Age of austerity, the dangers of throw away sound bites

No matter the newspaper, website, radio station or TV channel, the term "age of austerity" is everywhere and already over used; but the real problem is not so much its omnipresence, but the changed meaning that has been imbued upon it. Age of austerity has become the bywords for spending cuts, as if three words make it easier.

The Oxford Dictionary that sits at the CIO desks defines austerity thus: severe or strict in appearance or manner and lacking comforts, luxuries or adornment.

I'm sure when David Cameron used the phrase in a speech in April of last year he knew the true meaning of austerity; you would hope so considering his educational background at Eton.

In the same speech, Cameron called for things to be done differently. But if the rhetoric gets too caught up a desperate need to make cuts then essentially nothing will change, other than a series of services will get worse.

It is pretty clear that paying off the debt incurred to keep the banks afloat has to be done, just as the last government had no alternative other than to dig deep into its pockets and keep the banking sector breathing. So now we have a government that has to pay the debt back, but must do so whilst taking the opportunity to look at things afresh.

This was outlined clearly today with the debate in the news about Home Office cuts and how they will affect the police. Sir Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector told the BBC this morning that it was an opportunity to have a "total redesign" of shift patterns and the way the police operate, which he says could save 12 per cent of the annual policing budget. In the same article it is revealed that 200 trained police officers work in Human Resources. The article goes on to detail how police forces in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire are merging functions, including HR, how procurement of vehicles can be improved and major savings can be made from reviewing shift patterns.

Every organisation has to reappraise how it does things at times, and the current economic and political climate is an opportunity to review many process. As you'll read in the next issue of the CIO magazine and online, the CIO of Surrey County Council and his partners in the newly formed SE7 strategic local government group are using local authority cuts as an opportunity to do things very differently, cutting the number of software licence deals they have, sharing applications and services and even questioning if they really need as many datacentres as they currently operate. Spend some time with CIO Paul Brocklehurst and you see a man who is positive about the challenges he faces and plans to tackle them head on.

Brocklehurst, and his CIO peers both in the public and private sector are advocates of doing things differently, challenging the operational nature of the organisation. CIOs seem to have it in their nature.

If David Cameron is to live up to all he promised in his speeches of a year ago, he must ensure that this Coalition Government brings about changes to the way we do things, and the budget savings that follow. It must take its influence from the CIO, assess the processes of an organisation and re-model them, use technology to make the worker and customer experience better, release the workforce to do more.

If the age of austerity becomes nothing more than a phrase for drastic cuts and reduced quality it will only lead to another change of authority that has to spend and borrow on a large scale just to get services back to a reasonable standard. The opportunity to review and improve will be lost, which is not how a CIO would approach this situation.


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