It’s usually a sign of desperation in terms of the public finances (in the UK anyway) when politicians suddenly start talking about “efficiency savings”. It’s even more serious when they start building them into future forecasts of public expenditure before identifying where the “savings” might actually come from.
There is nothing wrong with looking for savings from procurement or internal efficiencies, an any good manager should be doing so continuously. But if you really wanted to run such a proper programme across the UK government, you would need to plan and think carefully about how you structure and resource that, which areas you will focus on and so on. I was involved in the Gershon efficiency programme way back in the mid-noughties and whilst it probably did not deliver everything it wanted to, it was a serious attempt to address difficult issues such as cross-departmental collaboration and a structured category management approach to central government buying.
Last week, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a new efficiency drive. “The drive will be spearheaded by a new Chancellor-chaired “Efficiency and Value for Money Committee” that will cut £5.5 billion worth of waste – with savings used to fund vital public services”.
Set up a committee – I’ve always found that’s a great way of making savings! But when you look closely at the announcement, it seems to apply mainly to the NHS and the arm’s length bodies (“Quangos”). They “will be expected to save at least £800m from their budgets”. The Arm’s Length Body Review will see savings supposedly come from “better use of property, reduced reliance on consultants, increased digitisation and greater use of shared services, as well as the use of benchmarking to drive efficiencies”.
What has the last government been doing all these years to leave these savings on the table?! It’s a good job the Conservatives are now in power to sort it out! Hang on a minute – they’ve been in office for over a decade now. It’s taken quite a while to realise that issues such as “reliance on consultants” are costing the taxpayer a fortune.
Meanwhile, the “£4.75 billion worth of savings agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care will come into effect financial year 2022/23.” So together that gives us £5.5 billion in “savings”, which more than covers the £5.5 billion target previously mentioned. So are central departments not covered by this? It’s not clear. We may come back to where exactly these huge health savings are going to come from.
The other element of the announcement is this. “The Treasury will also launch a new Innovation Challenge to crowdsource ideas from civil servants on how government can reduce waste and improve public services, with winners selected this Summer and best ideas becoming Government policy…. A 2015 Innovation Challenge received 22,000 responses with 16 measures implemented”.
I predict there will be many ideas from civil servants, and the most common will be “stop Ministers coming up with stupid f***ng policy ideas that will never work and cost a fortune”.
Consider great historical examples such as NPfIT in the NHS, ID Cards, privatisation of probation, FireControl, Universal Credit, most PFI programmes, the aircraft carrier programmes … etc. Maybe it would also help if we didn’t give PPE contracts to friends of friends and then waste billions because of over-buying and not checking the specification.
But back to the new “efficiency programme”. We’ll know quickly if it really means anything when we see if and how it is to be resourced, and how often this committee is going to meet. The methodology of measuring “savings” is also key. I’m sure the DHSC will find a way of showing Treasury that it made the “savings”, yet somehow it managed to overspend its budget at the same time… and yes, I am deeply cynical about all this!