The Micawber Principle of Public Sector Budgeting

Wilkins Micawber is a fictional character from Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield.  His name has become synonymous with someone who lives in hopeful expectation. This has formed the basis for the Micawber Principle, based upon his observation "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

For those readers of this blog not familiar with pre-decimal UK currency, there is an excellent currency and spending power converter available on the National Archives website. There you will discover that £19 19s 6d from 1850 would have a spending value in 2010 of £1169.14.

When it comes to the current concerns over the national debt, the numbers are considerably larger but, arguably, the Micawber principle of sound budget management still applies.

There are numerous initiatives and programmes in place to drive down the national debt over the anticipated lifetime of the current Parliament.  In terms of the role ICT can play in reducing the national debt burden, there are several  interesting strands of thought:

  • Getting more out of existing ICT investments through greater use of technologies such as virtualisation, IP communications and flexible working
  • Innovating in the delivery of public services by applying ubiquitous technology such as mobile phone and web applications to citizen services
  • Empowering individuals to manage their citizen service priorities instead of a centralised approach to determining the types of support for qualifying individuals

Mr Micawber’s approach to his perennial financial predicament was the earnest hope that "something will turn up." This is not a strategy that can be applied to reducing the national debt however.

ICT has a critical role to play in 21st century public services.  Getting the balance right between getting more from existing ICT resources and investing more to drive down the cost and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public service delivery is the challenge that lies ahead. SOCITM’s response to the recent budget and the enabling role of ICT summarises the challenge very succinctly:

Any budget or strategy that fails to acknowledge the strategically central role of IT and that does not adequately account for investment and innovation is likely to run into trouble. In a culture and society where the expectation of easily accessed, easily used, online services is growing exponentially, a public service that does not embrace, exploit and deliver to these expectations will always disappoint.

Posted by Ian

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