration enhancements, trouble shooting connectivity problems, Server errors etc – non-PSG skills that aren’t recognised when it comes to pay, so it’s *extremely* difficult to recruit perm civil servants with these non-PSG skills set, thus we buy these specialised skills in through contractors who keep up to date with the latest technologies, coding principles,qualifications to keep themselves employable. They also keep our systems working, up to date and adaptable to a changing environment or business requirements.

    We’re being told to cut, to lose staff, to lose contractors – it’s being made so difficult now that it’s extremely hard to renew an existing contract. But what I’m not hearing is what our Management want us to *stop* doing. The message I’m receiving is that we are still expected to deliver against existing objectives, responsibilities and more. But with what?

    Something has to give. If Government is to become ‘leaner’, ‘smaller’ etc, then decisions need to be made as to what we *stop* doing. Once we *stop* doing ‘things’, the next step is maintain the status quo and not think outside the box, or to innovate because normally there is a price tag associated with innovation.

    Even if you look to innovate internally, to do that you need skilled staff, skilled staff that aren’t fire fighting problems constantly. They need space to think, to try avenues perhaps a little less orthodox and be given room to succeed or fail – innovation doesn’t just ‘magically’ happen. You need to create an environment that allows for innovation to happen, but what is happening now throughout Whitehall isn’t exactly conducive to that.

    I fear innovation will be the first of many casualties in this new era of fiscal austerity.

  2. Yazz on June 19th, 2010 08:58

    You’ve hit the nail on the head Dan

  3. AA on June 21st, 2010 21:46

    You’ve got it right. The question we should be asking ourselves is not what to cut, but how can we do it better. The trend seems to be to swipe a knife through the surface and cut anything that sticks to it, as if its existence was the capricious idea of someone with much time on their hands, never questioning that ‘it’ may be there because there is a good reason for its existence.

    Government seems to spouse the idea that cuts equal savings, a rather twisted mathematical assumption that equals zero, which is not the same as ‘savings’. Savings means finding ways of doing things better and still getting the benefits.

    How are we supposed to support thousands of regulatory regimes and the staff, local authorities and agencies that deliver it without proper systems and structures? they cost money, true, but that does not make them unnecessary.

    True savings come from understanding what we do and finding out how to do it better, that generally brings larger savings than deciding (by a bunch of people who will probably not even read the business case and if they did would barely understand the first two sentences of it) something should be cut and ignoring why it is there in the first place.

    In many cases what government calls ‘waste’ is what the rational world calls ‘required to function’, true waste is never tackled.

  4. Interesting elsewhere – 23 June 2010 | Public Strategist on June 23rd, 2010 12:36

    […] Peeling the apple: the issue with government cutbacks : Tangential Ramblings As the apple gets smaller and tighter over the next few years, there will be less and less room or appetite for innovation.  And people will not be able to stray from what they are doing to try to figure out how they might do it better.  Instead, departments will continue to do what they currently do, only not as well. There are people around who can change the status quo here, both within and outside the civil service.  I know a bunch of them and, given the licence, they have both the vision and passion to radically change the way in which the government operates.  But they won’t be given that licence. Instead, the apple will continue to be peeled, and what remains will start to turn brown and decay.  I hope I’m wrong.  But given what I’ve seen thus far, it’s looking more and more likely. […]

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