The Spending Challenge

Launched last week, the government has already received over 60,000 suggestions to the Spending Challenge. On the face of it, it is a great innovation—the people who best know how to improve a process are the people who carry it out so why not ask them. However, if the 31 ideas highlighted by the government here are anything to go by then HM Treasury has not got much to work on. Centralising the stationery cupboards in every public sector building is not going to save very much (and may perversely cost more because staff have to spend time travelling to and from the central cupboard whenever they need a new box of staples). Perhaps that's why the government has added a disclaimer that, "They are not ideas that have been shortlisted for further work or implementation but they will all be considered individually alongside the other 60,000 ideas that have been put forward."

Some of the ideas are more promising in terms of delivering savings on the scale that are being sought. Moving to open source software for instance. Large public bodies will spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for licences for Microsoft Office products whilst there are now open source alternatives that are free and offer the ability to inter-operate with Word and Excel files and so on. 

The trouble is, realising these enormous savings is not without problems. First, there is the comfort factor. It is much more risky for a chief information officer to promote a change to open source software than stick with the status quo. To paraphrase an old term, no-one got fired for buying Microsoft.

Second, in the past the threat of moving to open source software has prompted Microsoft into negotiating special terms with the public sector. Indeed, the Office of Government Commerce negotiated a 3-year deal in 2004 that got all public sector bodies a 50% discount on licence fees. There is now in place the Public Sector Agreement 09 to encourage public sector bodies to continue with Microsoft products. (And Microsoft also have a page debunking open source.)

Anyway, someone is going to have to sift through the 60,000 ideas (though presumably the number is still rising) and produce some sort of response to the public on what is going to happen with their ideas or else the credibility of this sort of consultation will be badly dented.