A new report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance reveals the cost of taxpayer-funded lobbying and campaigning, which it conservatively estimates at £38m last year. Public bodies are spending taxpayers’ money, through consultants, trade associations, policy campaigns and think tanks, to promote themselves and influence the policy process.
That government is spending money lobbying government is as outrageous as it is bizarre. Public bodies, set up to fulfil specified policy objectives, should not be spending our money to compete for government funding, support particular parties and push their own agenda.
However, that money is being spent in this way is not the most worrying thing about this report – the total is relatively small, and the Conservatives promise to ban such spending if they come to power. The greatest concern is what this behaviour reveals: that these bodies have a culture and an organisational structure that permit shameless promotion of particular agendas and a total disregard for the taxpayer.
This is not at all surprising: civil servants have simply responded to the incentives they face. Mandarins have been rewarded for furthering the agendas of their political masters, increasing the size and responsibilities of their departments, and appearing to deliver on specific policy targets; they have naturally adopted the means most conducive to these ends. The public sector, spending money that isn’t its own, remains unrestrained by the financial considerations that necessarily dictate the activities of private firms.
So what should a new governing party do about it? Well first of all, they must limit the size of the public sector – they must abolish scores of useless quangos, privatize suitable functions, and restructure services to reduce spending. But equally importantly, they must restore a culture of impartiality and financial discipline to public service. They must explicitly include financial targets in the appraisals of civil servants, and base their pay on these results, and they must publish all government spending for public scrutiny, so that wastage can be identified and criticised by those who fund it.