Fair Tax For All?


Fair Tax logo

I guess financial in the public sector boils down two things: getting the money as efficiently as possible and spending it as effectively as possible. My previous post was concerned with fraud which can lead to reduced income or wasted spending. This post focuses more on the collection of income. Or rather, maximising the amount of income to be collected.

Governments have many sources of income but principally they levy and collect taxes. The last year or so, in the UK at least, has seen much more of a debate about the tax planning activities of multinational companies. Indeed, Starbucks, Google and Amazon have all been in front of the UK’s Public Accounts Committee to explain themselves. And some wealthy celebrities have been exposed for investing in tax avoidance schemes. (In the UK, tax avoidance is lawful; tax evasion, on the other hand, is unlawful. What's the difference? Tax avoidance is managing your affairs to reduce your liability for taxes; tax evasion is not paying taxes that you are liable to pay.)

I suppose there have been people campaigning against this sort of activity for years but recently it must be resonating with the public mood and the issue has risen high up the public agenda. I don’t know why that would be. My take on it is that it is a corollary of the general public’s sense of unfairness—that they are paying for the bankers’ greed that caused the recession. They’re learning that not only have bankers been very well paid for causing this mess, they don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The public are receiving less public services, they’re losing their jobs (for example, the UK public sector has lost 22,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2013).

Today has seen the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. Number 1 in their list of activities is to use the Fair Tax Mark methodology to publish credible assessments of whether large companies are acting transparently and paying fair tax in the UK.They have issued a report today on 25 of the UK’s top retailers, assessing only two to be awarded the Fair Tax Mark (see this article on Reuters). You can see the marks here.

In today's press release, Meesha Nehru said:

People are increasingly expecting companies to pay the tax that society demands of them or to at least explain why not. They’re not paying, and they’re not explaining and neither are acceptable – and that’s the message of this report

They have got the backing of Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee  for their work. She hopes the impact on a company's reputation will act as a deterrent.

Undoubtedly this sort of scoring and ranking will be criticised for its methodology, not just by the companies it ranks but by observers, too. Nevertheless, I think it makes a contribution to the overall debate. Just as there are increasing demands on government to be transparent to its public, this mark is assessing, in part, the transparency of the tax arrangements of the companies that the UK public buy from every day. For that reason I’m planning to keep an eye on its development over the next weeks and months.

If you’re interested in more about this you can check out the Fair Tax Mark website and/or follow them on Twitter (@fairtaxmark).

Who would be brave enough to fix our tax system

I read an article by Peter Wilby in Public Finance magazine a couple of days ago (see here) . What I really liked about the article is that it summarises in a few hundred words that the UK tax system is not ideal, the main things wrong with it, and why there is no realistic prospect of it being fixed. Perhaps it takes a cynical view about politicians but I would rather regard it as a realistic view. We have to recognise that all political decisions involved gainers and losers and politicians will inevitably take them into account. They might all see how a totally different system would be better for citizens and the economy but who would use their (relatively) brief period in power to achieve it?

Benchmarking: an incentive to improve, a distraction or a red herring?


In the question and answer session of the presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago I was asked how I thought a process of benchmarking should fit into the annual budgeting process. I gave an answer at the time but I don't think I expressed my view as well as I could have so I thought I would have a go in writing.

The question was posed to me in terms of unit costs: if we are preparing our budget for a service how should we take into account the fact that our neighbours or peers deliver the service for a lower (or higher) unit cost? On the face of it this seems like a good idea and I'm sure there must be some sound theories to support it. My answer to the group, though, was sceptical, borne from experience rather than theory.

I think that the "information" a public sector organisation gets from such benchmarking is unhelpful. I think carrying out a benchmarking exercise is "busy work"; it feels like you're doing something positive but in practice you're using up a lot of resources and getting very little in return. They say you don't fatten a pig by measuring it. Well, benchmarking is the equivalent of trying to fatten your pig by measuring someone else's.

I've been involved in numerous benchmarking activities over the years (it was a key feature of the Audit Commission's work in the 90s and 00s) and the first problem is agreeing common definitions so that the information is at all comparable. The development of accounting standards and financial reporting standards has no doubt improved the consistency of treatment by public bodies, but that does nothing for the second, and bigger, problem: that public managers will cling to favourable comparisons and find reasons to criticise unfavourable ones. (I once has a manager who was very quick to claim successes were the result of his management but failures were the result of external factors beyond his control. Sound familiar?) If you want an academic reference for this, Demeere et al (2009), writing about the use of activity-based costing in healthcare, said:

"... healthcare managers might argue about the accuracy of the models estimated costs and pro"tability rather than address how to improve the inef"cient processes, unpro"table products, and considerable excess capacity that the model has revealed."

Demeere et al actually touch on the potential negative consequence of benchmarking: complacency. If a public manager's unit costs (or whatever) are good they do not need to try harder; if they are poor, they might try hard to make a defence but they can avoid the need to improve their service.

Many aspects of public management these days are informed by or developed from private sector practice. Do private sector organisations benchmark with each other? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that an organisation could benchmark with competitors directly so they are more likely to use competitors' prices as the benchmark. They may ask themselves, Can we sell our product for the same price as the competition and still make an adequate return? If the answer is no then they either have to find a way to make their product more cheaply, charge a higher price and compete on the basis of quality/design or cease to produce the product. If the answer is yes then that's great, but it would not stop them from seeking efficiency improvements in order to improve their gross profit margin.

How does that compare with a public service? Well, there are some services where charges are made but generally there is not a market because public bodies usually have a monopoly on the service in some geographic area. But there are some areas where there are comparable private sector providers whose prices could be used as a signal. Except, how many local authorities would compare the unit costs of their schools with fee-paying private schools, or compare their access-for-all leisure centres with members-only private gyms? "They're not offering the same things as us," would be the cry so of course our unit costs are different from theirs.

So, based on my experience, what would I recommend? In my view the answer is much easier to find than carrying out benchmarking exercises because the organisation already has it. The answer is to compare our own unit costs over time. This avoids all the problems of alternative accounting treatments, geogrpahical differences in prices, etc. and it builds on the idea that however good a service is the managers should strive to improve it. I'm sure that if all the time and energy spent carrying out benchmarking work and then defending or criticising the results was spent on improving services the benefit for the public would be significantly improved.



Demeere, N., Stouthuysen, K., & Roodhooft, F. (2009). Time-driven activity-based costing in an outpatient clinic environment: Development, relevance and managerial impact. Health Policy, 92(2-3), 296–304. doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2009.05.003

The US National Debt in real time


I haven't really got a comment on this. I know many people have said to me over the years that because I am an accountant I must avoid debt. Actually, I think that because I am an accountant I am in favour of debt, inasmuch as it matches the use of an asset with paying for it. Anyway, regardless of theories, there is something mesmerising about this set of numbers and the speed with which they are rising.

Minor roadworks


I live in the north west corner of Derbyshire where there aren't major roads or motorways. Over the last few weeks I have come across roadworks on lots of the local roads. Not major roadworks, just one of those machines that scrapes off the top few centimetres of the road surface so that it can be replaced with fresh, smooth tarmac. However, I am sure that I won't be seeing any more of these small schemes next week, or again until next March because it is the end of the financial year.

If I were being cynical I would suggest that these works were only being done to make sure that the budget for 2011/12 was as fully spent as possible. That might be the case but I don't know because I don't have the budgetary control report for Derbyshire County Council. What I do know, though, is that public managers still measure their importance and their success by how much money they spend. Until a few years ago the value of public service as measured in national statistics was deemed to be equal (exactly equal) to how much was spent. So, spending more on the roads (or in hospitals, schools, libraries, wherever) meant more value was created. That's changed now (but I won't go into the detail here) but for many managers it is still the case that if they spend more on their service, they deliver more outputs and that must mean they deliver more value for the public. Sounds fair enough, doesn't it?

If I were being more positive, though, I could suggest that these schemes are taking place now because the council's managers operate in the same way that most people do when faced with a deadline; they leave things until the last possible minute to start and then finish just in time.

Whatever the reason, there are several hundred metres of improved roads all around my neighbourhood and, as a cyclist I value it because it will make my riding in the summer a bit faster and a lot smoother and more comfortable. If they hadn't done it no value would have been created but the question is, would more value have been created if they spent the money on something else?

A practitioner's experience

CIPFA_September_2011_for_web.mov Watch on Posterous

It's been ages since I last wrote a post for this blog. The last one I write mentioned I would talking at a couple of events organised by CIPFA.  I was asked to talk about my experience of making budget savings and that meant I spent much of my time pointing out what doesn't work. That said, I think the sessions went well. I certainly received nice feedback.

I've made a small QuickTime movie of the slides I used for those sessions in case anyone wants to see them or even download them.

I will try to get back into the swing of writing on this blog more often since there is plenty happening in terms of public sector finance as organisations face up to reducing their budgets for 2012/13. Perhaps I'll write about that next.