UK government launches Spending Challenge: ‘Help us get more for less’

UK Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off a consultation exercise on ways to reduce government spending. Together with Nick Clegg he has written to public service workers asking them to share their ideas on where to make spending cuts.

A Spending Challenge website has been launched to solicit suggestions from Britain’s 6 million public sector workers. The challenge states that “Every single idea will be considered and the best ones taken forward by departments, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office”. Ideas will be analysed through a five step process:

  1. All ideas considered by cross-government team
  2. Serious ideas go to ‘champions’ team in Cabinet Office/Treasury
  3. Most promising ideas sent to departments and Treasury spending teams to be worked up
  4. Selected ideas reviewed by Ministers
  5. Spending Review announced October 20th

The rational for the challenge is laid out in Cameron’s letter:

The biggest challenge our country faces is dealing with our huge debts – and that means we have to reduce public spending.

Reducing public spending will require innovative and challenging ideas, best developed by those working on the frontline of public services:

We want you to help us find those savings, so we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible. You work on the frontbench of public services. You know where things are working well, where the waste is, and where we can re-think things so that we get better services for less money.

[…] Don’t hold back. Be innovative, be radical, challenge the way things are done. Every serious idea will be considered: by government departments, by the Treasury, by our teams in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office – and passed to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to make sure we don’t miss anything.

While the website states the government “will look at every single idea that comes in”, however, there is no guarantee any of the suggestions will make it through to the final Spending Review report in October. This will set detailed spending plans, with budget cuts of up to 25% over four years for many government departments.

The Spending Challenge will be opened to the general public from 9 July. A summary of all submissions will be published later this year.

Partner with Wikileaks

The Spending Challenge site will also monitor social media as a means of fulfilling its mandate to find innovative ideas for saving money. This represents a recognition that some of the most “out of the box” suggestions may be outlined by on blogs and forums, rather than a newly created government website:

Although this process allows you to submit ideas anonymously, we respect the fact that some people will not want to contribute directly to a government website. As part of this exercise, we will monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums and also

Save Award similarities

The UK Spending Challenge has many similarities to the Obama Administration’s SAVE (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency) Award. On launching last year’s competition President Obama called for “a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better.”

David Cameron’s recognition that public sector workers often have the best ideas was outlined by Jeffrey Zients, chief performance officer and deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, when he said it was important to listen to the voices of those on the front lines:

In the government and in the private sector, it is often those in the front lines that have the best ideas and who know the most… We are looking for ideas that save money, improves the way the government operates by lowering costs, simplifying processes, streamlining processes, getting rid of unnecessary red tape and that has an impact on citizens’ lives. It could be a wide range of ideas.

The competition was seen as a success with over 38,000 ideas being submitted in the three weeks of the competition. Given this, the SAVE Award was turned into an annual event with President Obama issuing his own “spending challenge” to government workers:

I’ve issued a challenge to every man and woman who works for the federal government: If you see a way that government could do its job better, or do the same job for less money, I want to know about it

Saving through Open Source

The twitter reaction to the launch of the new site has been generally positive. The initiative is one of the latest examples of the coalition seeking to harnessing the collective ideas and experience of those working outside of central government.

As a nod to this the website itself is based on a WordPress theme developed by Simon Dickson for the recent Programme For Government site. Seeing the government use Open Source tools for the website, and reusing previous themes, demonstrates the spirit of the spending challenge.

The extension and reuse of such open source technology throughout government could help to bring down the cost of government websites. The axing of many government websites has already been proposed by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, but ideas from the public on reducing the costs of current sites e.g. through using free templates such as Govfresh’s Gov 2.0 theme, would be welcomed – especially when some current sites have a per visit cost of £11.78.

The winning idea from the US SAVE award is expected to save $2 million for 2011, and $14.5 million between 2010-2014. Any similar savings arising from the UK Spending Challenge should help establish the power of consultation with the public as a means of saving money and improving government efficiency.

Further reading

Richard Fahey has a Masters Degree in Information Technology and Management, and is currently working as a Senior Business Intelligence Consultant at a large Consulting firm. He has a keen interest in Open Government and especially the use of Crowdsourcing platforms for citizen engagement. While a native of Ireland he has a great interest in US Government developments in the areas of Transparency, Collaboration and Participation. For more information follow me on Twitter @faheyr.

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