Government spending cuts: Who knows best?

By / Jul 12, 2010

The recently announced UK Government Spending Challenge, has this week, invited members of the public to send in their ideas on how to get value for public money.

The UK Spending Challenge was announced last month, but was initially only open to public servants. As Chancellor George Osbourne explained above, the response from public servants has been impressive. It has yielded over 60,000 ideas in just two weeks:

A couple of weeks ago, I asked people working in our public services for their ideas, and an amazing 56,000 people got in touch. It just shows how people respond when given a chance. We’re already putting into practice many of their ideas.

Now I’m asking the general public for their views. Tell us where’s the waste. What should we cut out. What can we improve. What’s working really well that we should be doing more of. You let us know. You can get in touch via the Spending Challenge website, or by going to the Democracy UK section of Facebook.

Your Government needs you. Please get in touch.

The 60,000 ideas will now be analysed by a central government team who will ensure the best ideas are taken forward as part of the Spending Review. The conclusions of the Spending Review will be published on 20 October 2010.

UK’s Spending Challenge versus US SAVE Award

The opening up of this Challenge to the public coincides with President Obama’s launch of the 2010 SAVE Award. The competition was announced on Thursday with the launch of a new Ideascale site where .gov workers can submit saving ideas and vote on other suggestions from Federal employees.

The site has already received 2,000 ideas, with the current most popular being an expansion of telecommuting, transportable security clearances and the donation of surplus government property to schools.

There’s quite an interesting contrast between the top ideas on the US SAVE Award site – which is currently restricted to Federal employees – and those available on the UK Spending Challenge website which is open to the public. There is however, noticeable similarities between the ideas submitted by UK Public servants and their US colleagues. For example, transferable security clearances are highlighted on the SAVE Award and were also suggested by public servants through the Spending Challenge site.

Some of the most commented upon public ideas, however, on the UK site relate to benefits, immigrants and membership of the European Union. These ideas relate to larger strategic policy areas, rather than the relatively nuanced ideas on improving government efficacy proposed on the SAVE Award site and by UK public servants.

One of the top public ideas on the Spending Challenge relates to the website itself and suggests it should itself be ‘shut down’ to save money. In this vein, it’s interesting to look at the government’s collaboration with Facebook and their involvement in the Spending Challenge.

Facebook: ‘public engagement for free’

On announcing the Facebook tie-up Prime Minster Cameron participated in a video chat with Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He said :

We are really excited about having Facebook involved in the Spending Challenge…

There’s enormous civic spirit in this country where people want to take control and do things in a different way. We are giving people an opportunity with Facebook and I am sure that they will take it.

He went on to echo some of the thoughts outlined by the idea that the Spending Challenge site itself should be ‘shut down’ to save money:

Normally if Government wants to engage with people we’d probably spend millions of pounds, even billions, on our own website, and with your help we’re basically getting this public engagement for free.

That’s quite a good start for saving money.

The Spending Challenge site is based on an Open Source theme and Delib’s Plone-based Dialogue App platform. While this emphasises the government’s reuse of Open source code, the site is not without its criticisms and failings.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes has described the collaboration as “the largest public engagement project ever launched by the British Government”. As part of this the social networking site will ask its 23 million members in the UK to submit and vote on ideas for where cuts can be made.

The Downing Street press release is vague on Facebook’s specific involvement, however, except to say:

The social networking site will support the Treasury’s Spending Challenge by providing a dedicated space for Facebook users to come up with ideas on how to make savings in public spending.

Along with this the government says Facebook will be its “primary channel” for communicating with the public about spending cuts. Interestingly, the reference to WikiLeaks on the Spending Challenge site (highlighted in a previous blog) is no longer active. The entire paragraph where it says it will “monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums”, has been removed from the site suggesting perhaps that Facebook will be the only platform upon which the debate over spending cuts will be monitored.

The primary question regarding the tie-up with Facebook is whether it provides an appropriate platform for informed debate on government spending and how to improve its efficacy.

Facebook comments

Many commentators have pointed out that the tie-up with Facebook is rather nebulous and currently very limited. In a blog post on techPresident, Nancy Scola notes how their current involvement appears simply to be a link to a government website: “Somewhat confusing matters: Facebook’s involvement in the Treasury Spending Challenge seems limited to, at this point, linking from its Democracy UK page to, yes, a custom-made official British government website.”

Andrea Di Maio, a Gov 2.0 analyst at Gartner, suggests that adding a Facebook channel will not broaden the debate:

So at the end of the day Facebook will be no more than a channel to point to the Chancellor’s Spending Challenge site. Whoever believes that the sheer presence on Facebook will broaden and rebalance participation of UK citizens in this contest is wrong.

People who have an interest (and often a vested interest) in participating in the Spending Challenge will do so with or without the Facebook page.

The quality of the comments and debate on Facebook regarding the Spending Challenge launch does not instill confidence in its use as a debating platform. The Register notes the number of “bewildering” comments and “spam posts” the page has already received.

Reading through the 491 comments this has already received, highlights the difficultly the coalition will have in stimulating constructive debate on such sensitive issues as spending cuts.

Difference in Ideas

There is a clear and noticeable difference in the ideas on the SAVE Award site, in comparison to those on the Spending Challenge site.

The SAVE Award site is only open to Federal employees and consequently has a strong focus on operation efficiency within agencies. As Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director noted:

The basic premise here is that many of the best ideas exist on the front line. Those doing the work on the front lines have the best ideas on how to make changes.

George Osborne published a sample of ideas put forward by public sector workers in the first phase of consultation. These ideas represent many good suggestions for improving back-office services for public sector organisations. They include merging back-office services for public sector organisations, switching off office computers over the weekend and better mobile phone contracts (an idea President Obama highlights in his SAVE Award video and expected to save the Government $10m).

In opening up the idea platform to the public, however, the UK government has shifted the focus away from those ‘working on the front lines’ of government services. Thus, the ideas posted by the public have primarily focused on major public policy questions e.g. reform of the welfare state or immigration policy. These are not ideas for which governments will change course because of an online debate. Rather they represent principles upon which political parties are elected. There is a danger, therefore, that public involvement in the Spending Challenge will morph into a policy debate, rather than the operational efficiency debate for which I believe it was intended.

Generating great ideas in the Public Sector

As part of the doing what works program, the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a report called Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector. It analysed 24 ways in which Governments and Organisations are generating great ideas in the Public Sector. These were arranged under five themes:

  1. Unleash the creative talents of government employees
  2. Setup dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation
  3. Divert a small proportion of your budget to harnessing innovation
  4. Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems
  5. Look at an issue from different perspectives to notice things your wouldn’t otherwise

The Spending Challenge was initially focused on unleashing the creative talents of government employees to suggest ideas to cut spending. However, its current focus on collaborating with outsiders risks diluting the initiative from producing concrete frontline ideas that could reasonably be implemented, to a policy discussion the outcome of which may-be too nebulous to result in any government action. This has the potential to increase public cynicism in such endeavors if no specific ideas are acted upon.

The essential difference between the Spending Challenge and the outside collaboration examples CAP highlights, is the absence of any specific problem for the public to solve. The challenge of how to ‘re-think government to deliver more for less’ is far too broad and can result in a paradox of choice with the effect that ideas representing the lowest common denominator rise to the top.

The Capital Ideas report highlighted Innocentive, DC’s Apps for Democracy, and Social Innovation Camp as successful examples of collaboration with outsiders. All these focused on specific challenges, for which an experienced minority could focus on.

The real opportunity to collaborate with outsiders and transform the way that the public sector does things, requires posing concrete problems requiring specific outcomes. These can be affected through either product or service innovation, but where possible should be substantiated by evidence-based reasoning. The worry is that opening up the Spending Challenge initiative to the public without reference to clear problems, degenerates it into an idea free-for-all with all the associated online comments we’ve come to expect from such initiatives.

For more check:

Richard Fahey has a Masters Degree in Information Technology and Management, and is currently working as a Senior Business Intelligence Consultant at a large Consulting firm. He has a keen interest in Open Government and especially the use of Crowdsourcing platforms for citizen engagement. While a native of Ireland he has a great interest in US Government developments in the areas of Transparency, Collaboration and Participation. For more information follow me on Twitter @faheyr.

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  • C Giles

    I would like to see big cut backs made on MOD spending. Everyone in the private sector has had to cut back on staff parties etc but they still send staff on all expenses paid sporting trips etc.

    They also spend too much money on flights hotels etc for business trips. It sickens me when I hear them talk about their various trips and what expensive hotels they have stayed in when everyday you hear on the news that more young lads have been killed. We need to spend more money on the troops and their families. Priorities are all wrong it needs to be sorted as a matter of urgency.

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  • http://www.rfahey.org Richard Fahey

    A Treasury-Cabinet Office group was recently setup to ensure savings across Whitehall and Arms Length Bodies happen quickly (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/newsroom/news_releases/2010/100524-waste.aspx).

    One of the group’s first priorities, is to “cut spend on Civil Service expenses, including a clamp down on first class travel”. This may reduce the amount being spent on such travel.

    If you’ve any other ideas I’d suggest submitting them at http://spendingchallenge.hm-treasury.gov.uk.

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