Magazine article Public Finance

Red Tape and Chaos Theory

Magazine article Public Finance

Red Tape and Chaos Theory

Article excerpt

At the time of this year's Budget, the chancellor made great play of a decision to simplify audit and inspection in the public sector as part of his crusade against red tape and bureaucracy. In parallel with his efficiency drive to save £21.5bn, he promised to reduce the 'regulatory burden' in the public sector by cutting the number of inspectorates from 11 to four.

As usual with Gordon Brown's announcements, the detail turns out to be slightly less clear than the headlines. The best way of teasing this out is to look at the actual proposals for amalgamations. The biggest is to reduce from five to one the inspectors of the criminal justice system, merging those for the police, probation, prisons, courts and Crown Prosecution Service into a single super-inspectorate.

It seems sensible enough, you might think - why have all these separate inspectorates? But hang on a minute. These aren't separate inspectors inspecting the same thing, they are separate inspectors inspecting different things. While prisons and probation might be (sort of) merging through the National Offender Management Service, the other three are all distinct functions with different roles and responsibilities.

There might be economies of scale from putting all five inspectorates under one roof, where they could share back-office services, but it is hard to see the advantage in merging their core task of inspecting.

Checking up on prisons, police, probation, courts and prosecutors requires some in-depth understanding of each of these functions, and how they might be able to hide anything inconvenient. As we know from some of the spectacular failures of private sector audit, hiding bad stuff can be ridiculously easy. Although there are some generic detection and evidential skills that apply to all inspections - whether hospitals, schools or prisons - there is also an important element of specialised knowledge that usually only comes from years of experience of a particular sector.

That is why we had specialist inspectorates - often drawing heavily on experienced practitioners in the field for their inspectors - in the first place. While this approach has dangers, it clearly has the advantage of having 'poachers turned gamekeepers' doing the inspecting.

It is true that some of the other amalgamations reflect the closer integration of the services they are inspecting - health and adult social services, for example, and education, children's services and skills. …

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