Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission, gives it to us straight this morning in The Times:
‘Tax increases and spending cuts are inevitable immediately after the election….’
‘any managers of a public service who are not planning now on the basis they will have substantially less money to spend in two years time are living in cloud cuckoo land’
This message chimes with the detailed picture drawn last week for the 2020 Public Services Trust Commission (here at the RSA) by IFS Director Robert Chote. Put simply, we are talking about a period of at least three years, starting next year, in which public spending budgets will be squeezed more tightly than in the living memory of most public servants.
Which means three issues should be getting focussed attention in the public sector - but I see little sign of any even being seriously discussed.
First, we need to be exploring the scope for major productivity gains, not just cutting back office staff, but re-engineering services to achieve substantial cuts in costs. The example I have given in the past involves schools moving to a four day taught week for key stage four pupils with the fifth day being used for self guided study. With the right use of space, on-line tuition and teaching support this could make a substantial saving on teaching time and also be good for pupils. Another example is that if local authorities moved more boldly on individual budgets, putting in place the technological and community support necessary to do so, they should be able radically to reduce case and middle management costs in adult service departments.
Second, we need to be encouraging an intensified process of innovation in public services, designed to find ways of doing the same, or more, for less. There are many organisations out there, from Participle to Think Public to the Design Council (indeed the RSA itself) with expertise in citizen-led public sector innovation, but their work still tends to be at the margins. They need to be given more support and be incentivised to collaborate better.
Third, we need a frank and creative discussion between policy makers, practitioners and the public about the hard choices to be made over the coming years. Local residents may complain about moving to fortnightly refuse collection but they might feel differently if they understood this was one of the measures that enabled the council to protect other services. The creative question here is how could the actions of citizens themselves reduce spending pressures and enhance service outcomes?
These kinds of debates should be taking in every Government department and local authority. If public services don’t adapt, innovate and engage the public in new ways we face a demoralising and divisive era of cuts which will not only damage people’s lives but could fatally undermine voters’ faith in universal public provision.