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People's priorities: how government departments could make better spending decisions

People's priorities: how government departments could make better spending decisions
3 min read

When companies have to cut back on their costs, sensible ones concentrate on essentials and scale back spending on less necessary items.

Top CEOs do it like breathing. Similarly, households in a cash squeeze cut down on the fripperies and allocate their limited resources to the most important things.

In a cost of living crisis, everyone wants to put their money where it counts, and not to waste limited resources on things they can do without. This should apply no less to government departments than it does to households. There should be a concentration on things that matter, and a cutback on things that are superfluous.

John Major’s Citizens’ Charter established a model under which all departments had to analyse what they aimed to deliver, and to provide redress for the public when they fell short of those aims. A similar model could now be used to enable each department to concentrate resources and personnel on the things people regard as top priorities.

Governments could do what sensible companies and households do: concentrate resources on the highest scoring activities

A “prioritisation panel”, run from the Cabinet Office, would ask each government service to list its activities, and to consult the public, via reputable polling organisations, as to which were considered of greatest importance. Those polled would be asked to pick their top three or four from a list of a dozen or so common departmental activities. This would enable a priority list to be compiled of activities the electorate thought most essential.

From this data, it would be relatively straightforward to assign a weighting to activities according to their perceived importance. Something most people picked as important might be awarded a score of five, whereas something mentioned by virtually no one might be designated a score of one.

From there, governments could do what sensible companies and households do: concentrate resources on the highest scoring activities and divert resources to them from the activities that most people thought less crucial. For example, we may discover the public cares more about stopping knife crime than policing language online.

People are rightly concerned they are being required to pay more in taxation than at any time since the Second Word War. They have a right to know their contributions are being used to good effect. A clear and transparent list of priorities and performance against those would give that assurance.

Each government department and service could show it was not only concerned to ascertain what is important to the public, but that it was also concentrating resources on them, rather than wasting them on things the public regarded as inconsequential.

This would play well politically, too. With the morning media round looking more like a “gotcha” trap, MPs want to be sure they’re informed and in touch with the country’s priorities. This drive would be a major government initiative aimed at assuring the electorate it was endeavouring to spend their taxes to good effect, and identify and eliminate unnecessary wastage. The major parties would wish to show they want to spend money wisely, and to listen to what their electorate regards as important.

The Civil Service should embrace the idea, as it did the Citizens’ Charter, to show it is in touch with the public it serves. Likewise, those who call for more accountability in government and for more democratic input into its activities should welcome a prioritisation programme. It gives government and the Civil Service the opportunity to show they are listening, and putting effort into achieving what the public thinks important.

Prioritisation is a win-win scenario and should be eagerly embraced by all those concerned with the wise allocation of resources.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.

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