Transparency in British Budgets – you are joking, surely?


We were promised as part of the new politics of the new Coalition government that everything would be much more transparent. Some of this supposed new transparency is proving comical, even farcical, in nature. Publishing the COINS database of itemised government spending, for example, is mildly interesting but to anyone but a researcher largely irrelevant and incomprehensible. Trumpeting this as ‘transparency’ is merely comical, but the  latest “revelation” that the Civil Service employs lots of people (shock, horror) is absolutely farcical.

The Cabinet Office isn’t doing anything new as far as I can see – it used to publish an annual printed report called Civil Service Statistics; then it went on-line; and finally it handed this over to the Office of National Statistics. So why the Cabinet Office Minister thinks publishing this data is something terribly exciting is beyond me. I think they might have tweaked the numbers a bit – but one of the reasons it was handed over to ONS was precisely to stop politicians getting their sweaty paws on the numbers.

But where it really matters the Government is behaving just like its predecessors. Budget decisions are taken behind closed doors and the evidence and criteria used are largely is hidden from view. I was reminded of this by a query from a French colleague who asked (I paraphrase) “are the cuts just going to be driven by ideology and politics, or will the government carry out proper evaluations and base them on evidence?”

The Government claims – in its Spending Review Framework (see previous posts) and in some of the cuts announcements to be using rigorous criteria when deciding to axe various hospitals, schools, industrial subsidies, etc. Maybe they are, but we have no way of knowing because all they publish is the results of their “analysis”. In other countries, as my French friend implies, it is not unusual for governments to publish the results of such scrutinies. But not in Britain. No, here the “private government of public money” as it was called many years ago by a couple of American academics in their famous study of that name, continues unabated.

So – where’s the value for money studies of the Stonehenge Visitors Centre, or Sheffield Forgemaster’s loan, or the Future Jobs Fund, then Mr Alexander? If they exist, of which I have my doubts, they are locked away in the Treasury and the relevant Ministry and will likely never see the light of day, at least not for 30 years. ‘Transparency’ in British budgets, don’t make me laugh. It’s only strange people like the French, or New Zealanders, or Americans, or, oh yes, the Scottish and Welsh, who do quaint things like that.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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