Boondoggling: coming to a council near you

“If we can boondoggle our way out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.” 

When Franklin D Roosevelt, President of the USA, introduced the New Deal, he was torn between two models for economic stimulus.  By 1933, the US had been in depression for four years, there was no welfare state to catch the fallen and falling, people were literally starving to death and the economy had ground to a halt.  Unparalleled intervention was required to provide relief, recovery and reform.

The first model advocated short term solutions to get people into work, put money in their pockets and kickstart the economy.  But there was also an opportunity to achieve great things – the second longer term approach – to invest in America’s infrastructure by building schools, parks, libraries and dams and to recalibrate the labour market, by investing in skills and literacy, thereby opening doors to decent careers for previously excluded minorities, including Afro Americans. 

Roosevelt tried to straddle both. Certainly, in the early days, the short term approach won out, resulting in the birth of boondoggling and strong criticism.  That led to a focus on more ambitious projects that also attracted criticism but which have largely stood the test of time.  In all, the New Deal was a real mixed bag: some of it worked, some of it didn’t and it is arguable that what really saved America was entering World War II. 

Some of the issues that manifest around the New Deal linger on in American politics, particularly a mistrust of state sponsored economic solutions and big government.  However, the Keynsian model of economics that informed the New Deal approach and which was mistrusted in recent decades, has had a renaissance.  It was particularly evident in the Scottish budget announced by John Swinney last week, through his twin themes of investing in capital projects to drive economic growth (to be analysed in a future post) and of committing to “maintaining headcount” in the public sector. 

Ladies and gentlemen, boondoggling could soon be coming to a council near you.

Key budget measures to maintain headcount include freezing pay and conditions relating to employees and employment in the deal offered to local authorities.  Thus, in order to have the privilege of a 2.6% cut in their financial settlement rather than a 6.4% thumping, councils will be required to maintain an extra 1000 police officers and maintain teacher posts.  But this approach does not quite square with the budget’s stated purpose: “to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.”

The art of boondoggling or putting people to meaningless work might lead to economic stagnation not growth, and worse make the cuts harder to achieve.  Consider this scenario:  a council wants to shut 10 of its 50 primary schools and lose 80 teachers in the process.  Under the Scottish Government’s conditions, they will be unable to do so.  They will have to maintain the 80 teachers on the payroll.  To do what exactly? 

Keeping people in work is a sound ambition when times are tough but what happens if the meaningful work they used to do is no longer available?  Are we going to see the modern equivalent of New Deal boondoggling where people dug ditches then filled them back in again before moving on to dig a fresh ditch? 

This SNP Government has spent four years trying to reform public services. The focus has been on shifting the balance of service provision, particularly in social care, from crisis and just-in-time intervention to much earlier, more preventative support that builds confidence and resilience and so enables people to be better at sustaining themselves.  But this takes time, energy and resources – as well as a political will sadly lacking from our local authorities – to achieve.

The more money we spend on keeping people in jobs that no longer require doing – or which we no longer wish them to do – the less money there is to create the jobs that will help us design and implement new public service structures, services and roles.  And there is a huge risk that we perpetuate an increasingly frantic treadmill of big state solutions, imposed from the top down that reinforce Scotland’s weak productivity, poor health and social well being and low economic growth. 

Maintaining headcount might well serve the SNP’s immediate purpose of keeping public sector job losses down in election year but it will do nothing to address the pressing need for medium and long term reform of our public services.  Boondoggling could earn the grateful votes of a nervous public sector workforce and therefore propel the SNP into a precious second term in government.

But John Swinney might want to read up on the New Deal and note that boondoggling did not rescue the United States from depression.  Nor was it enshrined in the hearts of the American people.