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The Economist
The Economist
5 Aug 2023

NextImg:Britain’s government wastes time—not money
Britain | Bagehot

Britain’s government wastes time—not money

The hour of the Campaign for Taxpayers’ Time has arrived

WHAT IS AN hour of Rishi Sunak’s time worth? Officially, no more than £40 ($51), based on his £167,000 salary and the fact, say colleagues, that he works at least 80 hours each week. But the prime minister evidently values his attention more highly. He has a taste for air travel: a helicopter to Southampton on May 9th, and a jet to Aberdeenshire on July 31st. His critics would prefer he take the rather slower train, since such aircraft cost a lot to charter and they spew carbon. Mr Sunak is unapologetic. “It is an efficient use of time for the person running the country,” he snips.

The row over Mr Sunak’s travel arrangements reflects a bigger problem. Since the 1980s the idea that state expenditure is a popular concern—the notion of “taxpayers’ money”—has taken hold. And Westminster is good at watching the pennies. The Treasury puts a leash on departmental budgets and the National Audit Office reviews spending. Since 2004 the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a campaign group, has raked over expenses claims for signs that politicians are living the high life on the public’s tab. Yet a more precious resource is treated carelessly: the working hours of ministers and civil servants. And so there is space for a new lobby in British politics. Introducing the Campaign for Taxpayers’ Time.

For it is the control of time, as well as money, that makes the private sector efficient. Minions at, say, a big consultancy file time sheets, giving bosses a granular picture of what the firm is working on, its value, and where the slack and pinch points lie.

In contrast, government time is treated as an infinitely elastic resource. Downing Street sets priorities, but the centre has too little sense of how Whitehall’s 488,000 civil servants spend their days. It is up to permanent secretaries and subordinates to juggle staff. When ministers alight on a new goal, officials typically cobble together a team from wherever bodies can be found. Ministers are reluctant to formally axe other schemes, and are rarely confronted with the consequences of diverting staff, says Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary. Instead, they muddle through: posts go unfilled, deadlines are pushed back, and long-running schemes left to wither.

Budgets may still be met, but the failure to fully quantify how time is used means that the opportunity cost of pursuing new policies over old ones is often neglected. The resulting misallocation of capacity can be vast, and the cause of many recurrent problems. The first is what Thomas Elston of the Blavatnik School of Government calls “one-shot bias”: the desire among politicians to make their names with radical or risky reforms in the short years they have in office, while day-to-day management and long-term challenges are overlooked. The prime example is Brexit: as well as denting economic output, it brought policy-making to a standstill for years. As thousands of staff were redeployed to prepare for exit day, contingency planning for a crisis such as covid-19 was hampered.

The waste of government time also wastes that of all who all who engage with it. Opportunity cost neglect contributes to Britain’s dizzying policy churn. Since 2010, Britain has had five prime ministers, who have brought five attempts at planning reform, and five theories of how to boost flagging regions. Consultations are launched, then forgotten; plans billed as long-term have a lifespan of months. That keeps lobbyists busy, but the lack of certainty chills investment. Voters pay a much higher price than the bills for tea and biscuits about which the Taxpayers’ Alliance complains.

Scrutinise time, rather than budget lines, and schemes that appear harmless are exposed as drains. Ministers demand “announceables”: cheap and eye-catching initiatives, that are invariably the proper domain of local government. In July, Rebecca Pow, an environment minister, boasted that her department’s Chewing Gum Task Force—funded by gum makers and run by a charity—had disbursed £1.2m to 53 councils, enabling 2.5 square kilometres of pavement to be cleaned. That is a frugal use of cash, but a profligate use of a minister’s attention span. Downing Street has plans to deploy some 100 chessboards in public parks. Thatcherites can claim half a victory: Leviathan has not been rolled back, but it has been kept busy with board games.

Neglect opportunity cost, and even Whitehall efficiency drives can be counterproductive. Consider Jacob Rees-Mogg’s quixotic campaign against remote working, or the temporary closure of the graduate fast stream. Departments are restructured on a whim: since 1970, the heirs to the former Department of Trade and Industry have gone by initialisms including DPCP, BERR, DIUS, DECC, BIS, BEIS, DIT, DSIT, DBT and DESNZ. Changing nameplates, letterheads and the like is cheap—around £15m a pop—but upheaval that distracts a department for years brings little-noticed but much greater cost. Hairshirtedness saps effectiveness: civil servants have too little secretarial support, and expenses policies that put cost over convenience.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day

Imagine, then, if the use of time in Whitehall were monitored and open to scrutiny by Parliament and auditors. It would have risks: perverse reporting incentives, backseat micromanagement by MPs, and the tabloids asking how many mandarins it takes to procure a light bulb. Opportunity cost is more easily measured in a business that deals in revenues than a state that deals in lives.

But consider the possibilities. Ministers would have a better picture of the cost of their bright wheezes. The churn of officials would slow. It would deter Whitehall from picking up small-fry policies that are the domain of local government. It would render the most inane schemes—Boris Johnson’s bridge to Ireland, Boris Johnson’s restoration of imperial measures, or Boris Johnson’s royal yacht—less amusing. It would force a mature public debate about the capacity of the state, which is expected to respond anywhere, anytime. The hour of the Campaign for Taxpayers’ Time has arrived. Mr Sunak could be its first president.

Read more from Bagehot, our columnist on British politics:
No, really. Rishi Sunak is a right-winger (Jul 27th)
The rise of the self-pitying MP (Jul 20th)
The strange success of the Tories’ schools policy (Jul 7th)

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