in Politics

The cost of government

Two stories recently have left me wondering how much people really think about how much we spend governing this country.

The first was the news that Cambridge City Council are to buy iPads for councillors in a bid to cut down on paper.

The second the continuing battle to ‘save’ election night.

Of course Cambridge immediately attracted the ire of the Taxpayers’ Alliance who are always willing to jump on the band-wagon of condemnation. But before assuming this was just a way of councillors treating themselves to a new gadget did anyone do the sums?

I can see merit in it. I shudder to think how much paper I get through as a councillor, endless agendas, minutes and notes that are foisted on me by the town hall. While I’m a little sceptical at their suggestion of council agendas that are over 1,300 pages long just glancing at my in-tray I can see two sets of agenda papers that must weigh in around 300-400 pages together, and that’s fairly typical.

And it’s not just the cost of the paper (which on its own isn’t that expensive) but also the cost of printing and then transport – since moving agendas electronically is a lot easier and far more environmentally friendly than by car, van or bus.

None of this covers the potential benefits that a more convenient solution would bring. Being able to carry all the council papers may result in more effective councillors, able to make use of those spare moments because they can easily carry all their papers with them in an iPad rather than a trolley.

Do all these benefits outweigh the cost of an iPad every four years? I don’t know. I can play devil’s advocate and suggest they do, or go for a knee-jerk condemnation, but wouldn’t it be better to form a judgment based on some solid facts?

And that brings me to election night, where I’m not seeing the same condemnation of those in favour of election night by the Daily Mail and Taxpayers Alliance.

Now I quite happen to like election night. But I can see the point of those councils that want to wait until the next day. The quote in The Times article sums it all up for me: “We are not providers of entertainment; we are servants of democracy.” And he is right. I’ve argued before that perhaps election night isn’t the most important thing in the world. Political anoraks (like me) may love it. But does it really matter it the results have to wait a day. If speed was really all that important we should surely be going for electronic voting.

The fact is that elections are enormously expensive. Councils have to pay for room hire for all those polling stations. Then have to pay people to man them (it’s getting on for a 17 hour day if you are working in one). Then have to pay for all the logistics. Then have to pay people to stay up late counting bits of paper.

Aside from the overtime costs of election night it’s worth considering other aspects. Is 2am really the best time of day for democracy to be decided, which tired and bad-tempered candidates and agents arguing with equally tired returning officers? It’s not as if the new MPs have to be sworn in at 9am the next day.

And who, really, honestly, cares so much that they want to see the results coming in overnight. I would still contend that it’s only the political anoraks.

It’s fun, and I enjoy it. And tradition can be a good thing, our lives are punctuated by traditions that give it colour and meaning. But we have to recognise that traditions carry a price tag. If we are going to quibble over the cost of iPads that will arguably have a positive environmental impact and may well save money we must also ask if we think the huge cost of overnight counting is worth it to get results a few hours earlier.

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