Azara Blog: Governments are good at wasting money

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Date published: 2010/01/03

The BBC says:

The government is to spend £1m buying airtime for a TV ad promoting its public services website Directgov.

The £1m only covers the broadcasting cost of the ad, which features stars like Dame Helen Mirren and Kelly Brook.

A spokeswoman would not say how much it cost to produce but said actors worked for a "fraction of a commercial rate" and advertising in January was cheaper.

The Tories said it was "vanity marketing" but Directgov said they could save the government money.
...
Mike Hoban, the communications director for Directgov, said: "At a time of economic uncertainty it is essential that we give everyone in the UK easy access to important government information about taxes, benefits, job opportunities and education.

"Directgov will save the government £400m over three years. Therefore this is an investment that is important in helping the government save money."

The BBC also says:

The Conservatives say they would offer a £1m prize in a competition to develop a website that would allow large groups of people to help develop new policies.

Tory frontbencher Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the idea was to tap into the "huge amount of expertise" among the British people to avoid policy "howlers".

The prize would be public money - from the Cabinet Office budget - but he said it could offer taxpayers good value.

Labour and the Lib Dems dismissed it as a "gimmick" and a publicity stunt.

The plan - to be introduced if the Conservatives win the next general election - appears to be based on the so-called "wisdom of crowds" theory written about by author James Surowiecki.

He argued that large groups of people are smarter than the elite few at coming to wise decisions.

Mr Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Look at the U-turns over child care vouchers, over the 10p tax, over the NHS IT system.

"It is crazy that these things have gone wrong when you've got lots and lots of, for example, retired health professionals, retired policemen, people in the teaching profession, who have huge knowledge and expertise...

"Is there a way that we can use the internet ... to try and avoid some of these howlers so a future Conservative government can not just have good policy ideas but execute policy in a much more considered and thought-through way?"

So both main parties want to blow a million pounds of public money. And needless to say they both claim that what they want to do is a jolly good idea and what the other side wants to do is a waste of money.

Well, what is a reasonable measure of whether or not this is good value for money? You could ask whether a company would spend money in either of these ways. Of course companies do a lot of "vanity" spending as well. So you could ask whether you yourself would spend money like this. And the answer is unfortunately pretty clearly no.

In the case of direct.gov.uk, people generally don't find what they want on any website by going directly to that website, but instead find what they want via google, which does a much better job of finding what people want than the folks who run the website (pretty much any website). So this does indeed look like a typical case of government "vanity" spending. Most government advertising is short on information and big on patronising spin.

And the Tory idea is just plain wrong in more than one way. Firstly, the Tories unfortunately seem to believe that there are all sorts of simple solutions to complicated problems, and the Tories all too easily fall for the latest smooth talking consultants who come along promising them miracles. (And this is even before the Tories take over power, and it will undoubtedly get worse later.) The so-called "wisdom of crowds" is just one example. (The alleged causative benefit of marriage is another.)

Secondly, even if "crowds" were "wise", it is irrelevant here. Governments already have access to plenty of experts who will tell them why most of their ideas are crazy (including all the examples that Jeremy Hunt quotes). But governments choose to ignore the experts, or at least those that contradict their preferred view, for purely ego-driven or political reasons, or because they are scared of, and/or in the sway of, Rupert Murdoch. Having yet another website churning out more ideas is not going to change this dynamic one iota.

But there is one interesting aspect of the Tory idea. So how would you design a website so that experts could intelligently collaborate and argue with each other? How do you really even decide who the experts are, because there are plenty of amateur anoraks who are very expert in various areas of public policy? You certainly don't want a free-for-all. You just have to look at the idiotic contributions on any open web forum, for example, the BBC website's "Have Your Say", to see the problem here. The noise soon drowns out the signal. You could put in place a system of recommendation, but that has the same flaw, as "Have Your Say" also clearly demonstrates. (The google ranking of websites somehow mostly works in spite of this.) And how do you keep the experts honest? So there are plenty of transport experts in the UK, it's just that most of them are blinkered anti-car nutters. So you wouldn't really want to trust anything they say. You need honest experts, and they are few and far between.

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