I am very pleased that the government has opened up its database of spending. We need more transparency in where taxpayer money goes, but we also need the full picture, and categorically, today’s release of the COINS database is far from that. The problem with this release, and the reason it’s been done now (ahead of the budget and spending review) is that is all about spending and nothing about returns. See a line of spending and say “that’s a ridiculous amount to spend on x” and not only does it completely ignore the impact of that spending, but gives the government an easy excuse to make cuts.
The Guardian headline of £1.8bn of consultancy spending means absolutely nothing out of context. It may be that consultants were used because previously people were employed in-house, but that was inefficient and consultants were used on a project basis. Now if that work was finding the best value supplier of equipment to hospitals, then it was probably a very efficient way of spending money.
Now, however, the Tories can sit back and claim that too much was spent on x or y, and cut it, without ever needing to explain the impact of the cut. It will help them enormously in PR-ing the massive reductions in public spending coming our way. Expect a barrage of headlines criticising spending on all manner of products and services, which will pave the way for cuts in these areas.
This data must be supplemented with something that contextualises it and gives an indication of how efficient the spending was in delivering whatever it was supposed to. Only then will we have the first clue as to what is too much. I doubt very much we’ll ever see this (it’s incredibly complicated to analyse and would probably need some consultants to do it) and certainly not before the spending review.