Spending Review 2019: this time can it be different?

4 October 2018
By Daniel Burke and Rachel Taylor
Spending Review 2019: this time can it be different?

Spending Reviews present a great opportunity for the UK to ‘reset’ its policies on public spending and public services, with a view to achieving radical and far reaching reform.   What will it take for the 2019 Spending Review to help underpin a renewed and reinvigorated public service ready to take the country beyond Brexit?

Every government starts with the best of intentions. Agreeing budgets several years ahead makes it possible to innovate, improve outcomes, produce savings (by avoiding crime, unemployment, poor health and so on), and improve customer experience for citizens.  The reality can be an unedifying competition between Whitehall departments for resource which results in a public fiscal bunfight, reducing the likelihood of substantive and transformative change.

At this year’s Conservative Party Conference, PwC and Reform convened a roundtable to discuss the forthcoming Spending Review.  Oliver Dowden, Parliamentary Secretary (Minister for Implementation) at the Cabinet Office joined a diverse group of public service providers and thinkers.  Here are 5 ideas that emerged from the session which could create a truly transformative Spending Review:

  1. Have a coherent story to tell: Planning for a Spending Review can often necessarily focus in on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the process itself without sufficiently articulating the desired outcomes.  For example, how can transformation put citizens and communities at the centre and build a country that works for everyone? How might this guide prioritisation?
  2. Be place based: as powers are devolved and greater flexibilities granted for public service reform in Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere, Whitehall needs to take inspiration from innovations in service delivery around the UK, and where advances have been made, consider granting further flexibility, to facilitate and incentivise (rather than deliver centrally) further public service improvements.
  3. Join up, with data as the glue: The Spending Review has the potential to facilitate and encourage sensitive and intelligent sharing of data across government to drive public service improvement and create a virtuous circle where further collaborative working is achieved as a result.
  4. Invest to save: the Spending Review mechanism needs to be farsighted enough to make investments now in order to derive savings for the longer term – with an acceptance that the results may be seen beyond the current political cycle.
  5. Be radical: use every opportunity to inject boldness into departmental thinking – in terms of delivery and approach.  With the world marching on with technological innovation and citizens’ expectations of when and how they access public services ever rising, the luxury of time is not there to take an incremental approach to service redesign.

Redressing the deficit has been the key theme for previous Spending Reviews this decade and while the fiscal environment remains challenging, it’s not yet clear what story this Spending Review will have to tell – and how the narrative will unfold.  What we took from our roundtable, in a policy agenda dominated by Brexit, is that the will is there for far reaching public service reform, capitalising intelligently on the opportunities presented by rapidly emerging and developing technology. The 2019 Spending Review is a valuable opportunity to take this agenda forward.

Rachel is an Assurance Partner at PwC. She is part of PwC’s Government leadership team, where she leads on PwC’s work with a range of government departments including DWP, HM Treasury and BEIS. 

Daniel is a Partner in PwC’s Strategy& team and leads PwC’s strategy and policy development work for central government.