Missing the Whole Picture

By Williams, Mark | Public Finance, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Missing the Whole Picture


Williams, Mark, Public Finance


The second set of UK Whole of Government Accounts, covering the year ending March 31, 2011, was published at the end of October 2012, but received limited coverage.

In fact, WGA failed even to get a mention in the Budget 20 13 documentation.

This was surprising as these accounts provide a consolidated position for central government, including health bodies, local government and public corporations. It is a powerful tool to help understand historic UK government finances and aid decision-making with respect to trie future.

It is truethattheWGAis detailed, running to around 240 pages; that being published 18 months after the year ending limits its usefulness; and that we only have two years of trend information.

However, it does provide very relevant insights on matters such as government debt, asset management, liabilities, trie nature of government expenditure, trie boundary of government - in short, matters that are central to the government's austerity programme.

Equally important for current austerity measures is the use of accounting principles and tools, including balance sheet position, cash flow, ratio analysis and payback period.

Several government policy areas would look different considered in the context of accounting principles, rattier than economic arguments around market failure.

This point was made by the Public Accounts Committee in April. Chair Margaret Hodge said departments must be made aware of what the headline figures mean for them, with the accounts considered regularly by all departmental management boards.

With the Spending Review due on June 26, covering the period beyond April 1, 2015, there are a number of ways in which WGA might inform the process.

* Longer-term planning horizons, especially for contractbased public bodies, would avoid the costs associated with stop/start programmes, "fear-end flexibility has rightly been removed for bod fes that fail to spend their budgets but can lead to perverse outcomes when the cause is just private sector slippage

* Understandingthe nature of government assets, and considering how they might be used more effectively if there is surpl us capacity, helps re-imagine how value might be realised beyond a straightforward disposal

* Recognising that although postponing spending can save money, it can also be a cost if the project is a 'spend to save' one. …

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