Sometimes the game of politics actually does good for people.
The NHS is facing yet another crisis with news that senior directors are spending lavishly on fine dining and first class travel while patients are stuck in an endless queue to see doctors.
Let’s rewind the clock to 2010, when the Conservatives came to power. At the time, our new political masters decided to put distance between themselves and history, by publishing the expenditure data of the previous Labour government.
Subsequently, hundreds of articles were published detailing the wasteful spending across central and local government. And, to be honest, we fuelled the debate after we helped journalists get access to and analyze the data released by HMRC that year.
The saying, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” has particular meaning at the moment now that David Cameron is on the defence with his new head of the health service, Simon Stevens, trying to gain control of a potentially damaging crisis for all involved in the management of the National Health Service.
The issue started with The Telegraph: after it made numerous Freedom of Information requests, data was published that revealed nine health officials spent almost £200,000 last year on fine dining, taxi fares and hotels at up to £500 a night.
Stevens then was reactively moved into action, announcing a moratorium on lavish spending. This was a smart public relations move. However, such announcements will not change the NHS from becoming more transparent and accountable to taxpayers.
This can only start when the NHS publishes spending information over £500 online – an act that The Department for Communities and Local Government asked all local councils and fire and rescue authorities in England to do several years ago.
The release of NHS spending data isn’t a difficult task – the only thing stopping transparency is politics. The technology such as spend analytics exists, so that if all NHS trusts were mandated to publish all spending information over £500 online, it could be accomplished by the end of the year.
The value of publishing NHS spending isn’t just accountability of taxpayer money - though it’s important. The most important benefit is evolving the NHS so it becomes a world-class, efficiently-run organization ready for the future.
The net result would be massive savings. For example, according to a Bumper Book of Government Waste a report published in July 2013 by The TaxPayer’s Alliance; the NHS lost £1.2 billion as a result of clinical negligence. This unaccounted spending (due to poorly followed financial management practices) can only stop when spend data is made available to NHS employees (with oversight from the public) responsible for properly running our trusts.
The question is whether the political elite, who have been managing the wasteful expenditure for a long time, are ready for the transparency that is so common in well run private sector procurement organizations. Of course, in many instances, the government will need to invest in technologies that have been proven to be effective outside the Public Sector rather than continue to purchase the same old overpriced and ineffective solutions, based on ill-informed and subjective advice. Only by using appropriate tools can the NHS and the Cabinet Office stand a chance of delivering on their promises of transparency and accountability.
In the meantime, we will continue to wait in queues in hospitals and at the GP’s surgery until the penny drops.