When I first entered the public sector as a County Councillor I was amazed at the extraordinary way the finances of a large public body were organised. It seemed designed to prevent sensible controls being placed on spending.
I joined the Finance Committee. I was working as a finance professional in my main job. I found the very long papers we were sent for each meeting also impossible to understand. They used all sorts of funny numbers to prevent you working out how much cash was being spent. They changed the year base for the budgets, they used inflation adjusted numbers without explaining properly how the inflation adjustment was judged, or where the future forecasts of inflation came from. They assumed that once an item had made it into a budget it would be rolled forward and augmented every year as an inescapable commitment. Figures were in “real terms” rather than cash.
Each year’s budget was an exercise in officer lobbying for more spending. Instead of showing you what was being spent and leaving you to decide what to delete and what to increase, they added all sorts of figures into the previous year’s budget to give you a “New base budget” for the following year. This added in sums for inflation, for “unavoidable commitments”, for “new functions required by Statute”, for “consequences of past decisions”, for “responsibility and age related pay allowances”, for “pension commitments” and the rest. By the time they has finished they normally reckoned that anything less than say a 7% increase would require “cuts”, as you were invited to assume the adjusted budget and then apply the knife at your peril if you were someone who clearly did not understand the remorseless arithmetic of more public spending. If you insisted on a lower budget they would then oblige with the parade of bleeding stumps, offering up a list of cuts that no sane person let alone a politician could possibly approve.
And a shorter guide on how to curb these sly and dishonest measures...
I asked for shorter cash budgets, with clear figures for the main spending heads so we could have an informed debate over what worked, what needed improving, and what could be removed. The officers called that “zero base budgets”, because we refused to accept that anything in the previous year’s budget automatically qualified for the following year. We also wanted to analyse all the so called unavoidable commitments, as these were often judgements or concealed “growth items” which otherwise appeared as a smaller different list for Councillor decision.
"You gotta ask yourself one question..."
Where I ever in such a position, I would announce that any civil servant bringing a first draft budget that was higher than the previous year's would be sacked instantly.
Said civil servant might, of course, calculate that no one would go through all of the trouble of fighting the inevitable union bollocks, and employment tribunals and suchlike.
On the other hand, perhaps they'd like to ask themselves one question...