MLAs need to stop acting as “public spending salesmen”

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.

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7 thoughts on “MLAs need to stop acting as “public spending salesmen”

  1. IJP, they’re fair comments above.

    I may be left leaning but I am also known to be tight, in a good way of course 🙂

    The problem I always have with poorly thought through and funded social expenditure is that it makes extraordinary spending into ordinary spending, people become used to and rely on it and when pulled it can potentially ruin the lives of those who have (reasonably) come to rely on its provision, which can make matters even worse.

    Like I have mentioned previously, I do not believe we will have an opposition in the normal sense, perhaps a monitoring or oversight function like you have discussed previously (I am all for democratic oversight and accountability) and I wonder if the best place would be in the committees area with some kind of strict and stringent rules of operation or memo of understanding for what a committee’s remit is? A stray thought…

  2. otto247 says:

    That’s all very sound Ian but I’m not sure what electoral system wins you votes without being known in the community? Are MSP’s and AM’s less venal because they’re elected by the additional member system?

    Isn’t the d’hondt system (or any ministerial rather than US style administrative system) just as corrupting with people fighting for their departments?

    Anyway – perhaps what we need here is your greater committee scrutiny, less politicians and less departments (so policy positions become a little more joined up) but also our own public policy think-tanks. We have no Fabian Society, no CentreForum, no Reform, no Social Market Foundation, no AdamSmith institute. These aren’t all party linked. Why don’t you start one? Or maybe get a local franchise. Tell you what. Phone the social market foundation tomorrow and see what they say about opening a Belfast office.

    • Hi Otto – I run the think tank, or perhaps better put “ideas exchange organisation”, Breakthrough NI. It’s here: http://www.breakthroughni.wordpress.com

      Here’s the thing though – our parties aren’t much interested in policy. And, when they are, don’t forget they already know it all. Or, put politely, NI isn’t really big enough for “think tanks” when it is already full of “lobby groups”. Somewhat unfortunately, most of those lobby groups want, guess what… more spending!

      It’s a vicious circle. I just hope it’ll be put right after the next spending review, when we really *will* have to start cutting.

      Btw yes, STV does encourage localism more than others. That is not to say it is less corrupt, it just encourages local interests to prevail over the general.

  3. otto247 says:

    There’s a campaign then Ian. Additional Member + for NI. How about 36 MP’s (half a constituency each) + 28 top-ups to give 64. That’s the same ratio of top-ups to constituencies as Scotland and 64 gives us an Assembly which is proportionate to the Dåil (don’t really know why that’s important but I’m geeky that way).

    But seriously – there’s obviously an argument for using as much of the block grant as possible towards investment projects rather than expenditure. One way to release funds would be to decouple from national pay bargain structures (cue strikes). Is that doable?

    What are the prospects for building NI based “semi-state” companies with the money we get. Could the housing executive become a trading company – “NI Homes”? Are we allowed to do that? Who actually owns Translink, Ni Electricity etc? Is it Northern Ireland as a corporate entity or the UK? Could we be shareholders in all-Ireland public provision firms? That would be interesting. Nationalised firms owned by two governments. Might make for greater independence.

    I can think of lots of things to do with £18Bn of public funds that might build expandable businesses rather than just hoping someone else will arrive and do it for us. On the medical side there’s much more that could be done to push primary care into the hight street. I’m not sure if this is left wing or right wing and I’m not sure how much it matters when all you do is spend a block grant.

    I hadn’t heard of your think tank I’m afraid. You need a better PR guy 😉

    Or a franchise. Go on – rebrand as something more sexy like the Adam Smith Inst. (NI).

    • 🙂

      I don’t push “Breakthrough NI” because, as the web site demonstrates, there is only so much you can do on a self-funding basis as a volunteer while also trying to make a living… but you may view this blog (and indeed this discussion) as an extension of its work!

      I agree entirely about semi-state companies, although my judgement is (and this is where think tanks fall down) that the *culture* in NI doesn’t currently allow them. Departments are becoming increasingly nervous of, and thus also domineering towards, their agencies and non-departmental bodies. This is largely because of the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee, where outside bodies (ILEX, NI Events Company, NI Water, the Ulster-Scots Agency and so on) have been shown up badly for wastage, poor goverance or sheer incompetence. Hence my concern that, while that scrutiny is important, we also need to scrutinise compliant spending for its efficacy.

      I have blogged before in opposition to STV. It’s a hopeless system – too complex, not actually proportional, too localised. I’d be more than happy with your option. However, after the AV referendum debacle (where both sides ran shameful campaigns, sorry to say), I fear it’s not a winnable campaign in the near term either!

      Sorry to be so negative – it’s not my natural state of being, honest! 🙂

  4. otto247 says:

    No-one liked AV because it’s boring enough having to pick one politician let alone rank them. It’s only liberals stuck in the middle that like ranking because we can’t pick a side and stick to it. With additional members you just have to pick a person and a party. Much better. And it’s the UK standard for devolution – used in London, Scotland and Wales already.

    “poor governance or sheer incompetence”. When I hear public servants accuse agencies of that I wonder are they criticising their delivery or their “stewardship” (i.e. their form filling).

    That’s enough of this. I’m off to bed. Cheers.

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