But who's policing criminally bad spending?

I have been asked my opinions on two separate stories in the last week that involve the police. Either example could sadly have come from almost any publicly funded body, and even more alarmingly may continue to happen unless there is fundamental change to attitudes and rewards.
The first story is about unnecessary guidance. It was revealed that police forces across the country have spent thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers’ cash to produce an extensive manual on how to ride a bike. It’s important that police officers are well prepared for crime fighting but this guide is a silly waste of time and money. There’s advice to wear lip balm, on how to avoid a sore bottom and “DO NOT PUT YOUR FEET DOWN TO SLOW DOWN YOUR CYCLE.” The Met managed to fill more than three pages with advice on what types of food to eat; lemon curd or Jaffa Cakes but not energy bars, in case you didn’t know. Some of it seems funny, but  years of pointless and wasteful spending is not a laughing matter. Politicians are now talking about how to maintain frontline policing numbers, and frankly that's where taxpayers want limited funds focused.

The idea of producing a manual centrally was scrapped in 2009 but some forces around the country have gone off and spent time compiling their own. So taxpayers are paying for different teams of people to dream up hundreds of pages of blindingly obvious advice. We have said in the past that local forces should have more responsibility for their own budgets and shouldn’t be at the behest of centralised commands from Whitehall. But that doesn’t mean that ridiculous schemes like this should be closed off from criticism. Because it’s not just the direct cost of producing this pamphlet; officers are expected to waste time reading these patronising tips, using up more time on bureaucracy when they could have been out on the road as a cycling crime fighter. The Daily Telegraph asked "are police really that stupid?" and also said “No wonder the police don't have the time to catch criminals any more: they're too busy reading the manual.” Taxpayers want their money spent on bobbies on the beat (or coppers pedalling round the streets) not pointless bureaucracy. It’s a reoccurring problem: back office staff are still dreaming up ways to look busy, rather than focusing on how to improve efficiency so we have better services and value for taxpayers’ money.

I’m not, as one cycling blogger suggested, making a stand against bicycles. I ride a bike regularly, some would say not very well, but even I don’t need someone to tell me I should consider braking when going downhill or what type of knickers to wear. The taxpayer can’t be expected to foot the bill for every whimsical idea that those who are intent on keeping the public sector expensive and unproductive can design. Police forces have to put the brakes on waste like this.

The second example is an article that was written in The Sunday Times about  how the National Policing Improvement Agency spent £400,000 on machine guns. Not every public sector body buys machine guns, but the same procurement mistakes certainly do happen in town halls round the country.
In this story a weapons wholesaler, Law Enforcement International, is suing the publicly funded National Policing Improvement Agency. The LEI says it was not given a chance to compete for the contract which is usually put up for tender; the rules say this must happen to be fair and ensure best value for taxpayers' money. And when spending almost half a million pounds, getting a discount matters. The quango NPIA admits it rushed the large purchase of weapons, writing in a letter to the Home Office that although the weapons would not be distributed until months later “this was a matter of urgency as the purchase and delivery must be completed by 31st of March.” Funny that, right at the end of the financial year. Bad procurement is rife in the public sector, as we’ve blogged many times before. The good news is this quango will be scrapped, just as we recommended in our book, How to cut spending and still win an election.

The contract should have been put out to tender as required by the rules, because public sector bodies should, in theory, always ensure they buy at the best price and give a chance for competition and ultimately the best deal for the taxpayer. But underneath this arms deal there is something much more sinister. The reality is the desire to get good value simply isn’t there because it’s someone else’s money and quango bosses don’t have the same immediate pressures or consequences as a company or an individual if they overspend. In fact it seems they have a pressure TO overspend, or at least spend all of the budget by the end of the financial year to get a bigger one next year. This is why we often see a mad dash to spend; a supermarket sweep of ill thought out spending decisions, devoid of competition or consideration. This panic buy culture, has evolved to a point where it rewards waste and spending. Public sector managers should be applauded for delivering savings, not looked down upon. The "panic buy season" is an unsustainable haemorrhaging of money that is unsustainable, not in the public’s interest and needs to be addressed.

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