Public Budget disagreements are far better than the secretive norm
What would you do if you have a really important set of decisions to make? Decisions that will have a direct impact on the lives of millions of people, on the future of the country and – although of course you are too saintly to think of this – on your own future career prospects.
Locking yourself away in secret and deciding all the key decisions on your own before presenting them to the rest of the world as a fait accompli is not the route you will find any management textbook advising you to take. And with good reason, because it is a dreadful approach.
Dreadful, but also the traditional British way of drawing up the annual Budget, especially when Gordon Brown was still prowling Whitehall. He was even unwilling to involve the Prime Minister in Budget planning when he was chancellor – a view that he quickly revised when he replaced Tony Blair as PM, of course.
The love of secrecy and solo decision-making did not start with Brown; it has a much longer heritage. Hugh Dalton famously had to resign as chancellor for revealing a few details of his Budget in 1947 which as a result appeared in a newspaper – shock horror – before he had finished speaking in the House of Commons.
By comparison with losing your job for some details getting out a few minutes early, the coalition government’s approach to having highly publicised Budget discussions starting weeks in advance is from a very different world.
A different world, but also a better world. More widespread discussion and debate almost always makes for better decision making than one isolated person, or even small team, trying to save the world solo.
Of course, the motivation for the public pre-Budget debate between the coalition partners is in part political: both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are looking to carve out a distinct political message whereby they can claim credit for the measures their supporters will like.
In this case politicians being politicians is good for the rest of us – as it also means not only is the public better informed (crucial to making a meaningful choice in the ballot box) but also that far more people have a chance to stick their oar in, knowing what topics and what arguments are most relevant.
There is still a strong Treasury grip on the process, with two of the four ministers in the ‘Quad’ meetings that are making the key final decisions being from the Treasury itself - George Osborne and Danny Alexander, who along with Nick Clegg and David Cameron comprise the quartet.
But it is a weaker and more public grip. In other words, it is better.