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Column: End this ridiculous, wasteful culture of ‘salami slicing’

Not all areas deserve equal cuts – but there ARE some things we could do without, writes William Campbell.

William Campbell

GOOGLE TELLS US lots. At the time of writing, the term ‘salami slicing’ occurs on over 43,000 British web pages. Fewer than one thousand dot ie web pages contain that phrase, and most of them relate to Northern Ireland.

The phrase is so rare in Ireland that it needs an explanation. ‘Salami slicing’ means a particular type of budget cut. In Britain, it means cuts where all areas of expenditure are simply shrunk by a percentage dictated from the top. Though eclipsed by our own crisis, Britain is going through its own expenditure cuts, but our neighbours are hotly debating exactly what should and shouldn’t be cut.

In 2009, Ireland’s first major ‘cuts’ budget in our recent crisis, was a textbook case of salami slicing. The total government budget was cut by 3.8 per cent. But the variation between departments was razor-thin, with only tiny differences between the cuts for spending departments. Drilling down, the same pattern was repeated, with only the tiniest variations between different sections within departments.

This is the worst sort of management, with no thought about how clever efficiencies can be made, no thought about which services are more necessary than others, no thought about which services are more wasteful, and no thought about combining cost savings with modernisation.

How can we combine cost-savings with reform? By analysing every process and questioning whether it can be reformed, better done by someone else, or simply abandoned.

Hundreds of staff are employed in dozens of offices across the country compiling the electoral register, in a system unchanged in centuries. But there are still problems with the database – one record in three is wrong. The staff currently compiling the electoral register should be made redundant. The revenue and welfare departments have a far more accurate database of every adult in the country, and tiny changes would allow it to be exported as an electoral roll whenever required.

Does Ireland need them more than it need nurses?

That is harsh for those staff, but the question that we need to answer is whether Ireland needs to employ them more than it needs A&E nurses or special needs teachers; and whether the purpose of the public service is to provide services for the public, or employment for people who are doing an unnecessary job, badly.

It is crazy that Ireland does not store the PPS number (or company registration number) of the owner of every vehicle – it would be a simple addition to the database of registered vehicles, and could be achieved within one year if it was required the next time motor tax is paid. Once done, motor tax could be collected by adjusting the tax-free allowance, social welfare payments or other taxes of the owner. At a stroke another enormous bureaucracy could be abolished.

An Post collects TV licences. Why? Because it was the default institution of society a century ago, when the system began, and nobody has thought to change it since. Cable and satellite TV companies should be required, as a condition of their licence, to collect the licence fee on their direct debits, instantly completing 80 per cent of the job for free, and eliminating a huge proportion of non-compliance.

Whatever your opinion of the Property Tax, its implementation is distinctly twentieth-century. Environment Minister Phil Hogan said this week that non-payers will be sent a letter. In the post. There are dozens of reasons for recording the tax number of every property owner, including tackling money-laundering, planning irregularities and making conveyancing easier. Such a system could also allow the tax to be collected with the minimum of non-compliance, and without creating a monster bureaucracy to support it.

Smartphone app

The Food Safety Authority, the National Transport Authority and the Office of Tobacco Control all have functions inspecting restaurants, taxis, pubs and other establishments, and there are other agencies that inspect services, products and premises for the public. These are mostly important functions, but it is crazy that they don’t enlist the help of the public.

Restaurants, taxis and other establishments should be required to display a web address where members of the public could report concerns, which would allow targeted inspections and much better outcomes. We could develop a single smartphone app for such reports, which would send instant reports of dirty restaurants or dangerous taxis to the correct agency.

There is no doubt that such an innovation would hugely improve the service these agencies give to the public, but they should also save the taxpayer money. These two objectives are not in competition – we must break out of the mindset that says there is a straight-line relationship between the money we pay and the service we receive, and value can never be improved.

Innovations considered space-ago a decade ago are now commonplace in the pockets of teenagers. Those benefits should be applied in the public sector as well in the private sector, and the benefits will include improved service and reduced costs.

First we must abandon the mentality that all cuts are equal, and recognise that salami slicing is the worst type of cost-saving. The vocabulary to discuss how best to improve our public service barely even exists on Irish websites; this tells us how impoverished our public discourse is. It’s time to change that.

William Campbell is the author of Here’s How, Creative Solutions for Ireland’s Economic and Social Problems.

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William Campbell

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