Working to make government more effective

Hybrid event

How can government ensure it learns effectively from the past in making public finance decisions?

This event discussed The Way the Money Goes: The Fiscal Constitution and Public Spending in the UK.

Conrad Smewing, Professor Hood, Gemma Tetlow, Sir Charles Bean, and Cath Haddon on stage at an Institute for Government event.
Conrad Smewing, Professor Christopher Hood, and Sir Charles Bean joined Dr Gemma Tetlow and Dr Cath Haddon.

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Governments often tackle similar issues again and again – from day-to-day matters to major challenges such as natural disasters, public health threats or global financial or security crises. So it is vital that governments learn from experience about what works – and what doesn’t – to improve the functioning of government. But extensive churn in ministers – and the civil servants who support them – means that institutional memory can be lost.

In the mid-2010s, the Treasury was grappling with how to maintain and improve public service performance as budgets were squeezed. Senior officials in the department identified the need for a review of historic evidence to ensure they understood what the experience of previous decades showed about how to manage public spending effectively The Nuffield Foundation funded a project involving the Institute of Fiscal Studies (Paul Johnson, Rowena Crawford and Ben Zaranko) and a team based at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford (Christopher Hood, Iain McLean, Maia King and Barbara Piotrowska). The task of the IFS team was to assess what happened to UK spending over 1993–2015 from the available statistics, while the Blavatnik team explored the more qualitative aspects of public spending control over the same period from a mixture of published sources, interviews and archival material – now published in book form (The Way the Money Goes: The Fiscal Constitution and Public Spending in the UK).  

Drawing on that work, this event reflected on the value – but also the challenges – of historical research on government and explore what can be learnt from past experience in the planning and control of public spending.

To discuss these questions and more, we were joined by a panel of experts: 

  • Sir Charles Bean, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and former member of the Budget Responsibility Committee at the Office for Budget Responsibility (2017–21) 
  • Mark Franks, Director of Welfare at the Nuffield Foundation 
  • Catherine Haddon, Programme Director at the Institute for Government 
  • Professor Christopher Hood, Visiting Professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University 
  • Conrad Smewing, Director General, Public Spending at HM Treasury 

The event was chaired by Dr Gemma Tetlow, Chief Economist at the Institute for Government. 

Follow us on X (formerly known as Twitter) @ifgevents and join the conversation using #IfGpublicspending.

We would like to thank the Nuffield Foundation for kindly supporting this event.

Nuffield Foundation

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