CIPFA president calls for honest debate about public services


By Richard Johnstone, Public Finance

The new CIPFA president has called for a ‘proper conversation’ about the future of public services amid spending cuts in her speech to the CIPFA annual conference.

Opening the conference in London, Jaki Salisbury said that, given the scale of the current challenge to the public sector, there was a need for honest debate about the future of services, without some parts of Whitehall being protected.

Both politicians and public servants need to keep the public well informed about the impact of reductions and listen carefully to their views about how funding should be allocated and how and where cuts are made, she said.

This was critical at the current ‘unprecedented’ time, she added, when it was unclear how long the government’s austerity programme would last. Salisbury warned it could be perhaps a ‘decade or more’ before large-scale economic growth returned.

However, such an open approach required that all government spending was up for discussion and defended on its merits, she added.

The current government had decided to protect spending on health, schools and international development. However, Salisbury said that it would ‘work best if there was a proper conversation about whether schools, the NHS and international development should be priorities – rather than drawing protective red lines around them and removing them from the debate.’

This should also include discussion about the level and type of taxes used to pay for public services.

It is important to have these debates, particularly in the run-up to the general election in 2015, to give the public sector ‘a sense of where we are trying to get to, to enable our organisations to steer the right course’, she added. ‘We have to help policy makers and the public at large to understand fully what is really at stake and what the country's options and choices really are.’

There is also a need to think carefully about the risk of the pace and scale of reforms to public services. Alongside the spending reductions, local government had taken on considerable additional risk and responsibility with the localisation of business rates and council tax benefit, and the entire structure of the NHS had undergone a ‘fundamental upheaval’.

CIPFA and its members were uniquely well placed to help in the transition to these new regimes, she said, as they sat at the top table of so many of public service organisations, national and local, and played such critical roles in both the planning and execution of complex changes. Without these expert skills, particularly in strong public financial management and good governance, many organisations would be in far more difficult positions than they were currently.