Cabinet Ministers are getting to grips with the new spending processes Finance Minister Bill English is introducing in this year’s budget. Where departments previously put in bids for the amount they thought would be needed to finance particular programmes, they will now be expected to match the bid with an assessment of the return on the investment. This follows the changes initiated in delivering better public services, when departments were instructed to publish results their programmes were achieving. In effect the Govt is seeking to revolutionise the way ministries operate.
It requires different departments to work together, rather than in isolation, particularly in the field of health and community services. The Govt accepts the new processes will have to resolve complex problems such as privacy issues but the objective is to push Ministries towards targeting the money available to achieve tangible results. The Govt argues it has a duty to ensure funds raised from taxpayers are applied to maximise outcomes, rather than just for “nice-to-haves” Ministers or bureaucrats advanced in competition with each other.
The duty becomes more onerous as the Govt strives to bring the Crown accounts back into long-term surplus, without any nasty spending blow-outs from programmes initiated in earlier years. An example where unintended consequences can spring out of the woodwork to damage spending projections lies in Employment Court decisions related to the care of aged people and the definition of work, as well as in pay equity. One decision concerned the definition of work as including driving to and from the places where aged-care providers are working, and another involves the principle of equal pay, with the concept aged care workers should be entitled to the same hourly rates as those in the Corrections Department. How the Govt deals with these complex issues will have long-term budgetary impacts.
National is often criticised for having no plan by people who don’t understand that a lot of what it is doing is being done quietly, like this requirement for a return on taxpayer investment.