I should really attribute the term “public spending salesman” to a correspondent, but he’d probably be happy for me to claim it; it describes too often what MLAs and other elected representatives are. They need to change – and perhaps the Assembly needs to change to, to enable this.
The job of a truly competent legislator in Northern Ireland, particularly in the current economic circumstances, is almost precisely the opposite. The challenge is to ensure that public spending is made more efficient, is allocated where it can really make a difference (and thus that there is less of it). Far from justifying every new “investment”, every area of spending should be challenged (“challenged” not “opposed”, mind).
For example, Invest NI has a significant budget – paying for things as wide-ranging as venture capital fund to officials based in faraway places. How many jobs has it delivered, which would not otherwise have been delivered?
Or, for example, vast amounts of money – not just public money but also European funds, IFI funds and so on – have been poured into the poorest wards of urban Northern Ireland. Look at a list of the poorest wards 15 years ago, and look at it now – is there much difference?
Yet, money has also been allocated to harder hitting road safety adverts – with the result that there are now barely a quarter as many road fatalities as there were 15 years ago (a rapidly faster decline than in neighbouring jurisdictions). Money has been allocated to cancer services – with the result that cancer survival in Northern Ireland is the highest in the UK. Do not for one second get the idea that “public spending = bad” as some libertarians would have you believe.
But be clear about the reality about public expenditure: some of it is spent usefully, and some of isn’t. Just because “x thousand” or “y million” has been spent on some good cause does not mean it is being spent well. Plainly, a vast amount of spending on economic development or tackling poverty – just two examples – falls into the “not usefully” category.
Of course, MLAs are always keen to get on the Public Accounts Committee to demonstrate how important it is to them that public money is well spent. But in fact, the Public Accounts Committee does not determine whether public money is well spent, but merely (if importantly) whether it is compliantly spent. Public spending within the highest standards of corporate governance is essential, but does not for one second ensure it is being spent usefully.
There are many reasons for the “public spending salesman” attitude. The Assembly was established at a time of apparent economic boom across the British Isles and thus rising public spending (thus the objective was to compete for an ever increasing pot rather than ask tough questions about whether money should really be being spent where it was or about where the money was actually coming from); most MLAs were previously Councillors from local government, where endless rates rises were also assumed; and, perhaps most of all, being personable and locally known is essential to being elected under STV – and there is nothing more personable than getting money for this or that project!
The attitude is even apparent in the way the Assembly operates – there is endless opportunity for this or that motion about this or that good cause unto which this or that Minister could provide more funds; but there is almost no way of holding a meaningful discussion or debate likely to result in a long-term economic development or poverty tackling strategy which actually works. MLAs do get drawn away on “fact-finding trips” about garbage disposal but rarely to assess how you would go about, say, developing the economy and tackling poverty while taking account of the culture of the society you represent and the competing interests of its people. Anyone who does take time out to consider such things almost invariably will not get elected, because they will not be sufficiently “locally known” (see above).
The first thing, therefore, that the Assembly needs to do is to stop meaningless motions stating the bleedin’ obvious (and almost invariably demanding more funds without identifying where from), and instead work out a more effective scrutiny mechanism whereby MLAs could address the utility or otherwise of how public funds have been spent (over a sufficiently long-term period, say a decade). If the economy is flat-lining (which it is), poverty is not being tackled (which it isn’t), and peace walls are going up rather than down – all despite vast amounts of money being thrown at all of these – this requires serious investigation. Such investigation takes time – time which could be easily re-allocated from debating pointless motions!
Only then, surely, can we begin the transition from “public spending salesmen” to serious investigators and legislators.