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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Only Civil Servants Can Save The British Economy

That's the conclusion I reach from reading Lord Young's report on Growing Micro Businesses. The report makes it clear that government plans to fund small business growth and harness public spending power are still medium term options. Absent substantial growth, all we can do in the short term is make sure our tax revenues aren't wasted on a day-to-day basis. Can our public sector colleagues plug the leaks?

The scenario

Public spending is still roaring away at 44% of UK GDP and tax revenue barely exceeds 35%. This represents a yawning chasm that remains to be filled with higher taxes and/or spending cuts - unless GDP grows substantially faster. This would make public spending less of a drag on the economy (35% is the ideal number) and produce more tax revenue to pay off public debt and narrow the deficit. Unfortunately, the productive economy is limping along, largely due to problems in the UK (and EU) banking systems. This is particularly bad for the UK, as businesses rely on only a few major banks for over 90% of funding.

The growth strategy

Unable to improve the flow of funds to the productive economy via the banks, Lord Young's report reveals that the government's growth strategy depends heavily on educating over 4 million small businesses about alternative ways to finance increased production and employment, and using public sector procurement to buy more from those smaller businesses. Theory has it that, as they grow, the rest of the private sector will also benefit, and away we go...

Awareness of alternative finance

Unfortunately, Lord Young notes that the government is yet to come up with "a robust, evidence-based strategy for communications to all micro, small and medium sized businesses" to explain the alternative funding options available. Some money is being offered via alternative finance platforms, which leverages their private marketing spend, but apparently the government still needs to issue more information on support schemes via Gov.uk (the 3rd attempt at a government portal).

However, educating SMEs about non-bank funding options is only one side of the equation. Success also depends on persuading mainstream savers and investors to put money into alternative channels. This collides with the £400bn ISA programme, which massively subsidises bank deposits and regulated investment funds that don't support the productive economy. Countless people have explained this particularly vicious circle to the government. But the Treasury seems determined not to level the playing field, either by extending the ISA scheme to include alternative financial services or by reducing the size of the incentive that favours only bank deposits and regulated funds.

This is a problem that seems unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Smarter public procurement

So where are we on the road towards smarter public sector procurement?

Unfortunately, the smarter procurement drive is mired in the need to "simplify and standardise procurement practice across all parts of Local Government, health trusts and the wider public sector".

This seems an enormous challenge. The next step, for example, is to initiate consultations on reforms to public sector procurement standards...

So actually getting the public sector to buy more from SMEs from the top down is likely to be a very long way off.

The last card - plugging the leaks

That leaves only one option in the short term: civil servants spending less and more wisely.

That doesn't mean slashing welfare payments, and so on. It means wasting less money in the context of the £166bn the public sector spends on its own goods and services.

Surely not all of this needs formal consultation. I mean, isn't it partly a mindset? Thriving private sector businesses recognise the need for constant change to remain aligned with their customers' evolving behaviour and changes in the market, and public sector organisations face the same challenge. Yet we hear little about how the public sector evolves to be more customer-aligned and efficient. Do public sector workers realise the scale of the opportunity to help? Surely they aren't resistant to the idea - after all, they must be among the most publicly spirited people in the country...

It's unfortunate that the public focus is preoccupied with the other side of the government balance sheet. It seems such a waste of time and resources to get distracted by the moral panic about how much more tax foreign corporations should pay, when we could be getting so much better value for the crushing amount of tax that each of us already pays personally.

The process of hauling people before the Public Accounts Committee alone costs money. And we have to be mindful that reforming international tax treaties will rest on the shoulders of public sector staff who may well spend, very inefficiently, huge amounts on travel and other services in the negotiation process. 

Ironically, even the argument about extra tax revenue demonstrates why it's critical to fix all the holes in the bucket before pouring more money into it.


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