Earlier this month, a registrar called Jon Hilton published a paper that calculated how much money NHS doctors waste from lost time caused by rubbish IT. The effect of 10 minute daily delay comes with a price tag of £143m a year. That is what around 100,000 people’s worth of slow laptops and faffing about with projectors will set you back. Count that up across a civil service of 430,000 people, or a public sector of millions. It doesn’t take a big stretch to think ten-figure sums.
Labelling systemic failure with a pounds and pence price is a neat trick. It inspires frustration, disappointment and headlines. But it also rings hollow. When the in-house video conferencing facilities offer potato-quality fidelity, or nobody can find that document in the Triwizard maze that is Microsoft Teams, nobody really thinks: ‘Well, that’s a few hundred quid up the spout.’ The true cost of these experiences — the ignobility of their design, the resort to insecure workarounds, the blackening of mood, the ineffable loss of hope, the fist-eating frustration of it all, the confirmation of institutional incompetence — none of this fits into a spreadsheet. This is inconvenient. So we ignore it, instead sticking with arcane mental arithmetic. In doing so, government piles up debt. Not debt of a financial kind, but in qualities which can not, or will not, be measured.
Those wishing to make an argument for doing something in government face a quandary. To make things happen, you need money. To get money, you need numbers. To get numbers, you have to learn a nuanced and complex form of lying. Some people call it business case writing.
With the two main parties throwing around pre-election public investment promises like nuns on a Las Vegas bender, the business case industry will be busy. I use the word industry advisedly. Writing business cases is a thing that civil servants rarely do. Consultants pick up the slack, passing them on to the SCS (known in the trade as the spell-checking service) for ratification. Most ministers love stories of Whitehall encouraging private sector growth. The business case industry is a textbook example, but not one to be proud of. Still, expensive though this is (and paying several million pounds for a business case is not atypical) there is a warped logic to outsourcing brainpower. Treasury-approved business cases usually take many months, if not years, to write. Once a team has done one, it has little energy for creating anything else.
That a core job of government is so rarely done by officials is in keeping with the Alice in Wonderland quality that applies to conversations about money in Whitehall. Government has all the money, but also none to spend. It cannot predict the future, but must pretend that it can. Politics define spending priorities, but technocrats check the working. Options are considered, but the preferred course of action is known before a word is written.
Where government puts its money must appear to be a question of analysis, but it is a question of belief. This has always been true, but in days gone by, the executive had no shame about it. This changed when economists were invented in the 1960s. They helped to obscure and legitimise gambling with public money, through the dark power of funny symbols, an aversion to clarity, and enormous self-confidence. The bible that codifies this behaviour is the Treasury Green Book, the ‘definitive analytical guidance for government’. First handed down on stone tablets about 50 years ago, the Green Book got a refresh last year. Like all orthodoxy, the Green Book is presented as an inevitable fact of life, like the weather, or Blue Peter. But it is not. It is a list of choices. Those choices are a tangible articulations of Whitehall’s implicit politics, so almost nobody pays it any attention at all.
Proper economists like Diane Coyle and Mariana Mazzucato have written about the Green Book’s flaws. Their critiques are variations of an old truism about economics. Knowing the price of everything does not add up knowing the value of everything. The 2018 update makes vague nods to a wider set of things officials should think about when loosening the purse strings. Even so, the government’s cost-benefit methodology remains a narrow one. The Treasury view is pretty much same as it was 50 years ago: if it’s hard to count, it doesn’t count.
It doesn’t really matter how wide you throw the net to quantify the costs or benefits from spending government money. That doesn’t stop many trying — putting £ values on wellbeing, on irreparable environmental damage, on beauty, on the cost of a human life. Fill models with chains of elegant logic, make assumptions to your heart’s content.
Because by continuing to fetishise the enumeration of public interventions, we will continue to spend too much time arguing about different avenues of mental arithmetic and drafting arcana. Nobody who has ever participated in a business case drafting exercise has ever believed the words they were writing were real.
The argument for business cases is they force a structured conversation about spending. This is a good idea. There is huge benefit to having a thoughtful, thorough investigation about whether spending on a particular thing and in a particular way is wise. But the true crime of today’s business case treadmill is that it warps the conversation. There is no value in arguing the toss over whose set of numbers has a better claim to predicting the future.
Should we spend this money, in this way, now? This was the conversation officials had, long before economists and accountants desiccated the debate and passed the box-ticking bit to consultants. In those days, sometimes we came to the wrong answer, but quickly. How refreshing it would be if we could at least fail faster again.