Fat-fighters11 December 2009
NOBODY will call him the Iron Prime Minister, and the word "prudent" ceased to serve as his virtual middle-name a decade ago. But the fiscal crisis is forcing Gordon Brown to revive his old image of bean-counting frugality.
His latest plan to save money, unveiled on December 9th by his chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling, claims to protect the "front-line" of public services. (The opposition Conservatives, by mischievous implication, would not). The axe will fall on the Whitehall bureaucracy. Fees paid to consultants are to be halved and the salaries of senior staff reviewed. Other plans range from the fiddly (cutting missed health-care appointments with the help of text-messaging) to the profound (paying third-sector organisations to provide services). In addition to the savings identified in last April's budget, £12 billion ($19.6 billion) will supposedly be cut over four years.
The Tories cried plagiarism, with justification, but avenged the policy theft by stealing personnel. Sir Peter Gershon, who led a review of Whitehall efficiency during Mr Brown's time at the Treasury, is the most eye-catching member of a panel they have set up to advise them on public-sector productivity. Mandarins aggrieved by Labour's supposed mistreatment of the civil service sometimes assume the Tories will show a patrician reverence for it. They are likely to be disappointed: Tory ideas include making permanent secretaries easier to fire, opening recruitment to outsiders and tying promotion to the ability to work in different departments.
Whichever party is elected, a war on waste is overdue. Matthew Taylor, a former Labour adviser who now runs the Royal Society of the Arts, a think-tank, says the number of senior civil servants has grown partly because of the proliferation of "ministers and quasi-ministers". But identifying real waste is hard. Moving staff from London seems a quick win, for example, but makes it tougher to recruit talent. When the Office for National Statistics moved many of its functions to Newport in Wales, some of its best brains refused to move.
And how to measure waste-reduction? Mr Brown claims to have saved more than Sir Peter wanted in his 2004 review. But in 2007 the National Audit Office said that, of the £13.3 billion then said to have been saved, three-quarters was to varying degrees questionable.
The biggest problem is that teachers, police officers and the like account for a huge slice of spending. Only 200,000 of the NHS's 1.4m staff in England provide administrative support, reckons Reform, a think-tank. No credible strategy for fixing public finances as ruinous as Britain's can ring-fence the front-line.