Costing the Uncostable

And so the election is almost upon on us. Due to pressure of other things I’ve let this slip by me a bit, merely picking up some headlines and soundbites from websites and the radio. Many of the criticisms of the politicians seem to be about lack of detail (generally financial) and that the plans are not specifically costed or that the politician was not able to remember the figures on air. The examples are seized on, of course, because they make good copy, few things being more attractive for many of us than watching a powerful person squirming (I have always found public embarrassment unwatchable and eventually had to stop going to stand-up comedy where I wasn’t certain the performer would  go down well, but that’s another story).

I think we expect far too much from politicians, the more so at election times. It’s like a huge Santa’s grotto with a lot more on the lists than in the sack. The parties are expected to come up, at very short notice on this occasion, with eye-catching plans and with costs that everyone will expect to be accurate. We make our own demands which get fed into the party machines in ways ranging from social-media posts to the employment of lobbyists. The result must be an awful confusion of ideas. Costing even one very simple job like writing, designing and printing a booklet, is full of uncertainties and budget and expenditure rarely co-incide. Some of these political plans are so complex and off the wall that an estimate can be little more than inspired guesswork.

The internet has probably made this situation worse. Civil servants must be rushed off their feet at this time so I can imagine a panicky politician sitting at home one evening sweating at the prospect of an 8am radio interview the following morning and realising that s/he doesn’t have the costs for a particular aspect of a policy (say the extra funds needed to regulate zoos) to hand. (The rest of this paragraph may be unfair to the hours of preparation that I’m sure go into any announcement but some policies do appear to have been made up on the spot.) Google is invoked and suddenly a seeming infinity of statistics, tables and graphs swims onto the screen, most seeming in direct contradiction to each other. Figures are jotted down but make little sense. Eventually – and we’re now getting close to midnight – a sum is found or created which looks right and, perhaps as importantly, sounds good. It’s only later that it becomes clear that this contained a basic error: not counting private zoos, for instance, or (a very common mistake) mixing up statistics for England and Wales with those for the whole of the UK.

Take one example, free school meals for primary-school pupils. On the face of it, this seems very easy. Multiply the number of primary school pupils by the estimated cost of providing a meal and that by the number of school days and there’s your answer. I looked at two sites, The Guardian’s report on the costing debate for this policy and a report by the Department of Education and ran into an immediate problem. The first spoke of 3.6m pupils, the second of 4.6m. Also, the number of primary-school children is increasing each year and the figures vary on that as well. A quick search suggests that this is variously 121,000 over the last year or 750,000 by 2025. The second figure is actually smaller than the first but has the advantage (if that’s the desired effect) of seeming to be larger. Already, considerations of presentation are intruding. Getting back to the figures, we have by any estimate an uncertain number of pupils as our starting point. Let’s come back to that.

Then there’s the cost of a meal. This surely depends on a huge number of things. For schools with existing in-house catering this will cost a lot less than for those with none, particularly for those in a remote area. And what constitutes a breakfast, anyway. A full fry-up? An organic flapjack and a glass of milk? A packet of Haribos? A huge debate involving nutritionists – some with connections with a particular type of food – the Department of Health and Jamie Oliver thus looms. How can the meal be costed until we know what it is to contain?

As for the number of school days, that seems to be quite easy: 190 seems to fixed by law. However, some pupils might already have had breakfast. Also, the primary-school absenteeism rate is about 4.4%. Neither of these can be known in advance. These margins of error would result either in wastage or some pupils not being fed, both of which would lead to media firestorms: Neither Government Starving our Kids nor School Food Waste Shock are attractive headlines for a minister to read over his or her own breakfast. 

Given all these variables, I don’t know how anything can be costed to an extent that the figures will bear any relation to reality, even if anyone ever works out what the reality is. My best guess for this breakfast policy, based on the DoE pupil figures and 25p a meal, is £190m. The Conservatives estimated £60m. The figures mentioned in The Guardian article said this might be as high as £400m. This nearly 700% variation suggests differences in the demand or the food content of the different assumptions so profound as to make any future discussion completely meaningless. Whatever figure is agreed, the political spokesperson then has to remember it and recite it at the right time in answer to the right question. Then we, the public, have to remember the figure and also all the other ones we’ve been told for the other policies and add them all up and see if the result comes to more or less than the country’s income. Then, three days later, the party leader appears on TV and says that that pledge has been dropped, or modified, or will be means tested, or subject to a robust review, or re-costed, or out-sourced, or dumped onto local councils or provided by ‘Big Society’ volunteers.

If the policy is eventually introduced, at a later date there might be a question in the House. An utterly different figure for the cost will probably be mentioned which, on examination, will be the result of some accounting sleight of hand, part of the funding being taken from another existing budget, unexpected start-up costs or a host of other factors. As everyone will have forgotten the original cost anyway this won’t matter, particularly as the policy will by then have run into a number of other problems. It will gradually be watered-down and perhaps abandoned. Then, perhaps two elections later when the memory has faded, it will be trotted out again as if it were a new idea.

The real nightmare is if the new policy demands a major IT project for it is then the costs and timings really start to unravel. Only defence procurement seems to have a more secretive and elastic way of measuring both these factors. Even the simplest IT project can go into overspend before it’s even been launched. As no one apart from the people involved in designing these have any idea what’s going on, control is virtually impossible. Two things often happen: either the system is launched but is immediately found now to be irrelevant to the changed needs of the policy, or it doesn’t work and has to be abandoned. I suspect that IT costs are rarely included in those for a new policy, partly because there’s a hope that new IT won’t be needed and partly because, if it is, its cost and timescale are beyond anyone’s power to estimate. You can’t help feeling that what is sometimes needed is an order placed for 4 million card indexes, a decent number of filing cabinets and 100 ball point pens.

All this may seem cynical: but, if so, it’s not intended to be cynical about individual politicians, the vast majority of whom wish to enter that world for principled reasons (however much life in Westminster might erode these). I also think that we are very lucky in this country to have a system of government that is neither systemically corrupt (although it’s systemically defective, particularly in the way MPs are elected and the confusions about whose interests they represent) nor systemically inefficient (although it can never hope to produce all the results that are promised).

A big problem for politicians is that this country is now very socially and economically diverse and we all want different things. In 1945, for example, Atlee was able to frame a national welfare policy that directly addressed the needs of the majority of the population. At other times, with huge numbers of people working in identifiable sectors such as mining, farming or clerical jobs, it was easier to create something that would, in a few words, chime with a good chunk of the voters. The traditional loyalties and aspirations of class, though often not referred to, were assumed in a lot of the political discussions. The monopolistic nature of most products and services (when I grew up there were only three flavours of ice cream and one place you could get your phone from) meant that people were used to be confronted with very simple choices. As for getting your message across, there were a dozen newspapers, a few radio and TV stations and some local meetings at town halls. and that was it. Simple.

That’s all changed. Fewer people now see themselves as of a particular class. Many of us do several different jobs. Wealth is now measured in more subtle ways than merely a monthly income. We are all confronted with a seemingly infinite range of choices for even the simplest purchase. As a result, any one policy appeals to an increasingly small percentage of the population. We therefore need more and more new initiatives, new schemes and imaginative solutions to help plug a particular gap in the voting market identified by a focus group or, perhaps more commonly, to rectify the failings of an existing policy. As for communication methods, we’re bombarded at all sides with more information than we can currently process, some of which may or may not have been made up on the spot.

The problem is not that politicians, civil servants and researchers are mendacious idiots but rather that we still expect too much from them. We expect too much because, particularly at election time, they are forced to offer us too much. So the vicious cycle deepens and leads to an increasing sense of disenchantment when these new policies either don’t work or aren’t popular or cost five times more than was promised.

More honest would be to say ‘We’d like to do this. We think it’s a good idea. If I’m going to be honest, we haven’t a clue what it’s going to cost and if I told you a figure it would be a lie or a guess. We’ll do our best to make it work but it may not. People may not want it. If that’s the case we’ll drop it. There’sonly one way of finding out. But we can’t change the world. We can pass as many laws and introduce as many new policies as we like but there’s no guarantee that your life will be any better in five years’ time than it is today. We’re human, we’re fallible and – despite our carefully groomed image when you see us on TV – we’re racked with doubt. Most of us are honest and trying to do the best we can in an ever-changing world. Don’t expect certainty, miracles or quick fixes. All we can say is that we’ll give it a shot with a best-guess estimate, just like you do at work when your boss asks you to write and produce a brochure on something you know nothing about and asks how much it will cost and whether it will achieve all its intended aims – You’ll say ‘I think it’ll cost about this but I can’t be sure at the moment and I’ll do it as well and as quickly as I can’. That’s all we’re saying. No one can reasonably expect more than that.’

I might well vote for someone who said that. On the other hand I, like so many people, have probably already decided who I’ll vote for and have always voted for this party regardless of what they say or promise. Perhaps we haven’t changed that much in the last 70-odd years after all.

Brian Quinn
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