Comments on "New Life for Public Services"


Including the IT opportunities for positive participation from the Treasury down to programmes at both Whitehall and local levels and for resolving central/ local relationships in general.


Des McConaghy



This paper is substantially as submitted to the Office for Public Service (OPS) in response to the previous government's Green Paper "" (Cm 3438). By incorporating some major relevant adjustments, it can now also serve as my comments on New Labour's recent paper "New Life for Public Services". From my perspective these two papers are similar and neither tackled the lack of a meaningful symbiosis between developments in information technology and the policy development process itself.


Both the Tory and Labour papers - plus most of the relevant work going forward within the OPS, the CCTA and the rest of the IT consultancy world - are mainly concerned with "downstream" public services. Little attention has been given to the "upstream" services and functions of government at policy directing levels. Work - and the pilot studies - are mostly directed to proposals going forward for electronic improvements in delivery systems, personal transfers and so on. This is very important and will remain so. But my paper starts with the massive impact which information society has already had on the whole of British polity and the urgent need to adjust to these new realities.


My paper therefore begins with the impact on the Treasury and the pragmatic adjustments that have accompanied the steady loss of sovereignty at that level. This has implications, which I spell out, for the whole area of central/local relationships - and therefore for decentralisation, devolution, and so on. Specifically this leads to proposals for a new type of financial dialogue which could accommodate all such aspirations without prejudicing macro controls.


My paper also refers to the extensive policy confusions within Departments (and also at subservient levels of government) which followed their failure to adapt to the economic imperatives of globalisation. The Department of the Environment is taken as one example of this and of the waste of human and financial resources that result - and that Department has already (graciously!) responded to this analysis as an "interesting and challenging perspective". In the absence of effective action at all levels we are bound to invite a further dislocation of central and local planning. That adds to the erosion of consent.


However my proposals point to the immediate technical opportunity for opening up the way governments conduct their business at every level; how IT can be called into aid to make this progress more explicit from constituency levels up to regional and national levels. The Manifesto's commitment to primary and nursery education is taken as one topical example (para 5.12) calling for "expenditure-based plans"; a key rationalisation of the present confusing array of agencies and diverse ad hoc local bidding systems. The Manifesto's proposal for overall "local performance plans" should have regard to these programme expenditure plans.


Finally, my paper advances positive proposals for realising some progress towards a more objective-orientated Public Expenditure Survey at the very heart of the governmental system. These ideas make good use of some reforms already suggested within the Treasury. But they also propose to positively involve Departments in breaking through the "glass ceiling" that separates them from a more creative role in central planning. In turn this will suggest some comparable principles for prioritisation within the expenditure planning of those Departments, and at other levels of government, and so on.


For the most part all these proposals already exist in some form or other within our public administration vocabulary - and within the way governments organise their business. But they often exist outside some common framework or strategic grasp that can make some coherent sense of the many separate instruments. We must start applying the benefits of IT simultaneously to every level of the public policy processes since that alone will help us to effect the crucial linkages, stimulate both accountable outputs and effective feedback - and begin to address the new dilemmas of our global information society.


4 May 1997




The Central Strategic Issue


1.1  What is now called the "Global Information Society" has been emerging over many years. It has already transformed government! The rapid and progressive globalisation of trade and industry and the scale and immediacy of international money flows have encouraged and accelerated the centralisation of budgetary processes within the state. This, and the complementary trends towards international convergence and sound money policies, have massively contributed to rapid centralisation of central government power in Britain and similar economies elsewhere.


1.2  There is now a legitimate, widespread and established concern that our democratic government has become less accountable and is now too remote from the citizen and its constituency base. The further centralisation of some powers towards global trade blocks, such as the EU, is another aspect of the same process at work. And the EU analogy prompts similar anxieties due to its own democratic deficit at that level.


1.3  Consequently there are inevitable demands for "decentralisation of power" in very traditional terms and inaccurate claims that this is in train elsewhere in Europe (1). Some EU states are already centralised. The others have ways to increase central control one way or another - and most are proceeding to do so. But the relative flexibility of British constitutionality has allowed centralisation to proceed at such a rapid pace that it has been difficult to assimilate. And budgetary centralisation has proceeded while some other major parts of the Whitehall machine, and local government, bravely continue to administer a society that is vanishing into the history books. All this now threatens accountability throughout the system - and therefore the credibility of the political process itself.


1.4  But there is no going back! Of course each government has been aware of the political diseconomies of centralisation. All have been concerned, too, about their ability to cope with the accumulative burdens of modern government at that level. Remedies have been attempted; some creditable and some not so creditable! But the Government is stuck in a paradoxical situation when purporting to reinforce constituency roles (or professing to uphold traditional notions of local autonomy) while, of necessity, consolidating and increasing their effective control at the centre.


1.5  So the Global Information Society has fostered centralisation and the management of unitary economies has become, much more overtly, a very centralised type of activity. At the centre of our own system the Treasury moved progressively away from the five year public expenditure planning of the early 1970s - and the prospects that once held out for positive scrutiny styles of government and effective Parliamentary control - to a concern mainly for monetary aggregates and the present top-down, aspatial and continuous budgetary process. It had to!


1.6  The Government now has a wonderful opportunity to stress the multi-level challenge of the communications task before us. Information technology must be harnessed not only to bulwark citizen choice, fundamental though that is, but also to simultaneously guarantee useful inputs and feedback from every sector of the economy and from every administrative level of the nation. At the centre we must also address the "constitutional fiction" (2) of Parliamentary control of Supply since the concept of effective control lies at the heart of democratic government. Consistency is vital!



Access and Feedback


2.1  So how can this be done? While the march of technology created centrality it also prompts its own solution - and Internet sites like "Be Your Own Chancellor" begin to give us a clue (3). When the mass of people are able to simulate national Budget options in their living rooms the whole centre versus local polarity becomes a modern myth.


2.2  And at the more local level Brent's online forum to discuss council budget options is a nod in the same direction (4). Therefore the dilemma of modern polity can be totally transformed if we can but conceive public sector information systems that faithfully represent public decision-making and the way governments organise their business at all levels.


2.3  The feedback function is vital since it represents the most serious political casualty of the centralised present system. At senior political levels there is an increasing dependence on "focus groups", opinion polls and associated presentational skills which have their uses but which also speak to the "strategy gap" between government and the machinery at its disposal. Similarly the many Internet policy discussion groups reflect the same remote detachment from the nuts and bolts of public decision-making: "anything goes"!


2.4  Therefore as a "bottom line" we need public information networks which address and inform realistic constraints: what is proposed ? (the political agenda), can it be afforded ? (public finance and public expenditure round), is there authority ? (legislation) and can it be managed ? (agencies / institutions / local government). The Government Information Service could make sure that such information goes online monitoring each session of Parliament from the Queen's Speech through to every legislative and departmental expenditure programmes. No doubt Opposition Parties would then add "read across" networks in an equally disciplined way.


2.5   For example the Manifesto proposed class sizes limited to 30 for all 5, 6 and 7 year-old children (and nursery places for all four year olds), providing a fine example of a priority change - illustrated further at para. 5.12.



Treasury Keystone 


3.1  Public expenditure tells us what is actually happening. It is therefore the most important of the above categories for inclusion in any public online information system. To spend is to choose and the rest is relatively rhetorical! (5) And at the centre of this system the Treasury's current proposals for "output and performance measures " are of crucial importance in setting the scene for the entire public sector. The innovation figured strongly in the Treasury's 1994 Green Paper (Cm 2626) which heralded the advent of Resource Accounting and Budgeting across Whitehall. These reforms proceed with cross-party support in principle.


3.2  The absence of any coherent system for Parliamentary control over the Estimates has long been a notorious anomaly at the centre of British democracy. This defect - for a defect it still is - was never too critical while we enjoyed a greater dispersal of power and in ages of greater plenty. But it is totally important now that so much public power is concentrated at the centre. It is worrying, therefore, that those aspects of the Treasury's reforms dealing with performance data appear to have been relatively side-lined since their 1994 Treasury Green Paper.


3.3  The previous Government's "" Green Paper (Cm 3438) refered at the outset to "the flow of information between Government and Parliament" - but without inviting any comment - and now Labour's "New Life for the Public Services" makes no reference to the matter. But this is the veritable keystone of any sort of national open information system. And any Treasury idea to downgrade the importance of proposed output information is the more serious due to further plans to dramatically reduce the detailed information published within the Estimates cycle. A recent warning from the Specialist Adviser to the Commons Treasury Committee should therefore be carefully noted (6).


3.4  A more general warning might run as follows; any attempt "to empower the citizen" is clearly bogus if it does not also empower his elected members. It is important, then, that the Treasury makes progress in at least providing the Parliamentary Committees (ad hoc, post hoc!) with satisfactory output and performance criteria for spending over £319 billion a year of our money. Until then the national constraint arguments that are constantly imposed on commerce, on our local elected councils and on public services will continue to appear unconvincing and as arbitrary as public sector information networks that omit this crucial level of debate.


3.5  However such open information networks can help to solve one of Whitehall's central problems; the production of effective output and performance measures. Whitehall has very little institutional memory or it might have known that the relative evaluation of social benefits is not wholly amenable to static analysis and the landscape of public administration is littered with past failures. Nevertheless this is now being attempted within the Treasury in spite of inevitable subjectivity in goal-setting at that level. It is important to realise that the way the framework of debate is constituted is just as important as actual measurement - and success (i.e., validation) depends on their interaction! Therefore public sector online systems can facilitate this marvellously well by incorporating feedback as an integral part of the system (7).


3.6  So the Treasury gains a much needed "constituency dimension" and vast savings will emerge as a leaner style of government begins to take advantage of "real time control"; when things are moving fast government needs instantaneous information (8). This is both the rationale and the essential starting point for any public sector information system. It gets the Treasury out of the hole it has been digging for itself. It also gives MPs and the whole political process something sensible to bite on. But most of all it begins to address the vast new constitutional dilemmas in which we are now undoubtedly thrown.


"Content-led  Innovation!"


And what more does the above strategy means for essential "content" of public sector information systems and for a "co-ordinated" approach by a "unified service"? Some general points lead to the case for a radical Departmental response.


4.1  The earlier Green Paper's reference to a "unified service" could imply a massive co-ordination of central or local government departments - which is never practicable - nor technically necessary in this case. Government is inexpressibly complex and diffuse and each part of the machine has evolved its own policy culture and social criteria. Therefore generalised talk of co-ordination can actually delay action and do more harm than good. What is needed is a consistent approach, throughout all levels of central and local government, based on clearly defined common objectives with a compelling positive policy content; i.e., money!


4.2  All successful IT innovations are "content led" . So from the mass of data it is important to capture hard information which clearly affects the material circumstances of citizens, local institutions, commerce and industry - and the "first priority" of all that is any changes that are proposed at the margins . Economic prosperity still means more to most people than anything else - and if this hard information can be brought online in a systematic way it is sure to be eagerly sought after and used by citizens and their local institutions and, of course, by business.


4.3  Electronic delivery of personal transfers obviously already meets this test because the dividend is apparent to all - that is why Social Security and Revenue Departments are off to a good start. But even in this case my general point is underlined by the need to facilitate actual cash transactions. This will provide the impetus for smart card technological developments after which innovations will really start to "take off" - and pay off!


4.4  These "demand-led" personal transfers are also universally applied national standards and so the task is more easy to define than where departmental programmes deal with sectors of the economy and areas of the country. In the latter case the operational task is radically different because public and private sector clients are so diverse and because they include separate environmental agencies and elected local authorities. In addition the range of data is vast, varied and often incomparable and can result in the familiar problems of "information overload" . The challenge is not simply to make such information available but to make it intelligible to all.


Departmental Service Rationalisation


5.1  The Department of the Environment was taken as one example to demonstrate how centralisation affects the more detailed aspects of the information strategy. One basic function of any public sector information systems is to resolve local (or sectoral) needs with "what the country can afford". But governments are memorials to old problems and the DoE (with its special responsibilities for local government), and local government itself, have both yet to adjust to the challenge of technology-led centralism.


5.2  Until then there will be a massive confusion in reporting networks. Over the past 25 years governments have reacted pragmatically by radically reducing the functions of local government and transferred services to centrally funded agencies - some of which are now called "non-departmental public bodies". The present emphasis on privatisation of services and "off-budgeting" hardly simplify matters and Treasury proposals now suggest that many NDPBs need not even fall within the boundaries of Whitehall Departments. The dilemmas now posed for local government's role have recently been acknowledged by both the Cabinet Secretary and the DoE Permanent Secretary (9).


5.3  Meanwhile "New Life for the Public Services" rightfully commends the online information systems already pioneered by local councils - and many citizens still see local authorities as the "closest" face of government. But one way or another Ministers and central agencies can now control as much as 95% of the action (i.e., expenditure) in some of our urban areas (10). Moreover unemployment and other benefits, access to housing, health and education are what many citizens regard as their fundamental "life-chance" services and it is precisely these services that are increasingly under central control.


5.4  Therefore much money and effort is expended by local government on local public service information systems which at best can only give a very partial response to what many citizens most urgently want to know. Too often online services comprise, at base, merely an "A to Z" of council departments, referral points and ad hoc gateways to voluntary agencies or entertainment and tourist facilities. Pleasant though all this is, it is marginal to the higher value data as defined above. So there will be a continuing waste of energies and resources until a national online public service information system is also launched to give citizens a "consistent corporate interface" with all their most essential local services.


5.5  The "Citizen's Charter" CD ROM gave a symbolic nod in this direction. It is a creditable start that, hopefully, might begin to sharpen appetites. However like much Citizen's Charter activities, there is a poverty of the contextual information that any citizen or official or elected member needs to know if they want to form a fair judgement and contribute objective feedback. Most of all there is almost no attempt whatsoever to open up the resource mechanisms that actually determine public action; "who gets what"!


5.6  So bearing in mind DoE's concern for local government services and the need to include more vital material in our public information systems we need to ask three questions :-

  1. Can we be sure of capturing the priority resource changes at the margin - because these not only tackle the priority tasks or problems but are the greatest source of public interest and feedback - and the trigger for innovation?
  2. Can we show how that information can be geared to an information base covering the mass of more routine and ongoing administrative tasks of both central and local government?
  3. Can information technology be used to allow the citizen (and his elected members!) access to this information in their areas ( or constituencies !) and relative to other areas - and any level of regional or national aggregation right up to the Treasury's Public Expenditure Survey?


5.7  There is no technical problem. We have already pioneered "expenditure-based plans" where localities bid for priority supplementary resources in each main programme area; in housing, transport, education and so on (11). Then also we have already seen, in a voluntary pilot project, how any lay-person can gain instant access at will (with "user-friendly interactive programs") to this sort of priority information - and all relevant contextual data - and we have seen how citizens can cross territorial and administrative boundaries at their own choice comparing performance in their area with any other (12).


5.8  So why does officialdom fail? For a starter Whitehall has been unable to evolve common or even comparable principles in the above mechanisms where bids are made for priority funding. There are not even common principles within the Department of the Environment. So no logical information framework exists for assessing bids or their strategic potential. We simply need to know how "bottom up" meets "top down" and I believe no adequate information structure will emerge until the Treasury evolves a more objective-orientated Public Expenditure Survey - again stressing the relevance of my earlier reference to the proposed Treasury innovations. Until then all Departments operate under a "glass ceiling" and the whole notion of prioritisation becomes arbitrary "and loses the name of action".


5.9  Between this "glass ceiling" and the subservient local institutions there exists a veritable "Departmental Data Jungle". It is in this layer that we find a bureaucratic mechanical ethos that simply reeks of indeterminate policies and wasted resources. Separate directorates and divisions labour to invent output criteria whose main purpose is to validate their myriad bureaucracies. It can looks plausible enough when isolated bits are served up to Select Committees and Audit. But diverse public funded agencies claim identical outputs for their different expenditures, others bid up against each other for land and other resources. Numerous public agencies with the same product operate under separate financial regimes as they compete on counter-productive programmes. No one person can now say what is happening in any one area. There is so much fragmented bidding to different parts of Whitehall - and Europe - that the cost of bidding now often starts to outweigh benefits and, most of all, there is no serious attempt to consider the overall revenue consequences for local councils.


5.10  The previous Government's Green Paper said that "it should be possible to take any location in the UK and have access electronically to all the government information that relates to that area" , (Cm 3438). Those of us who have already been over this ground have seen at first hand the budgetary haze and fragmented face of current centralism. This is not to imply that good things do not happen; of course they do! My criticism of this information chaos and data jungle is not a criticism of the clever, and on the whole, well-intentioned civil servants who direct the work. What it reveals is a fragmented public service heavily burdened by an institutional and policy inheritance, and increasingly at odds with Global Information Society.


5.11  Because this Information Revolution impels a new interdependence which cannot be reconciled with traditional notions of local autonomy. The words "partnership" and "autonomy" now more clearly mean two very opposite things - and so the council tax farce has finally began to lose any remaining credibility. Meanwhile the constitutional impact of the Global Information Society means that local democracy can have no future unless all levels of central and local government are involved in sensible joint resource planning. That can only "take off" when the Treasury's proposed new output and performance measures become an integral part of the wider framework of debate.


5.12   For example , the above Manifesto DfEE priority for class sizes of less that 30 for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds (and nursery places for all four-year-olds) is a perfectly clear central political commitment for inclusion in the Treasury's output and performance measures . Quite clearly, too, Local Education Authorities must now bid for the additional resources required in a transparent and publicly accountable way. IT now enables any level of aggregation or disaggregation of such bids and allocations (i.e., down to school by school coverage) and so citizens can also easily how their school in their localities fares - and relatively with any of the rest.


The bidding mechanism should therefore be part of an "expenditure-based plan" ( note 11 ) that can include details each year's progress including the additional specific revenue implications and capital costs of additional classroom, etc. Both have assessible on-going revenue implications but the public impact and definition will be lost if this important initiative is buried within other local education programmes or the overall more generalised debate on the overall local authority revenue grant.


5.13  Each major programme area, housing, education, etc., deserves one such "expenditure-based plan" (EBP), generated locally, where innovations may call for supplementary resources. The accumulation of all such funding across regions and the nation can thus become an inherent political definition of "strategic funding" which can effectively link changes in responses to local constituency requirements with a coherent and flexible central control system. The framework for EBPs allows an accountable deployment of agencies where the net overall impacts can be readily assessed.- in stark contrast to current ad hoc ("lollipop") targeting. A fairly extensive EBP literature is available.







The following points emerge from my experience in running a national area information service a decade ago in the voluntary sector. It ran for three years and covered most central and local government local services - and therefore attempted most of the aspirations of the Green Paper! They emphasise the need for an officially led public sector online information system covering the work of all the relevant Whitehall Departments:


Private Sector Participation


6.1  The overall Government strategy, content and operational implications of a public sector information system should be clear, and reasonably clear for each relevant Department, before major parts of the system are commissioned from commercial information providers. The Green Paper makes good points about "risk" but the greatest "risk" is lack of clarity.


6.2  There are now many existing contracts with commercial information providers which may need to be reviewed when the above policy emerges. In our voluntary project we were finally unable to proceed due to asociated problems in securing ongoing access to (and usage of) official data because separate divisions of Whitehall Departments began to seek formal contracts with diverse firms to maximise the financial returns from official data. This is (or was) a contentious aspect of new DTI Guidelines. These contracts with private firms have thus proliferated in a fragmented way beyond any consideration of an overall strategy. These contracts should not now obstruct future options.


6.3  The revised 1997 Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, taken with the present Green Paper, suggests more flexibility in the interpretation of official policy. Crown Copyright was a further hurdle but a current review within government of Crown Copyright may lead to a change in DTI Guidelines. In any event it is hoped that we can progress to the situation where the mass of government information will be available to the public free of charge.


6.4  Because, as I hope my comments have shown, a competent public information service will be as useful to "the service" as it will be to business and the general public. It will "pay its way" by clarifying policy and by minimising uncertainty and therefore, at a more vigorous level than at present, attract support of private sector participation and finance.


Freedom of Information Legislation


7.1  The above advice will apply with force in operating the proposed new FOI legislation. The mechanics of dissemination must be part of the Principle of any legislation. It therefore should not proceed without first assessing the operational requirements of a public sector information system for inclusion in the Financial and Explanatory Memorandum of any Bill. By anticipating the actual demand for information - and mounting the relevant information delivery systems - civil servants can avoid being discouraged and expensively "nibbled to death".


7.2  In any event, without such provisions the net impact of FoI legislation is always regressive. Legislation on its own increases the gap between the information rich and information poor. Any "open government policy" automatically assists the further concentration of power by commercial elites - or the power of predators or international competitors. That is unavoidable since they already have the computing resources, the skills and the motivation. Therefore a very deliberate commitment to an effective public sector information system is an elementary and necessary requirement if we want to redress the regressive effect of FoI legislation on the mass of people.



One Stop Shops


8.1  I remember a report invited by Ministers back in January 1971 (!) where I pointed to the potential of using information technology to integrate official advisory services and overall statutory controls; an objective considered "utopian" by Ministers at that time (13).


8.2  The substance of the Report (based on earlier experience of information needs of incoming industries and also service delivery systems in urban areas) was that success rests almost entirely on the prior organisation of public sector information. Given subsequent networking developments and the potential of a good public sector online information system the "One Stop Shop" is now the personal computer in any office or living-room! The absence of such an approach contributed to the "excessive risks" incurred in the 1992 DTI and TECs initiative.



Statistical Competence


9.1  Another unfortunate casuality of the constitutional developments noted above has been a general loss of confidence in the political process - and that includes the credibility of official statistics. If this persists it may also undermine the credibility of public sector online information proposals and the utility and viability of any future systems.


9.2  Consequently some consideration might usefully be given to the proposals by the Royal Statistical Society, NEC and Jack Straw that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) should be placed under an official appointed by and responsible to Parliament in a way analogous to the National Audit Office. The ONS performs valuable and on the whole unimpeachable work but it is accountable only to the Prime Minister on general matters and to the Chancellor for duties with respect to specific Departments (14).



"Something new is necessary for every man and every nation. We may wish, if we please, that tomorrow shall be like today, but it will not be like it. New forces will impinge upon us; new wind, new rain, and the light of another sun; and we must alter to meet them". Walter Bagehot (15).


10.1  It is especially important that the Office of Public Service - with central responsibility for the machinery of government - continues to take the lead following the present Green Paper. In the past I have approached a good level of informal agreement with Departmental policy directors about some of the practical issues mentioned above only to be met by their objection that no senior civil servant is senior enough to do anything about it!


10.2  I suggest the Green Paper should be seen as an historic opportunity to react creatively to the undoubted impact which technology and the Global Information Society have had on UK constitutionality. It is an opportunity to reconsider many traditional practices and modes of thought that are deeply rooted in the past but are now simply irrelevant - and to welcome what these exciting innovations may promise for the next millennium.


10.3  Because the old dichotomies are dissolving; local versus centre, management versus labour, town versus country, public versus private. Right versus Left? The Information Society speaks to the interdependence of people and things. Societies which for previous millennia ignored one another are now forever face to face. Gone too are the "certainties" of old styles of public planning as international interdependence alters the whole temporal and spatial frame of government action. The new emphasis on a flexible response suggests, rather, that every action has an implicit future. And we now have the technical means to consider more than at any time in human history the likely consequences of our actions both nationally or in terms of our shared global environment. We must rise to that challenge.


10.4  And finally I refer to a personal appeal by Sir Crispin Tickell: "One thing is for sure. We need to think differently. We need to think more about the quality of life than about the material standards of living. We need models of a future society in which population is in broad balance with resources and the environment. Without them we could find ourselves on a treadmill to nowhere" (16).


Des McConaghy

5 February 1997 (revised and amended 4 May 1997)


Notes and references


(1) My recent visits to Finance Ministries in many of the EU countries confirms centralisation as a general trend. in spite of some well publicised decentralisation experiments. As often as not UK commentators are not comparing like with like. For example the German Federalism is actualy characterised by a high degree of joint resource planning and fiscal coordination between all levels of government and in 1997 may add absolute borrowing controls to an already strict regime.. At the other extreme, even tiny rich states like Denmark with high personal taxation and a strong tradition of decentralisation, now find their "agreement system" under great pressure and new laws that now enable councils to accept centrally determined budgets. Our UK "wishfull thinking" is also sometimes further confused by examples of regional nationalism, separatism, etc., which is, of course, nothing to do with decentralisation!


(2) The tern "constitutional fiction" is coined by David Heald, Specialist Adviser to the Treasury . See Treasury Committee's Second Report, "Resource Accounting and Budgeting". HC 186, Stationery Office, 18 December 1996, page 36, para 12.


(3) See the Institute for Fiscal Studies World Wide Web Site:


(4) See Brent Council's Web Site:


(5) "Money talks: It speaks to the purposes of men and nations"..."Surely little the State does - short of war - is more important than constantly using so much of the nation's work and wealth. The hidden politics of public spending is a unique window into the reality of British political administration". Heclo & Wildavsky, The Private Government of Public Money, MacMillan.


(6) "The provision of improved performance data is the quid pro quo for Parliament's acceptance of a reduction in the amount of detail traditionally presented within the Estimates cycle. Concrete improvements in the quality and consistency of output data are necessary if fashionable rhetoric about government buying outputs rather than inputs is to be anything more than a good line in presentation".

David Heald. Treasury Committee op. cit., page 36, para 6.


(7) The relevant Government publications are "Better Accounting for the Taxpayer's Money: Resource Accounting and Budgeting in Government" (Cm 2626), July 1994 and a White Paper with "Government Proposals" (Cm 2929) in July 1995. The inherent dilemmas of relative evaluation of social benefits stopped welfare economists in their tracks many decades ago. But fresh professional attempts periodically erupt in government and since the early seventies popular failures of this type included ZBB, CAB, PSORB, PAR, PPBS and so on. The best one-liner is from Wildavsky, "PPBS has failed everywhere and at all times": " Budgeting: A Comparative Theory of Budgetary Processes", Aaron Wildavsky, Little Brown & Co, Boston 1975. Management Accountants are the latest to try their hand! It is now also fashionable to increasingly depend on audit as the tool for accountability. But this is "after the event" and the excellent work of the NAO and Audit Commission on very focused and specific ad hoc topics will have to face the same old technical dilemmas if - as some now suggested - there is an abdication to professional judgement across the entire canvas of political choice.


(8) Stafford Beer notes that Chancellor MacMillan compained that vital statistics were 12 months out of date and Harold Wilson thought this had improved to only six or eight months. Beer states, "Economic movements operate in cycles, so out-of-date information is not merely late; it is precisely incorrect". "Platform for Change", Wiley 1975. Automated supermarket feedback of customer purchase now triggers latest time stock delivery. Now that things are moving fast government needs whatever technology can offer in instantaneous information. By contrast Departments routinely commission academic and professional policy studies out of context and remote from the web of decison-making. Feedback has to be seen as an integral part of output budgeting if the latter is to work. And it is also good cybernetics!


(9) Sir Andrew Turnbull : "What we lack is a deeply held consensus on the role of local government" (Solace, April 1996). Sir Robin Butler : "I think the core of our difficulty lies in our not having solved the financial relationship between central and local government", ( Policy Studies , Autumn 1995).


(10) After rebates local councils raise about 14% of their own expenditure. Consider then the separate budgets of central agencies providing main services such as personal transfers, housing, health, further and higher education, urban renewal and regeneration. Add all such expenditures in and the percentage and the percentage of the overall local budget raised and determined by locally elected councils can be as low as 4% or 5% in some urban areas. So as a practical matter ministers have 95% to 96% of the action.


(11) I was associated with 1973/74 proposals for new policy instruments where localities could bid for supplementary resources, programme by programme, based on local needs - and in an internal DoE review I sought an overall strategic programme definition and its relationship to the large scale more permanent and formulae-driven allocation systems like councils' Rate Support Grant - perhaps now the York formula in Health, etc. Official examples started with Home Office Comprehensive Community Programmes, DoE's Transport Policies and Programmes and a wobbly line now loosely connects many such diverse and incomparable devices, such as HIPs, City Challenge, Single Regeneration Budget, Capital Challenge, etc.


(12) "CONNECT" Area Information Service. This was a voluntary project operating under the umbrella of the Charities Aid Foundation. For three years it maintained a national database (England) covering most local programmes and was successful in providing the automated access facilities described. It was accessed by local and national agencies including the House of Commons Library because there was then no similar service that could cross departmental boundaries in this way. It folded through DTI Guidelines which key Departments interpreted as requiring the maximum financial return for our access to official data.


(13) Integration of Overall Statutory Control and Advisory Services, SNAP Report No 5, Shelter, July 1971.


(14) See Jack Straw's proposal to set up an independent statistical service , Speech to the Royal Statistical Society, 25 April 1994, mimeo.


(15) Walter Bagehot, "Physics and Politics", Collected Works, vol. VII, p.76.


(16) Sir Crispin Tickell, "Domsday Letter", BBC 4, December 1995.


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