Spending Challenge – of 45,000 ideas, just 3 are taken up

Of the 45,000 proposals submitted to the government's much hyped ‘Spending Challenge’, only three have been taken up, reports Matthew Pitt.

Upon entering the Treasury, George Osborne announced a revolutionary step to realise ‘open government’. He asked the general public to submit ideas on how to reduce the budget deficit. At the end of the video transcript advertising the ‘Spending Challenge’ programme, the Chancellor proclaims that the coalition government “needs you – please get in touch”. And so they did. Over the summer, an eager public submitted approximately 45,000 ideas.

Some of them were not exactly constructive. Irreverent suggestions ranged from the government buying all existent opium crops in Afghanistan to deprive the Taliban of their primary income, to taxing the salaries of world-class Premier League football players at 95 per cent.

But a lot of the ideas were genuinely helpful. One, for example, suggested centralising all office stationery in order to improve management and reduce costs; another complained about the generous allowances for Foreign and Commonwealth Office accommodation that should be accordingly reduced; and there was a call for closer cooperation between district and county councils in order to level employment rights across the pay structure.

So out of the thousands of useful ideas, how many did the Treasury decide to implement into their policies? Challenged by shadow transport minister Willie Bain in a Parliamentary Question, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander replied as follows:

“The Government have committed to reviewing the ideas with the most potential and, on Friday 10 September, announced that three ideas submitted to the Spending Challenge by members of the public and public sector workers will be implemented as policy by the Government.

The ideas were:

• To reduce the number of CRB checks for junior doctors, by taking a more common-sense approach across the NHS, so that junior doctors are not checked repeatedly over a short space of time;
• To distribute national insurance numbers to people with a letter rather than a plastic card; and

• To increase the selling of surplus and second hand Government equipment by expanding the use of the Ministry of Defence’s eDisposals service for use across all Government Departments.

So, was the ‘Spending Challenge’ successful and did it help realise the ‘Big Society’? To answer this question with a ‘yes’ on both counts requires substantive public engagement and the government to have taken part in a meaningful exchange with public workers on how to save money.

Despite the Facebook page of the Spending Challenge having been removed soon after a fanpage for a goat achieved its aim of attracting more ‘likes’, it is fair to say that the public did play its part in submitting thousands of constructive proposals. By only accepting three of these, the Treasury showed clear reluctance to stay true to its programme. In consequence, it can only be assumed to have failed.

Nevertheless, the government still has time to implement ideas submitted by the public in the October 20th Spending Review to redeem itself of the accusation that the Spending Challenge was a meaningless practice that only served as a justification for cuts to come that the Treasury planned to introduce all along.

Perhaps what the Treasury ought to have done is consult the public on its overall strategy of cancelling the structural deficit by 2015 instead of focusing on the minute economic details. Furthermore, polls have shown the majority of the public opposes Mr Osborne’s approach to deficit reduction.

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