Monday, 7 November 2011

One man's savings are another man's cuts

It's never a good sign when governments withhold information and make themselves less transparent. 
But that's what SNP ministers have done in relation to their huge efficiency savings programme.
Until September, they published an annual report on how these were delivered, but no more.
They are now adopting a "light touch approach" - to themselves - and have quietly shelved the annual Efficiency Outturn statement.
They have so far failed to say why.
And all this just as efficiency savings are becoming increasingly important to the SNP budget working. 
You don't have to be a hard-boiled cynic to smell something fishy going on.

Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald. 

Tom Gordon

FINANCE Secretary John Swinney has been accused of trying to hide cuts to public services by scrapping the publication of key official data.
As part of a “light touch approach”, the annual Efficiency Outturn statement, which since 2006 has provided a breakdown of how government departments make efficiency savings, is to be abandoned.
The change means departments and public bodies no longer have to show in detail how they are supposed to have saved hundreds of millions of pounds while maintaining frontline services.
Opposition MSPs called the decision “outrageous” and warned that without detailed plans damaging budget cuts could be passed off as efficiencies.
The change comes as SNP ministers are demanding ever greater efficiency savings to cope with a £1.3bn cut imposed this year by the Treasury.
All departments have been ordered to find 3% savings in 2011-12 instead of the 2% annual savings which have applied since 2004.
Efficiency savings are supposed to deliver the same services for less money, or improved services for the same money.
SNP ministers claim to have saved £839m in 2008-09, £1,470m in 2009-10, and £2,276m in 2010-11 without a deterioration in services, and with money reinvested in the frontline.
However the figures have never been independently verified, and there has long been a suspicion that efficiency savings are actually cuts in disguise, leading to fewer and poorer public services.
Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, says “significant weaknesses and inconsistencies” in the way efficiencies are recorded mean it is not possible to guarantee their accuracy.
Setting out the 2011-12 budget in parliament last year, Swinney said public bodies would be required to report publicly on their plans for efficiency savings, and made no mention of scrapping the efficiency outturn report.
The reference to plans was repeated just six weeks ago in the 2010-11 efficiency outturn report.
However the government now says there won’t be any detailed plans.
“The Scottish Government is adopting a light touch approach,” its website states.
“We will not require each portfolio or each public body to submit separate efficiency plans and we will not undertake quarterly assessments or publish an Outturn Report for 2011-12.”
Public bodies will still put a figure on savings, but using a “simplified definition of efficiency” and “a standard template” to record them.
A report going to Holyrood’s finance committee today, which was prepared by parliament officials, says: “The reason for the Scottish Government’s decision not to publish an Efficiency Outturn report has not been given.”
John McLaren, economist at the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University, said: “It’s a bizarre thing to do, especially when [ministers] are being asked by other political parties to get Audit Scotland to audit these efficiency savings. It’s going in the wrong way.”
MSP Richard Baker, Labour’s finance spokesman, said: “Instead of more transparency we are getting the exact opposite. The government was challenged by the auditor general over whether efficiencies  were genuine or cuts. This opens them up to the accusation they are trying to cover up cuts.”
Gavin Brown, for the Tories, added: “The government should be going in the opposite direction and getting audit Scotland to verify the figures, particularly as efficiency savings are more important now than a few years ago.
A Scottish Government spokesman refused to say when or why the decision to end the Efficiency Outturn report was made.
He said: “Mr Swinney announced [in 2010] we had changed emphasis from a process-focused, centrally-managed programme to one which allows public bodies themselves to demonstrate how they have used efficiencies to provide quality services and improve outcomes.”

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