Why turkeys don’t vote for Christmas
David Walker’s response to our call for greater freedom and trust for frontline services was not, entirely, unexpected. Whilst we do call for the Audit Commission to go, the report is a wider framework for reform, which emphasizes the need to empower professionals and the people they serve. It is clear that we are unlikely to ever agree on the issue of axing the Audit Commission, but his critique misses the point.
Firstly we do not claim that auditing costs £35 billion a year; what we say is that the general explosion in quangos costs that much (the lowest figure discussed and in line with the Government’s own estimates. The Taxpayers Alliance, on the other hand, estimate a cost from quangoes at around £60 billion). We use this figure to illustrate the changing shape of public service. We do, however, point out that the six largest auditors cost the taxpayer around £1 billion a year.
Secondly, we do not call for an end to public service accountability. This is not because we ‘got cold feet’; it is because we believe that autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. What we object to is the kind of accountability that Mr. Walker and his colleagues provide. The Audit Commission is a centralized, remote and process-obsessed behemoth. It is a symptom of the mistrust and suspicion with which our leaders treat our public servants; David is right that this applies as much to Thatcher and Major as to Blair and Brown (indeed we make that point repeatedly in the report).
We call, instead, for a more nuanced mix of accountability strategies; strengthened local-democratic control, market mechanisms where appropriate and single-measure outcomes in services where, by necessity, central government must be involved. Mr. Walker seems to think that, in being realistic about the complexities involved in reform we are being somehow cowardly; nothing could be further from the truth. It would have been easier, simpler and more media friendly for us to pretend that there was a simple solution to the malaise that afflicts our public servants, we chose instead to approach the problem holistically and to try and find realistic, workable solutions.
If we want to achieve excellence in our public services, a goal that I’m sure the Audit Commission would subscribe to, we must engage in debate about how to get there. The Progressive Conservativism Project has contributed to that debate by laying out our view for all to see. The response from the Mr. Walker seems to be wholehearted endorsement of the status quo. But after all, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
This blog also appears on the website for Public Finance magazine.