Letting in the light on civil service spending

The government publishes vast quantities of information, and yet some of the most useful and important information is not amongst it. They provide an array of aggregated information about how they spend our money, but no specific information. We don't know how much is spent doing what. It's our money. We ought to know.

This is very convenient for the mainstream parties. The governing party can criticize the opposition for failing to be specific about the changes they would implement, because the opposition doesn't have enough information to be specific. And the opposition parties can avoid being honest with people about exactly what they would do, because they can claim that they can only be specific once they are in government and have "had a look at the books". The public gets to pick between which snake-oil salesman they prefer, because politicians have deprived themselves of the means of giving people an honest choice.

There is a simple answer, which none of the mainstream parties will implement or even suggest, because this excuse for ignorance suits them so well:

The civil service operates on a hierarchical (or "dendritic") structure of departments within departments. The head of each department, and of each sub-department within a department, and of each sub-department within that (and so on) should publish each year a description of what his department does, how much money it spends, how that divides between employment costs, capital costs and other costs, and how many man-hours were deployed by his department. This information should be published openly for public consumption.

This would have two beneficial effects:

  1. It would allow critics of government spending to base their criticisms on hard information, rather than on inferences from the overall levels of spending in the department, and
  2. It will force ministers and civil servants to pause and think before they introduce yet more bureaucacy, or commission more reports or media-spending, knowing that they will have to justify it and tell people how much it costs each year.

For a bureaucracy to function, it has to operate within delegated budgets. This information almost certainly exists already. If it doesn't, our bureaucracy is even more mismanaged and dysfunctional than it appears, and should put systems in place immediately to manage this information, regardless of whether it would be published. We would simply be exposing the civil service's budget-management system to the open scrutiny that would prevent self-serving justification, make-work proposals, and general bureaucratic bloat.