It is an old saying that if you look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves. Maybe, but one might say that being focused on details means that one misses the big picture. It seems to me that this is the effect of the government's transparency policy: by enabling anyone to see details of payments for £500 swamps them with masses of data but they aren't really holding anyone to account. Accountability, you see, requires explanation as well as information (just as accounting requires words as well as numbers). Knowing what £500 was spent on does not tell you whether it was spent on the right thing. As Carnegie and West put it: “a hospital that is well managed in financial terms cannot be presumed to be meeting a community’s needs for health care.”
This is the time of year when (in countries where the public sector financial year ends on 31 March) public managers try to avoid underspending their budgets. Stationery cupboards are stocked, laptops replaced, small, low priority--but quick--projects are hastily completed. It might not be right; it might not be good value for money; but it happens.
This March madness has always been a feature of my working life. I'm sure it happens in private businesses, too, except there the drive might be to record sales before the year end rather than costs (depending whether the manager has made too little profit or too much).
The incentive to do this is a version of jam today rather than jam tomorrow. When I was a director of finance we introduced a system of carrying forward budget under-spends and over-spends as a way of encouraging managers to take a longer term view and spend money more wisely. I think it worked at the time but that was because managers and directors trusted me and the top politicians to honour the system. Given the pressure on public sector organisations if I were a budget manager I would be sceptical about whether my under-spending would be made available to me in the new financial year. I might take the view, better to spend the money now on something I'm certain about than hope I could spend the money on something better in a month or two.
It may not be the right thing to do, but who can blame them?