Yes, the Treasury's internet consultation exercise to give people the chance to suggest their own public spending cuts is a gimmick.
Consultation, like community or progressive, is one of those words that ought to have any good democrat counting the spoons. And done, open-ended, on the internet, it is likely to take on the character of one of the more unrepresentative cyber-forums in which the most strident and least-informed opinions dominate. A similar thing happened to the online petitions on the 10 Downing Street website.
There are, in addition, many practical objections to the Spending Challenge, which has now entered its second phase on the Treasury website. The early avalanche of suggestions, which included a quantity of abusive nonsense, has now been sifted and opened up so that people can vote on the ideas they like. This is considerably less meaningful than the voting in a television talent show; there are more than 44,000 suggestions, of which no normal person is likely to read many more than the 80 that we sample on pages 8 and 9. These things are also subject to organised campaigns by interest groups. Many of the suggestions on the website are repetitive and similarly worded, including proposals to pull out of the European Union, scrap the high-speed rail project and cancel Trident. Many more are ill-informed, reflecting prejudices about foreigners, benefit claimants and politicians that bear a tenuous relation to reality and are thus unlikely to save much public money.
What is more, the design of the exercise is ideologically loaded. The Treasury's website introduces it by saying: "We need to reduce the deficit by cutting public spending in a way that is fair and responsible – and you can help." This implies that suggestions for raising taxes or other revenues are not wanted, thus prejudging debate not just about the speed with which the deficit should be closed but also about the right mix of spending cuts and tax rises. Fortunately, the contributors to the Spending Challenge seem to have ignored this injunction.
All of which is by way of a proviso to our main argument, that this exercise could be an important way of making better decisions about cutting (or taxing), and of mobilising the support of public servants who will have to implement those decisions. In any organisation, some of the people best able to identify waste and to devise more efficient ways of achieving better results are the staff who actually do the work. The best managers in both public and private sectors recognise this. Kevan Collins, the new chief executive of Tower Hamlets council in east London, spent weeks incognito as a "work experience" trainee in his departments, for example.
Many of the most interesting suggestions on the Spending Challenge website are made by public servants with first-hand knowledge of that of which they write. The next most interesting suggestions are made by those with a direct experience of being on the receiving end of public services. Who knew, for example, that approved suppliers can cost five times as much as the cheapest Google-powered internet purchase? Or that winter fuel payments can be claimed by Britons living in other EU countries?
Of course, the next stage in the process is critical, as, again, any good manager would recognise. It is a question of follow-through and culture change. As we report today, at least two departments, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, have been asked by the Treasury to act on suggestions that have been made. But this should be more than a matter of implementing one or two ideas here and there. More ideas need to be encouraged, and public servants need to see themselves as innovators. Instead of relying on expensive conferences to spread best practice or outside consultants to advise it, the restless search for better ways of doing things needs to be built in to all parts of the public sector.
The view of The Independent on Sunday remains that George Osborne, the Chancellor, is trying to close the deficit too soon and too fast. We accept that we do face a real fiscal challenge, and that the bulk of the adjustment should be made by spending cuts rather than tax rises. Those decisions are hard to get right and hard to implement even if they are right. But a genuine consultation exercise with public sector workers and the wider public will make it more likely that the decisions will be better, more democratically legitimate and easier to implement. This Spending Challenge should be welcomed, cautiously.Reuse content