Not for the first time, a British politician has turned, without acknowledgement, to the good old US of A for an idea. In his speech to this year’s Labour party conference shadow chancellor Ed Balls said:

because we all know there can be no post-election spending spree, in our first year in government we will hold a zero-based spending review that will look at every pound spent by government: carefully looking at what the Government can and cannot afford, rooting out waste and boosting productivity.

My advice, Ed, is don’t do it. Sorry, I’ll put that more cogently. DON’T DO IT.

At its simplest, zero-based budgeting (ZBB) takes every line of a budget, asks what would be the consequences if it did not exist, and seeks a justification for any spend beyond that. If you’re not familiar with ZBB, Wikipedia actually has quite a good article on it.

ZBB has been around for decades. It started in the private sector, where it seems to have been used to examine relatively limited support functions in companies.

Once the academics and politicians got hold of it, however, it became a major endeavour in the public sector.

As a public sector manager, I experienced the joys of ZBB myself with the following results

  • The whole thing became a major industry. I and my colleagues spent endless, fruitless hours trying to align detailed budgets with programmes, objectives and policies
  • Neither the data for ZBB nor the software to manipulate it was available
  • The nature of public sector ‘budget lines’ meant one manager was forced to justify spend on a few thousand pounds, another on a million pounds. Both budgets received equal treatment in analysis
  • On the well-known principle that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, no manager came forward with any proposal significantly different from the position that current levels of spend on their budgets were absolutely essential
  • When the politicians got hold of ZBB data to help them make decisions they found it virtually useless and the next year’s budgets for that organisation were hardly different from the last

ZBB was never used again in that organisation, although every now and then proponents who hadn’t sweated blood over the previous exercise had to be taken quietly on one side to be told the truth about it.

I have no doubt any advocates of ZBB will be sharpening their keyboards even now to rebut my experience. My challenge to them is two-fold.

First, read the 1997 US General Accounting Office (GAO) report called Performance Budgeting. Past Initiatives Offer Insights for GPRA Implementation and its devastating insight on ZBB.

Second, show me where and how ZBB is used successfully in the public sector in the UK. Not just rumours that someone in Ontario or Western Australia has found it helpful, but actual documented proof about current successful use here.  I’ll eat my (virtual) hat if you can.

Here’s my prediction of what will happen if Balls holds his zero-based spending review if and when he’s chancellor in a future Labour government

  • There will be major upheaval in the civil service to support the exercise, distracting them from more pressing tasks
  • It will cost a lot, more than will be admitted
  • Consultants (oh yes, them) will probably be bought in to complete the exercise
  • Balls will have even fewer friends amongst his ministerial colleagues, who will all be rooting for their department in the review
  • The whole thing will make very little difference, if any, to future government spend and it will be quietly dropped in the next year.

My helpful tip for Ed would be to check out the GAO report I mention above. You don’t even have to go to Appendix V on ZBB (pp. 46-51). Page 6 has all you need to know:

The implicit presumptions of…ZBB — that systematic analysis of options could substitute for political judgment — ultimately proved unsustainable.


As a long-time conference survivor I’ve had more than one blast on this blog at these sometimes meaningless events, including my feelings about political keynote speakers – often sold as the main reason for your ‘essential’ (humph) attendance.

My e-mail this morning brings me an update from a young person just embarking on a public service career and attending their first big conference:

The Minister of XYZ was speaking. It was quite funny seeing everyone flapping about before he arrived then him turning up with a 10 strong entourage straight into the VIP room. Then ushered into the hall to give a 10 minute speech and then straight to his car and away. No looking at posters or speaking to delegates. It actually seems a bit pointless him coming because he doesn’t gain any insight about what’s happening at the conference.

Well, well…plus ça change etc. The politico concerned can tick off another point of engagement with the troops, the civil servants can hustle him off self-importantly to his next engagement, I can settle down to the latest episode of The Thick of It. After all fiction is more entertaining than real life, isn’t it?

Under the hashtag #Ilovemyjob one of the great local government tweeps I follow wrote last week

Just spent an hour talking with 12 Albanian Mayors about the local committee structure in Sutton.

This is the sort of random information Twitter throws at you every day. Thanks for it to @GlenOcsko.

Although I have no proof I’m 99% sure of what was going on here.

For many years the UK government and/or European Commission have sponsored people from former communist countries that might be EU member candidates to come on study visits to the likes of Britain and other long-standing EU members to see how democracy can work.

In my day, it was the swathe of Eastern European countries which are now EU members.

A typical trip might be organised by a UK university politics department and feature briefing sessions with academics and visits to two or three local authorities to meet local politicians and council staff, much as I suspect the twelve Albanian mayors were doing in Sutton.

You might not think it an exciting way to spend a week. But for many of the delegates on these trips struggling to come to terms with the upheaval and turmoil in their own countries, this was the first time they had ventured west of the old iron curtain. They were often shabbily dressed by our standards and uneasy at the resources we seemed to have as well as the general UK standard of living around them.

Most did not speak English and there sometimes seemed to be a clear hierarchy within their group although their interpreter was the key delegate if you were to get anything of value across to them.

At the time I was working for a large, mainly rural, council. I particularly remember a group of Bulgarians and the effort I’d gone (pre-Google Translate and Babelfish) to source a grammatically-correct slide to front my presentation that said ‘Welcome to XYZ Council!’ in Bulgarian.

My presentation, filtered through their interpreter’s efforts, seemed to go down as well as an account of multi-member wards and the differences between central and area committees could.

Inviting questions, I sat down to polite smiles and a silence that was eventually broken by a question from the delegate I had identified as the main man in the group, an academic at some institute for government. The interpreter translated

He says who has the executive authority in your villages?

Even now the words ‘knock me down’ and ‘feather’ come to mind.

I won’t bother to explain why. Those in the know will understand precisely the difficulties of where you start to answer such a question in the British context. If you’re not in the know ask yourself the same question – ‘Who has the executive authority in your village or suburb?’ Just doesn’t make sense in the UK does it?

Well, the Bulgarians are safely inside the EU now and no doubt the Albanians are hoping to be in the future (dim and distant I would have thought). I wonder if they asked any interesting questions in Sutton?

It’s a drama a minute isn’t it?  I refer to the UK coalition, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats bound together in government, they hope, for five years.  The latest make-or-break, maybe, is the reform of the House of Lords.

Just after the UK general election in May 2010 I blogged a list of ten tips for a successful coalition offered by Jack (now Lord) McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland.

For those outwith Scotland, it’s helpful to know that our own devolved parliament was designed with a system of proportional representation to ensure no one political party could ever have a simple majority (the sceptics said ‘designed by the Westminster Labour government to ensure that the SNP could never have a simple majority’ – they do now, but that’s another story) and adversaries would have to compromise to make it work.

Unlike Westminster, the parliamentary chamber is semi-circular and so less adversarial – no forbidden lines at a sword’s length to stay behind and no baying like animals at each other across the divide.

And none of the archaic practices of Westminster that traditionalists love but which often seem to hinder efficient and effective government – MSPs vote by pressing a button (shock, horror) and seem to manage perfectly well without crowding into a lobby like sheep to be counted with the result announced by tellers with the cry ‘The ayes have it.’

So the Scottish experience, and McConnell’s, who led a Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, might have something to teach a parliament struggling to govern through coalition for the first time in generations.

These are McConnell’s ten tips repeated, with my comments and outsider’s score out of ten for how they’re doing so far

  1. Leaders must have personal trust – Cameron and Clegg made a good start but seem a lot tetchier with each other now (Clegg’s body language sat next to the PM in parliament is instructive) although there’s no obvious briefing against each other, unlike the dearly departed Tony and Gordon SCORE 7/10
  2. Agree a clear policy programme and priorities and stick to it – I’d love to see a serious analysis of progress on the coalition’s programme for government (I certainly don’t have the resources to do it) but pending that the picture seems a mixed one.  Notwithstanding points 3. 5. and 6. below there seem to have been occasions (Michael Gove’s school exam reforms?) that are not only off-programme but also seem to have been a surprise to others in the coalition.  And although the coalition’s agreed programme has a very clear proposal for House of Lords reform (p.27) now push has come to shove lots of stroppy Tory backbenchers want to treat that as an optional extra to be discarded SCORE 6/10
  3. As in any successful relationship, compromise is necessary – sometimes challenging, many Conservative MPs especially don’t quite seem to have got the point SCORE 5/10
  4. Every partnership has disagreements so it is important that there is a clear dispute resolution mechanism in place, one that is understood and accepted by both sides – not sure about this.  Is this what Cameron/Clegg/Osborne and Alexander do?  Any Westminster insiders care to make a judgement? SCORE 6/10?
  5. Governments need to be flexible, to respond to new opportunities as well as unexpected events – a tricky one.  Where Labour (and others) claim lack of flexibility in economic matters the coalition seems to be holding their agreed line and lack of flexibility doesn’t seem to be an issue between the two parties SCORE 5½/10?
  6. Use the agreed programme as a guide, not a straitjacket – see 5.
  7. Sometimes coalition partners need to go their separate ways – and they have on occasion, but it needs to be without surprising your partner SCORE 6/10
  8. People leave a political party in a coalition for all sorts of reasons and a partnership must be robust enough to cope with that – not a big issue yet as no major defections to other parties UNSCORED
  9. All for one and one for all. A coalition government must have collective responsibility and ministers across the political divide must accept this discipline – they say all political animals are either herbivores or carnivores.  My impression is that the Conservatives have a few carnivore ministers who would really like to tuck into a Lib Dem or two.  Their back benchers are worse SCORE 7/10
  10. Finally, never forget the electorate.  SCORE – NOT POSSIBLE UNTIL THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION

Looking at this I’m surprised some of my scores are as high as they are.  Perhaps thinking seriously about each of McConnell’s tips forces me to discard much of the media froth that surrounds politics and is constantly looking for failure and negativity.

After two years of coalition government I think I’d like to add another tip to Jack McConnell’s list

Ensure you have a political system that enables and supports coalition working

In this case the system is the Westminster parliamentary system and I’m afraid it has been found seriously wanting SCORE 4/10.

What do you think?

Once upon a time, there was a wee girl who lived in a beautiful part of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

The school she went to was in a lovely new building that overlooked a sea loch near an old village.

The wee girl was very interested in writing.  One day her teacher asked everyone in her class to do a writing project.  She asked her mum and dad for ideas and decided to write a ‘blog’ about her school dinners.

With some help from her dad she started the blog, thinking that her family and maybe the children she went to school with might be interested in it.  Because it was about food she also asked anyone who read it to give some money to a charity that provided school dinners for children in poor countries.

It was a clever idea.  She took a photo of her school dinner each day, gave it a score on something she invented called a Food-o-meter and said what she thought about the food.

Of course, she didn’t like some of what she had to eat, even though she could choose from different things.  But children are like that everywhere.  And sometimes she said things like ‘Lunch was really nice today’ and ‘The fajita was lovely.’

Then some funny things started to happen.

Children from other countries began to send her photos of their own school dinners.  She put them on her blog and said what she thought about the photos.

More and more people started to look at what she wrote and eventually she was asked with her dad to visit a famous chef who was talking about school dinners.

The next day something terrible happened.

A newspaper from a big city wrote about her visit to the famous chef.  They had a headline that said ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies,’ something the wee girl and her dad had never said and was a very lazy and stupid thing to write.

Her school had been happy when she started the blog but now of course the poor dinner ladies were upset and afraid for their jobs.

The council, who ran the school she went to, wasn’t as clever as it could have been and said she couldn’t take photos of her dinners any more.  She was called out of a lesson to be told this, which wasn’t perhaps the most sensible thing to do, because children don’t like that and it might have been a good idea to tell her dad first.

Well, you wouldn’t believe the fuss it all caused.

The TV, radio and other newspapers all found out what was going on.  Suddenly what had happened was news throughout the world.  Millions of people looked at her blog and thousands tweeted about it.  People started to say that the ban on her taking photos was silly.

Within a day the council had to change its mind and said she could still take photos.  Unfortunately, by then people had started to write all sorts of unkind things about them.  Some puppets from Glasgow even sung a song about the council!

An important man from the council called the ‘leader’ said he would meet the wee girl and her dad and ‘seek her continued engagement,’ which was a strange thing to say to a wee girl.

Children, fairy tales are funny things.  They teach you lessons, if you think about them, but they don’t always have happy endings.  This fairy tale hasn’t ended yet.  What do you think its lessons will be?  Do you think it will have a happy ending for anyone and if so, who?

Also worth reading – Adrian Short’s more technical analysis of the council’s original press release on this subject (now disappeared from their web site)

I see there’s a wee (very wee) spat on the BBC web site today about the number of apprenticeships the Scottish Government has or hasn’t helped create.  I have no way of judging the claims (Labour) and counter-claims (SNP) but do wish the government rebuttal could have been couched in terms other than the fact that they are

committed to maximising the employability of young people

I think ‘committed to maximising employability’ means helping them get work. Why can’t the combined tribes of politicos and spokespeople use plain language?

I bumped into an old colleague the other day.  Comparing notes and then checking the published lists I realised that at least six of the candidates in our forthcoming local council election were ex-employees of that council.  And they were all people who had either worked at a senior level (one an ex-director) or closely with councillors.

That’s a good idea you might say – what better way to use the experience and knowledge of those skilled professionals than as elected representatives?

I don’t agree.  This sort of thing often ends in tears.  It’s all to do with expectation and understanding of roles.

Here’s what can go wrong.

  • The new councillor carries their professional baggage with them and thinks they know better than the director responsible for that service of the council.  But they may be out of date, plain wrong, and in any event are elected to represent the people of their area, probably as the member of a political party, and not to be the in-house expert on the subject.  This problem is made worse if their political colleagues say ‘Ooh, you’re a teacher/social worker/engineer.  You should be on the committee that deals with that’
  • This can lead to senior officials devoting disproportionate effort to keeping the ‘expert’ councillor onside (or neutralised!)
  • The councillor and/or their ex-colleagues still working for the council can have inappropriate expectations of each other: it can be difficult to maintain a proper work relationship
  • If so minded, the ex-worker councillor can pursue a grievance against a former colleague/manager through their new role (I have seen a councillor like this pay attention to the performance of their former manager that almost amounted to harrassment)
  • Despite all their experience on the other side of the fence, former professionals do not always understand the fundamental difference between management and politics and can quickly become disillusioned by requirements of the political life.

So there’s plenty of reasons to move on if you’re an ex-council official and not to try for a second life in the same organisation.  Of course, that’s not to say that some won’t be successful as councillors…