The waiting is almost over. Last week’s CIPFA Conference may go down as the last such event of the old era, the end of the Good Old Days! As new President, Jaki Meekings Davis said in her opening address, ‘The time for talking is over……’
In many ways there was an air of calm resilience around the conference. The cuts have been so well trailed. What seemed extraordinary and incredible twelve months ago, now has an aura of familiarity, if not normality.
Listening to former Swedish Prime Minister, Göran Persson, the challenge even begins to feel manageable. His message majored on a few critical virtues ~ clarity, focus, courage, urgency, and, perhaps above all, necessity. Asked about public consultation, he responded with a question which spoke volumes, ‘Do you think you have time?’.
The implication was that we can go into this period of transition with confidence and relative certainty around key assumptions : the scale and period of adjustment, the balance between spending cuts and tax increases, the budgets which are to be protected, etc. Yes we can trim and adjust the sails along the way but fundamentally the challenge is to stay on course and to implement the programme with rigour and without deflection.
I wonder whether it will ultimately play out with such crystal clarity. There are obvious economic variables which will ripple across the radar from time to time : the rate of economic growth, inflation, the cost of Government borrowing, etc. These in turn will impact on the mood music around other key discussions, for example, public sector pay and pensions, and welfare reforms. Understandably the Government is teeing each of these targets up with Persson-like frankness and conviction. But will the resolve of the two Coalition partners stand firm when the going around some of these controversial issues becomes much tougher. Will, for example, a balance of 80% spending cuts : 20% tax increases seem quite so important when the battlefield of spending cuts begins to look distinctly bloody?
Alongside the economic variables there are, of course, a whole range of opinion and behaviour variables: the reactions of the public, the workforce, the trades unions, the Coalition parties, the Opposition, and more. It is going to be especially interesting to observe the responses of leaders ― executives and non-executives ― across the public services. Will they see themselves as part of the collective ‘Government Team’, responsible for making cuts happen, or, as in the 1980’s, will they become the front-line of the Resistance?
I do not know the extent of Sweden’s experience of such difficulties but again Göran Persson gave some very clear clues as to how he had dealt with dissent in the ranks, ‘If people asked me to make them a special case, I became determined to cut them more deeply.’
Viewers of a nervous disposition should look away now!
Steve Freer is the chief executive of CIPFA