The IBR – a missed opportunity?

The more I read of the Independent Budget Review (IBR) report, the more my initial reaction is reinforced. 

This is indeed a missed opportunity.  On three general levels:

1. the remit – somehow this morphed during the review’s lifetime , perhaps understandably when the scale of the cuts challenge became known.  The remit started out as determinedly long term and value based, intending to take account of  “the importance of protecting and supporting the most vulnerable in our society” or “the importance of designing public services around the needs of the citizens who use them”?  For shame, there is no attempt to define who the most vulnerable in our society might be nor to suggest to the politicians how they might go about that.   But how and why, and perhaps importantly, who decided to shift the remit to meeting the challenge of short term budget shrinkage?

2.  the timidity – this report is above all else a wee timrous cowrin beastie, shaped and couched in the comfort zone language of the Three Wise Men and seconded Scottish Government civil servants, who have all spent a lifetime engaged in activity like this.   The Executive Summary actually kicks a lot of key issues into the long grass, giving all politicians a get out, despite a fundamental running theme being a call to them to provide leadership.  Far too many polite phrases abound:  “should consider”;   “a debate needs to be had”;  “should encourage”;  “suggests”;  “would advocate”.    I have gone through my report scoring out the offending, and inserting much more earthy direct calls to action instead.  Try it.  It’s cathartic.

3.  the flawed approach – as evidenced by the omissions and the disclaimer: “time has not allowed us to deal with every issue in each functional segment of the public sector”.  Yet, this doesn’t adequately explain why the bulk of the recommendations, shaped after several months of consideration, could have been pulled together over a pie and a pint in the pub. 

Public sector pay freeze – check;  recruitment freeze – check;  end universal free services – check;  remove the NHS’s protection from cuts – check.  All the obvious targets are there.   But where are the innovative and radical solutions?   We face financial challenges on an unprecedented scale yet not a single recommendation came as a bolt from the blue.  Shocking.  

The approach is also largely structural rather than strategic, with nothing on addressing the fundamental flaws that exist at the heart of the public expenditure model.   Worst of all, it excludes huge chunks of areas of public spending.  Rural affairs?  transport?  environment?  heritage?  justice?  You’d be forgiven for thinking that public spending actually only covers health, local authority services and education.   There is not even an analysis of whether the current funding formulae applied are fair – considering whether the right bits of the budget are getting the right amounts of money based on current and historic funding patterns would have made a useful starting point.   And for more on this, you’ll have to come back and read the next post….

I’d hate to give the impression that it’s all doom and gloom.  There are some extremely well thought out detailed options and proposals.   Indeed, there are chapters and passages that makes this burdz heart positively race, but I’m not sure satisfying the inner cravings of data freaks and policy wonks should have been a desirable outcome.    If we do all the report suggests, we will survive.   But we will have taken a very predictable route and at the end of the “slaughter”, the shape, feel and look of our public sector will be largely as it was, albeit shrunken, batter and bruised.  And that is definitely not a desirable outcome.   

According to the IBR, “the medium to longer term creates an imperative and an opportunity for our politicians and civil society more generally to engage in a debate about transformation of the organisation and deliveryof public services in Scotland to meet future needs.”  

They are so very right but also wrong.  The time for debate is past, the work on transformation needs to start now, and must happen at the same time as the cuts.  COSLA, of all bodies expressed the concern most eloquently:  “the reduction in resources may cause Councils and their partners to fall back on protecting core services rather than delivering this transformational change.  To put it starkly, short-term efficiencies could entrench service models that are not sustainable in the longer term and suffocate early intervention  strategies.” 

A missed opportunity?  Uh huh.  But the failure of the IBR to offer a radical shake up to the whole public funding and expenditure model might just represent the missed opportunity of our lifetimes.  And we might all just end up paying the price.