States is at a crossroads with the Budget debate
WHEN you can’t make a target, what is the answer?
The easy option is to debunk the target, to cast doubt on it, to argue it was not realistic in the first place.
And that is where some politicians have got to when it comes to this Assembly living up to the promises of sharing the burden with the public when it comes to the cost of running the States.
They have no evidence to present of the realism or otherwise of rolling back on the targets they agreed to.
There is a bid to blame consultants or ‘others’ for being unrealistic or too optimistic – those with good memories will remember that trend from the cost-cutting drive that was the Financial Transformation Programme.
It began as a clear programme outlining opportunities for savings.
Those were the good old days in some ways because, after a slow start, it unravelled to leave departments to their own devices to come up with savings ideas.
The FTP was clear at the outset that significant savings were to be made through cross-department work – some £15m. a year.
In the end that side delivered just £3.1m., with a promise in 2015 that another £5m. a year would be forthcoming.
That has been lost somewhere along the way as talk turned to transformation.
Four years on and we are now in a rather nebulous, opaque world of investing to save, of reform dividends, of redesign and digitisation, of fiddling staff costs and rolling over savings targets year on year until its impossible to know what is really happening.
In many ways history is repeating itself as the timetable for savings outlined previously this term is slipping to be more than £3m. in arrears in 2019.
Civil service reform is not moving at the pace required, while digital transformation on which much is dependent has not really got going.
But these savings are not the ‘false hope’ painted in the amendment led by Deputy Emily McSwiggan, they are real opportunities that haven’t vanished because the calendar has ticked over – especially considering that a big chunk of staff cost saving is simply people retiring, and it is hard to shift the feeling that civil service restructuring is being held back because of political doubts.
All this is coming at the same time as some members come after taxpayers to fund new services that they see as vital.
It is the unravelling of the discipline that, for all their faults, the previous administration demonstrated.
And of course, taken individually every new service bid can be seen as a must-have in a modern society.
More money to support children with dyslexia, more funding for the children’s dental service, cash to lift more people out of poverty, training in law enforcement, funding a new sport strategy.
Budget time is when committees come asking for more money, that is the easy bit. It is only when they are knocked back that they have to have the real conversation about whether they can cut back elsewhere to fund these projects.
We have been here before.
There are numerous examples of the States or committees backing projects as essential with great fanfare one minute and quietly ditching them the next when another priority looms into view.
What we are rarely made aware of is what savings are being dropped or not pursued, especially because it is politically unacceptable to really contemplate service cuts, which could fund new services if committees prioritised what they were doing differently.
The public is treated with kid gloves in this regard, just told that they wouldn’t like it, although never told just what it is, what areas have been considered and disregarded.
It should not just be about putting the hand out for money for new services.
We were once promised zero-based budgeting, the idea that committees would justify spending from the ground up, rather than simply rolling it up year on year based on inflation.
This is not the time, especially with even more mega bills to come next year, to be throwing hands up in the air and saying it is all just too hard. Now there is a very real conversation to be had about Guernsey’s tax base and its continued over reliance on income-based taxes – and on the potential for new health and environmental taxes too.
And that will finally happen in the coming months.
But the States is at a very immediate crossroads with this Budget debate.
It is facing amendments that combined amount to a gung ho lurch off down a path of least resistance. To make what amounts to an initial £3m.-plus spending commitment that will only grow annually, to raid the capital spending pot again, to go after drinkers and high earners with no rhyme nor reason, all at the same time as trying to tell the public that all the savings have been made and not to expect too much more.