Blog : Posts tagged with 'spending cuts'

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Slash, slash, slash

In which spending cuts may be a good thing


Following on from yesterday’s post about government spending cuts: there is, of course, one thing that would save quite a bit more money than freeing up some unused phone numbers. Regular readers of this blog will – especially if they were regular readers about a year ago – be very bored of me droning on about the West Of England Partnership‘s* ongoing guided busway scheme, which consists essentially of turning former and current railway alignments such as the Bristol-Bath Railway Path or the Bristol Harbour Railway into private roads for the exclusive use of First Group, at public cost. Rather high public cost, at that, as for any road scheme; and the first phase of the project would have no purpose other than to replace the current Ashton park-and-ride services with new, less useful, park-and-ride services from the same car park. Follow this link to read more.

Well, the local press has suddenly noticed that cancelling this scheme might be a nice easy way to cut the Department for Transport’s budget down a bit; and other local bloggers have had similar news on another poorly-thought-out local transport scheme. That big hole in the government budget, it appears, is suddenly going to mean no money for new roads, whether that be a replacement for Hartcliffe Way, or paving over the Harbour Railway so that bus routes 903 and 352 can avoid Hotwells Road.**

Reading that Evening Post article highlights, really, how pointless the guided busway scheme is. It goes to the new museum, an entire ten minutes walk from the Centre. It goes to the new football stadium site – as, er, do the existing park and ride buses. How many people want to get the bus between the two?

You might also notice a quote from Councillor Hopkins in that article. “An alternative might be a much cheaper ultra-light rail system, which was tried out on a short stretch of Bristol’s dockside several years ago.” He’s referring to a machine called the Parry People Mover, a small lightweight railcar powered by a flywheel that gets charged up at stops. I don’t see it happening, either. Parry People Movers have been tried at various sites, including the Bristol Harbour railway, but they’ve never seemed to last very long except for one location, Stourbridge (West Mids), a very short line with no intermediate stops. They need a railway line to run on, and reinstating the railway to Ashton Gate then extending it to Ashton Vale would be as expensive, probably, as building a road. Similarly, you couldn’t extend a Parry People Mover line into the city: you’d have to lay tramlines, for one thing, and if you were doing that, you may as well go with a real tram that doesn’t have to wait for a 5- or 10-minute recharge at each stop.

So: a short-for-cash government means no new buses and no new roads. In the long run, no new public transport is a Bad Thing; but new roads, public or private, always mean more traffic, higher emissions, and more oil used up. Hopefully, an enforced pause will mean we can wait for a while, until we can design a transport scheme that’s actually useful, not just one that’s easy.

* I do wonder sometimes what other local councils, like, say, Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall think of the CUBA local authorities claiming the name “West of England” for themselves and themselves alone.

** Because that, essentially, is all that first phase of the “Bus Rapid Transit” scheme, for all the work it needs, amounts to.

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Snip, snip, snip

In which we reveal that there really are hundreds of government helplines that nobody ever phones – but cutting them won’t actually have any effect


Today’s big news story: the government has started on its grand crusade to save money and thereby rescue the nation. Whether it will work remains to be seen, of course. I was intrigued, though, by one assertion which I heard on the news this morning: the government will save money by cutting back on call centres and helplines, because there are, apparently, many many government helplines which have barely even received a single call.*

Which sounds, on the face of it, shocking. Hundreds of phone lines that have never taken a call? Surely there must be warehouses full of call-centre staff sitting waiting for the phone to ring, sitting with their feet up reading magazines and flicking balls of paper at each other, because they have hundreds of phone lines but no calls to take?

Er, no. Despite the image put across there, it is completely false. I know this because: well, I have worked for such phone lines. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of government-funded phone numbers that have never, ever taken a call. That’s because that’s how marketing people like it. The total extra cost of it, per phone line, is peanuts – maybe it gets into whole tens of pounds if you add up absolutely all the figures, but that’s about it.

This is how it works. When the government’s marketing people** think they might want to run a new advertising campaign, they buy up a block of phone numbers, 0800, 0845, or whatever. Then, they produce their TV adverts, print adverts, leaflets, whatever: and each one gets a different phone number on it. All of these numbers will point to the same team – who will usually be already handling a similar type of helpline – and, it’s true, someone does have to go through a spreadsheet of phone numbers and route them to the right call centre. It’s not tricky work. When a call comes in, the hard-worked call-centre staff look at their screen, and make a note of which number it came in on.*** That information all gets collated, filed, and sent back to the government marketeers, who will graph it all carefully and say “ooh, Leaflet 72B didn’t work very well, it only got half the calls-per-leaflet of Leaflet 72C.”

The reason they do it this way is: it gives them reliable data, not data that relies on the caller’s memory. If you actually ask the caller where they saw the advert, then a) it annoys them, and b) they can’t remember. Even if they think they can remember, they can’t remember. If you say “can you remember what you were watching when you saw it,” you’d be amazed how many people will tell you, in all sincerity, that they saw your advert in the middle of Eastenders. But, on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots and lots of phone numbers that have been bought up in readiness, but which don’t get used; they’re there, just in case more numbers are needed. Having them sitting and programmed-in to the phone network, though, doesn’t really hurt. It certainly wouldn’t save the government money if they weren’t there. Indeed, I’m sure that a marketing expert would argue that it wastes money. An advert that doesn’t get a response, after all, is an advert wasted; and if you’re going to pay for a prime-time ad slot, or to print x million leaflets of your latest advertising wonder, you will want to know what sort of response rate it’s getting. The less accurate the data you’re getting back is, the bigger the risk that you’re pouring your ad budget down the drain.

In the long term, a hurried cut in the wrong place could cost you millions further down the line. So: sometimes, something that looks like a simple saving isn’t one. Especially when it’s something that’s hardly a big saving at all. There are indeed many government-owned phone numbers that have never, once, been called. That doesn’t mean they’re costing us anything to have, though; and it doesn’t mean that somehow the government is doing something wrong, that it’s set all these call centres up then forgotten to tell anyone; or that it’s set up lines that nobody wants to call. Those people, waiting for you to ring, are already busy enough.

* This would have been on Today at some point, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I can’t really find any news stories online that refer to this particular claim, apart from this one in the Shropshire Star; The Guardian refers to it more obliquely.

** The Central Office of Information, who sound slightly Soviet but are really the government’s advertising and marketing arm. They are the people who sit between the media, the advertising agencies and the call centre companies on the one hand, and the government departments who want to put their message across on the other; whether it be an NHS public health campaign like “don’t get swine flu”, HMRC trying to get you to send your tax return in on time, or the MoD trying to get people to join up.

*** Well, it will be some sort of code like “Dept. F Line B2″, but it means the same thing.

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More seriously…

In which there is some serious election stuff to talk about


Despite yesterday’s post, I do still indeed live in a safe Labour seat which is still a safe Labour seat. As predicted, shifting my vote in any direction would have made zero difference to the electoral outcome. And, as I implied yesterday, we live in a country where the majority of voters don’t seem to support the agenda of the largest party, partly because, I suspect, this election has been driven by negative pressure: people voting to try to stop Outcome A, rather than to cause Outcome B.

A couple of things have occurred to me, about the election result, over the past two days. Firstly, this parliament – however long it lasts – is going to be a very bad parliament for individuality of representation. In other words, MPs are going to get hardly any chance to vote conscientiously. They’re rarely going to get to express an opinion, and they’re never going to get a chance to represent their constituency over their party. Unless, of course, the government whips aren’t going to worry about losing votes, or the opposition whips aren’t going to worry about winning every vote they can, the whole of parliament is going to be reined in very tightly, and the whips will always expect party allegience to triumph over everything else.

Secondly, there’s lots in the news right now about polling station chaos, voters being turned away, ballot papers running out, and so on. And this can, really, only be down to one subject which has been avoided as an election issue: local government budgets. They are, in most parts of the country, pared down to their absolute minimums; and the constant shaving-off of any extraneous costs is inevitably going to hit elections. Councils, trying to save a little cash, will have cut down on polling staff; that inevitably limits the throughput of each polling station. They might have trimmed their ballot printing runs, figuring that 100% turnout is never going to happen. Unfortunately, the more slack you trim, the less space there is if you’re wrong, and we end up with a system which can’t cope with 4,000 more voters per constituency.* If we’d had the same turnout as 2001 or 2005, then maybe most seats would have coped; but that, to be honest, was never likely to happen. If council budgets keep getting frozen, the same problems are bound to happen next time too.

* The figure there comes from Sheffield Hallam, one of the constituencies that reported trouble, which reported a 5.8% turnout increase, up to 51,135 or just under 74%.

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