January 02, 2008

Drowning, not waving

Money down the drainWhy trust governments with big questions when they can't get smaller things right?

If somebody wanted to replace the 46 fire control centres in England with nine regional sites, at a cost to taxpayers of £100m, with the first one due to open in autumn 2006, you'd maybe accept a little slippage.

None of them has opened, reports the Telegraph (in a piece which hasn't made the website) but you can't call that seriously late yet. And the cost? The Fire Brigades Union says it has risen. What are we looking at? A 15% rise (to £115m) maybe?

Not according to the union. Has it perhaps doubled, then, to £200m?

No. The new figure is a stonking £1.4bn. How does the government justify this?
The £100million figure was an early estimate. The project will bring many benefits which are currently not available.
Is it good value at the latest number of £1.4bn? Then it must have been astonishing value at a trifling £100m.

Of course there's a serious point here, and it's a big one. If an organisation can be so wildly out with a discrete project, would you trust it to calculate the many consequences of (say) large scale immigration? The effects on schools? Health provision? Housing? Hm, thought not.

If they did calculate it and didn't like the answers, do you think they would even tell you?

Yet this is the core of the case for big government - competence and openness. The government fails both these basic tests.

Also failing the competence test are local councils who face an equal pay bill of £2.8bn. Imagine the obloquy that would descend on the heads of a Tesco who found themselves in such a position. Yet if Tesco can get it right, why can't local councils? And if councils are so incompetent, do we want to buy our local services from them?

We are not starting from a doctrinaire philosophical position here. If government gets the smaller and easier things so badly wrong, can we reasonably support policies which require government to get harder and more complex issues right?

If they're so bad at it, there has to be a better way.

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