Sunday, June 26, 2011

Waste is a waste of time

Twitter is no fun when it comes to referencing a whole conversation, so you'll have to do some work here. So Matthew Turner and I had a row with "Hopi Sen", who apparently thinks the absolute top priority for the Labour Party is an attack on "waste". If you browse through the pile o'tweets you'll find that my argument breaks down as follows:

1) Government efficiency drives are hard and always disappointing

Literally every PM since Lloyd George, never mind Attlee, has declared a campaign for efficiency, against waste, against "scroungers" or whatever, at some point. Yet they are still with us. Cost-managing an organisation the size of government is very hard, expensive, and imperfect. Further, it's almost as common for government ministers and officials to complain about Treasury micro-management and obsession with the next five minutes' cashflow account. Strict cost accounting is not rare in the British civil service, in fact it is the primrose path of promotion.

2) Power is real

So the prime minister says we've got to be more efficient. Ministers and permanent secretaries fan out with his words. What happens next?

Obviously, the bureaucracy will partially cushion and vitiate the directive. Equally obviously, the directive will create opportunities to do stuff you couldn't before. Bureaucracy creates as many opportunities for a tactical excess of zeal as it does veto-points and buffering committees.

But the distinction between the two is non-random. Easier and more promising things will be done in preference to harder ones. Harder things will get watered down in drafting or held in the administration's delay loops. Who, honestly, doubts that a savings review would be enforced with greater enthusiasm on claimants of disability benefit than on BAE Systems, Capita, or EDS? Will anyone take a bet?

3) Waste is a pony

One of the reasons why governments and oppositions both love arguing about "waste" is that it's nicely undefined. Forecast the right amount of "efficiency savings" and you can promise all sorts of stuff without moving the slider marked "Income Tax" or touching the knob marked "NHS".

Whether any of this is deliverable at all is completely vague. Basically, it's equivalent to assuming a pony. And there is no pony.


You do realise there is no need to debate this? We have data. We can observe. The Conservative campaign of 2010 promised huge efficiency savings and claimed that its cuts policy would be just fine thanks to the waste pony. How's that working out for you? The cuts have been hard to deliver (point 1), the efficiencies even harder (point 3), and in fact, they have fallen on the powerless (point 2) rather than the powerful.

We don't need a debate.

4) The issue is trivial

Even the comedy "fraud and error" numbers in the welfare bills aren't actually all that much money in the context of the government budget. Whether there is a lot of waste or a little waste, by definition it's going to be a couple of percent either way. If it wasn't, we wouldn't need to launch a massive auditing exercise to find it. This isn't Greece.

However, gigantic management-information systems and complex rules do cost serious money to implement. Especially if they're going to be commissioned from Capita or EDS, the people we know are rooking us anyway. So the real question is "How much waste is actually recoverable, considering the costs of recovering it?"

Intermission 2

If you're being cost conscious, be cost conscious. Spending on The War On Minor Fraud And Some Administrative Errors is spending. It's money. It doesn't become un-money because it is dipped in Blairite holy water. It's money.

So much for rehashed tweets. But there are some other issues here. So, that "savings review".

5. It's All Gordon's Fault. No, Really, Trust Me This Time

This made an appearance in Tony Blair's memoirs. I don't recall it being much discussed in 2006, the period it supposedly refers to. A quick look on google shows 363 total results, most of which are in articles reviewing the memoir.

It is worth pointing that he was prime minister. If he cared so much, why didn't he order it? He had the Bomb, for fucksake, and as prime minister he was also the minister for the civil service. So, making the hilariously generous assumption that the memoirs are a reliable source, Blair cared so much about the public spending menace that he...nearly said something. Of course, when it suited him, he usually managed to find some ruthlessness, but on this occasion clearly not.

Alternatively, it's a lot of old honk he made up because it was fashionable in late 2009 and an opportunity to moan about Gordon Brown - just another tiresome diva snit.

6. Actually, New Labour Was Obsessed With Civil Service Management

This bit of self-justifying guff is rapidly becoming the object of a post-Blairite founder cult. If it hadn't been for Gordon, zowee, we'd have clamped down on spending in 2006 and...

And what? What possible change in fiscal policy in 2006 would have prevented the great financial crisis? How? Remember that the US housing market's key bubbles peaked and crashed in the winter of 2006. After that, it was all whistling past the graveyard.

There was in fact no boom in public spending at the time. So any possible savings review would have achieved nothing. You can't fix a problem that isn't there. Again, we don't need a debate. We have data.

Hurtling upwards out of control!

7. How you say...Public Service Agreement?

Did I somehow imagine the creation of a massive infrastructure of management-information systems and numerical targeting linking the departmental civil service and its outside contractors to the Treasury and the No.10 Delivery Unit?

Was I having weird management consultancy hallucinations? Was everyone? Was my dad imagining that he'd suddenly found himself with an actual government minister as his line manager?

It's not as if there wasn't a hell of a lot of work going into this. But of course that was all over at the Treasury and has therefore been memory-holed.

8. Tell Me, Great Masters of Narrative Control...

Since when is it a strategic master-stroke to let the enemy's narrative control your actions? Look, you're meant to be a sinister Millbank PR Svengali. I thought the whole point was to control the narrative, not be defined by the other side. But here we are trying desperately to buy into the whole drivel-mythos that everything was just pony-licious until The Socialists Ran Out Of Money.

9. Slight Return to Point Three

Wages for the median UK worker have been flat to falling since 2003. Prices and taxes are going and up and the social wage is being cut. Just how much money do you possibly think you could extract from the waste pony and then recycle back into the wage packet? This isn't an argument. It's just an order of magnitude error, a missing zero.

Especially as - because New Labour made the economic majority significant claimants of in-work benefits - attempts to save money will primarily affect them. It's the original self-licking lollipop. For some reason the referent of this tweet is missing - how could it happen?

10. Jerry Springer's Final Thought

I think the deep play here is that the metaphors we use to speak about politics are themselves obstructive. We talk about creating "political space" and "holding the centre" and use a repertoire of phrases that map the issues into geography and tactics, just as we convert numerical data into graphics to understand it faster.

But what do any of these things actually mean? What is the causal relationship between them? One can argue that you need to say something "tough" about "waste" before going after George Osborne, and you might even be right, but what's the actual link between them?

Or is this just a way of exercising power?

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