How to shrink government

Author: Michael Swadling

During the general election campaign all parties seemed to have limitless spending commitments.  Labour and the Green Party truly believed that there was a magic money tree, but the Conservatives were little better.  No one with the notable exception of the few Libertarian Party candidates seriously spoke about shrinking government.

There are no votes in shrinking the scope of the NHS, or reducing spending on Education.  With an ageing population it is unlikely any government could or would want to do anything other than continue to escalate spending on Health and Social Services.

There are however many areas of government where spending could be reduced.  There are similarly many areas where simply reducing the rules and schemes of government could result in better outcomes, and less impact from the bureaucracy on peoples everyday lives.

I believe Boris Johnson is in his heart a small government man, senior ministers like Sajid Jarvid, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg are likewise.  There must be scope to reduce some of the pettiness of government and some of its costs with it.

Here a few suggestions, that I believe are politically viable, and would fulfil one or more of;

  • reducing costs;
  • reducing the impact of government on peoples everyday lives;
  • set the tone that government doesn’t need to forever expand.

They like to find little ways to improve our lives.  Here’s an idea, don’t.

Ban departments banning things

Whether it’s action on plastic straws, free plastic bags, smoking almost anywhere, alcohol minimum unit pricing or fracking, government departments like to ban things.  They like to find little ways to improve our lives.  Here’s an idea, don’t.

In addition to the infringement on freedom, each new bright idea, has press releases, memos, new teams, updates to manuals, revised instructions etc. etc. etc.  All of which could be simply removed.  This is quite apart from all the time, effort and money put into the ideas that don’t get approved.

How could you make this happen?  A simply dictate that any government rule change that banned something would need to be approved at full cabinet.  Suddenly all such ideas, would need a killer argument so strong all cabinet members and the Prime Minister would be prepared to sign-up to them.  That should dramatically reduce the number of new bans.  Cost savings may be minimal as staff are moved to other activities, but this might end up with the ‘crazy thought’ of top civil servants focused on their core role rather than generating the next bright idea.

We don’t need to drive at 20mph

Road safety is Britain is great in fact we’re rated number 4 for lack of road traffic deaths.  Everyone knows accidents at 20mph cause less harm than at 30mph, but there is little evidence that 20mph zones improve safety.  Councils up and down the country have rolled out this policy.  With some evidence these traffic measures cause accidents some councils are now looking to remove the speed limits.  Huge amounts of money spent, making lives more complicated, infringing drivers, cluttering our roads, introducing a rule that wasn’t enforced, all the while not even making us safer.

Imagine if this funding and the transport experts working on the changes, had instead been put into making traffic blackspots safer, or easing traffic congestion.

What business of your is it what I as an able minded adult do with or put into my own body?  If it’s not your business what business is it of government?

We don’t need a sugar tax

What business of your is it what I as an able minded adult do with or put into my own body?  If it’s not your business what business is it of government?  Government does need to control for externalities, but what I do to myself, if we live in any sort of free society, must surely be up to me.

Almost as bad as the loss of freedom is the idea doesn’t even work.  People simply consume more product to get the meet the same sugar craving their body has.  It’s also regressive, the poorest households being proportionally taxed the most as food spending is a higher part of their outgoings.

Another government team we can simply scrap, when we stop the government telling us how to live.

Low interest government investment funds

Via the Public Works Load Board local councils are being allowed to borrow vast sums of money at currently low interest rates.  This has in turn encouraged some councils to act as property speculators undertaking some ‘nationalisation’ by the back door in their own area.  In Croydon this has resulted in the council owning the freehold to the Croydon Park Hotel and Colonnades Retail Park on the Purley way.  Over £80 million was spent on these two purchases.  £80 million representing about half of the £167.4 million of Council Tax raised by Croydon 2018/19.   

There are large numbers of staff at council offices up and down the country looking at these purchases.  Arranging the loans, working with the leaseholders, renters, and users of the facilities they purchase.  We’re funding them via our taxes.  Worse we are passing the local and national debt (the Public Works Load Board gets funded, like much of the UK government by borrowing) to our children’s, grandchildren and great grandchildren’s generations. 

Right now, these schemes do appear to work.  The borrowing is cheap, the rents high, and the surplus can fund services, but what if one of these factors were to change.  What if property values went down as they did in the early 90s, or interest rates hit the sustained levels of the 70s or 80s?  What if your council invested in the wrong part of town?  How quickly can a good deal go bad, it’s not like government has a great track record on pretending to be a business.  If it was truly easy to make money this way we all would.

Cut this massive risk from the councils books, make them focus on their core role, and raise taxes in the form of business rates from the private investments and risk of others, not by councillors gambling your money (in fact borrowing money in your name to gamble) at the property casino. 

Simplify School Spending

Pupil premium, Sport Premium, Teachers Pay Grant and Teachers Pension Pay Grant are just some of the unnecessary funding streams for schools.  It’s not that that funds aren’t needed or well used, it’s that the whole teams or departments of people who create, manage and handout these funding streams aren’t needed.  Ultimately money is fungible, all these funds just go into the same big pot.

In my experience, each year the overall totals tend to be the same as the previous year plus inflation.  They just find a new way to make up the same income cake each year, justifying the bureaucracy.  Schools are already judged on outcomes by their local councils, in exam results and by Ofsted.  We don’t need separate funding streams for every bright idea from government, simply add the money to the main funding pool, and make schools accountable for the outcomes (as they already are).  In the process whole departments can go and schools will have clearer funding streams and not find they are awaiting the latest special ‘premium’.

Money Purchase Pension

If you’re self-employed chances are you have a directors or personal pension.  Even most company pensions operate the same way based on money purchased.  You save over the years, at the end of that period you have a pension pot, which will be used to buy an annuity and pay out your pension.  This ultimately is the only fair way to run a pension scheme, it ensures your savings are paying for your pension, and not creating a liability for future generations.

We need to move all new employees of the civil service and local government to these schemes immediately.  Existing pension funds are in place and past contributions must be honoured.  Existing employees should probably move to such a scheme for future contributions, but for now, for simplicity have all new employees added to money purchase schemes.  In the short term this could be more expensive as contributions would likely be more than to the current schemes, but they would be honest.

Assuming people work up to 50 years, in 25 years the government pension deficit problem will be at least 50% gone and in 50 years completely gone, that’s a good start.  Government would stop racking up undisclosed pension debt, and burdening the future.

Please get in touch with the author if you currently borrow money to give to charity.  I don’t expect to be inundated with responses.

Overseas aid

0.7% of Gross National Income or £14.5 billion is spent on overseas aid.  With a government deficit of £41.5 billion in the financial year ending March 2019, equivalent to 1.9% of GDP this is all borrowed money.  That’s money we are indebting future generations with to pay to overseas projects today.  Please get in touch with the author if you currently borrow money to give to charity.  I don’t expect to be inundated with responses.  No sensible person borrows money to give to charity why should government on our behalf?  We know this fixed level has seen end of year trolly dash spending from the department for overseas aid, and some interesting projects like the Ethiopian Spice Girls.

Until such time as the government is in surplus lets pair down this function.  The cash level could stay fixed for a few years whilst existing spending commitments run off.  After that keep to true emergency funding, and let private charity take care if the rest.  Immediately we should abolish the department, and merge it back into the main foreign office, lose a ministers salary (or part of it at least).  No doubt a support team could go, reclaim some office space, get rid of a press team, and comms team, stop buying department stationary etc.  I’m sure the government should find some backbencher in a marginal seat with limited likelihood of promotion, and offer them a seat in the House of Lords if they can close the department down in 6 months.

Publish KPIs

What do government departments do?  What is the purpose of them?  Are they delivering it??  All government departments should publish KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of what they do and how well they are doing it.  The down side is more effort will be spent collecting stats, but even more, far more effort could be redirected.  If anyone in a department can’t map their job to the delivery of a KPI, in all likelihood they simply don’t need to be there.  Any department not meeting its KPIs should be prohibited from bring forward new ‘bright’ ideas.  Whole teams of civil servants could become dedicated to ensuring the depart does what it should do, not whatever takes their fancy.

Britain owed £1,821.9 billion in the financial year ending March 2019, That’s over £27,000 for every person in Britain.  Let’s start repaying it. 

Repayment of debt

Let’s start a plan to repay government debt.  Britain owed £1,821.9 billion in the financial year ending March 2019, That’s over £27,000 for every person in Britain.  Let’s start repaying it.  Let’s start a plan, maybe a Just Giving page, a commendation for people who give part of their estate to repay the debt, maybe the income from fracking, maybe ringfence part of an existing tax.  As soon as we start repaying the debt, it would make little sense to keep borrowing, this might encourage government to live within its means.  It would be easier to ask a politician why they are borrowing money if we are also trying to repay the debt.

Norway as a sovereign wealth fund worth a Trillion pounds, the Hong Kong and Kuwait both over £500 billion.  We might not be able to do that yet, but let’s at least start to stop the rot, and make government live to a budget like most of us do.

Recruitment policy

Few people believe the civil service couldn’t cope with less staff.  How about 20% less, a number I’m happy to admit I plucked out of thin air, but having undertaken many work restructures not impossible.  Through automation and new working practices, I suspect they could cope with that reduction.  How do we do it?  Simple, for every 5 people that leave only recruit 4, this will take some time to fully implement, but no worries it could become a permanent feature of civil service life for 20 years.  It would certainly make them think about rationalisation.  Each department of government can organise what roles are replaced and which aren’t.  I suspect we would quickly start to see fewer, communications teams, and diversity advisors and more people to do the actual work.

Qualifications for staff

Nurses now all need degrees, with some evidence that bedside care has diminished as a result.  From 2020 all new Police Officers need degrees.  I’m personally not sure if in the event of an altercation you need a Police Officer who knows the theory of altercations or a Officer who is willing to get stuck in.

Most government roles require more qualifications than I and most people have, this can be true for even entry level roles.  Cleary someone whose job it is to advise on nuclear reactors needs to know some, nuclear physics, but do most need degrees or even A levels?  I didn’t and don’t have, yet am not alone in making my way in the world, without these.

It seems reasonable that government roles are open to new joiners at about the same percentage of level of qualifications as the population as a whole.  This would almost certainly be cheaper that what we have today and create good opportunities for large numbers of today’s school leavers.

Get rid of the separate paid governors, and executive boards, their own logos, their own stationary, own comms and press teams.

Merge into their departments all Quangos

Many governments have tried and failed to undertake a ‘bonfire of the quangos’.  Many quangos such as Ofsted perform really important roles.  No one wants to lose their job or position, and this makes it incredibly difficult to close any of these organisations down.

Then don’t, just move the accountability for them and the function, back to where it belongs in a government department.  Close down the “quasi-autonomous” nature of these organisations after all we pay for them and they should be accountable to us.  Get rid of the separate paid governors, and executive boards, their own logos, their own stationary (yes I thing about this), own comms and press teams (and these).  Move them into the government departments and offices.  Stop future separate spending plans, it’s hard to believe this is worth less than 5% of the budget of most of these organisations that’s at least a one year increase they could forgo.

No need to pay people off or spend money on merger costs, just simply bring them in house.  Make executive boards internal staff on the same T&Cs, just don’t replace them when current terms end.  Use up the current stationary, stay in the same offices until you want or choose to move, use the old quango name as the new internal department one.  Merge non-core teams directly into the existing department wide ones, and keep separate IT systems until they are due to be replaced.  Just stop spending more for the future.  Simplify, simplify, simplify and see the size and cost of government reduce.

Implementation

None of these ideas alone wipe billions off government spending.  Together they are intended to set the tone that government doesn’t need to just expand it can also reduce.  None are intended to be very controversial.  All I would venture could pass without very significant public criticism, they might even draw out opposition parties to criticise popular ideas.  We need to move government to a model that is sustainable and for the sake of all our freedoms controllable.

Taxpayers through government should protect and educate you as a child.  Help you if you need it, as an adult.  Then leave you alone, as the rest is up to you.

We recorded a Pubcast on this article available at http://croydonconstitutionalists.uk/pubcast-9-how-to-shrink-government/

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