UK Borders Agency, and when is an efficiency saving really a cut?

The furore about the UK Border Agency (UKBA) letting people into the country without carrying out full checks illustrates a theme we may see more of over the next year or two. It surrounds the difficulty of distinguishing between “efficiency savings” and “cuts”.

We commented here on the savings announced by Cabinet Office and described a few weeks back. We noted that by far the biggest contributor to savings was “demand management” – basically, not spending money.  But when is that an efficiency and when is it a cut? If we don’t spend money on an IT programme, or even advertising, calling it an efficiency suggests that the spend would have had no value. If it would have had even some value, it was, we would argue, at least in part a “cut”.

This issue raised its head when I looked at the UKBA annual report of 2010/11.

In spite of the challenges and the scale and complexity of its activities, in 2010-11 the agency continued to transform its operations to deliver all its objectives while reducing its staffing levels by around 1,900, achieving cashable efficiency savings exceeding £200m.

So the question is – were these cashable efficiency savings of £200m really efficiencies? Or were they basically cuts – 1,900 jobs going, without compensating efficiencies to ensure the smaller number of staff could carry out the same required workload?

If they were cuts, this would have threatened to generate potentially unmanageable queues at airports and ports, which in turn perhaps explains why senior managers apparently took decisions to cut corners*.

Now I’m not arguing that the government shouldn’t be cutting public sector expenditure at least as hard as they are (I’d argue for a bit harder actually in some areas). But we can’t pretend that none of it is going to have any effect, that it is all about mysterious efficiencies which mean we won’t see or feel any pain.  That’s particularly true as there is limited evidence of real, transformational change programmes going on in most parts of government – the sort of actions that might just drive significant real efficiencies. Often it is simply top-slicing cuts.

If that is the case, we will start to see the fault lines appearing in the next 12 months – not just in UKBA, but elsewhere. The language of cuts rather than efficiency may become a regular feature.

*I will be amazed if it turns out that Brodie Clark didn’t have “air cover” for what he did – he’s been around the civil service long enough to know you get your superiors to agree before you take career threatening decisions!

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