The government's ambitious public services white paper contains little that's entirely new – but could this actually be its main strength?
By Tom Gash
If we've learnt one thing from the government's faltering attempts to radically reform the NHS, it's that nobody likes surprises. The coalition failed to fully test its reforms with policymakers and professionals, resulting in public and practitioner resistance that led to the plans being first delayed, then substantially revised.
So it must surely be a good thing that there were few surprises in government's most recent white paper on public service reform published this afternoon. The overall narrative is remarkably well-rehearsed, with David Cameron's mission to "replace bureaucratic accountability with democratic accountability" having been echoed in the speeches of his cabinet ministers for months. The most concrete proposals within the white paper have, for the most part, been announced previously. New locally elected officials - check. More powers for community representatives – check. "Payment by results" – check. New providers of public services, including 'mutuals' – check. Increased professional autonomy – check. Greater transparency over public sector performance – check. Slight differences of emphasis aside (for example, a focus on finding ways of enshrining the right to choose services in legislation) this is the government's agenda as outlined by the prime minister a year ago in his first speech to the civil service.
Even those things that are newer are couched as ideas for development rather than faits accomplis. As David Cameron put it in his speech this afternoon "[we are] looking at giving more local councils their own funding streams too".
That this white paper looks a little green is in part the curse of its subject matter. Several past governments have attempted to summarise their approach to public services and their outputs have also tended to get caught between two unappetising courses: either painfully shoe-horning previous announcements into some form of coherent narrative or highlighting 'cutting edge ideas' picked up by ministers on their travels and civil servants listening to the most self-promoting local authority leaders. Either way, the result is usually a rather protracted, painful and below-the-radar PR exercise which achieves little concrete benefit – apart from a little cross-fertilisation of ideas and a reinforced sense that the government does actually have a 'big picture' vision for public services.
But greenness is clearly also a blessing. If there is one thing guaranteed to raise a collective groan from policymakers and practitioners it's a radical new announcement dreamt up at ten to midnight by a junior political adviser because a white paper "looked a little thin on concrete substance". Did Tony Blair's never-implemented promise that yobs would be "frogmarched to the cashpoint" fit into this category we wonder? Limiting the number of ill-thought-through commitments avoids painful political backtracking later and gives government departments the time they need to work up policies with those who will have to implement policies. It also increases chances for creating a public mandate for change and allows policies to be continually adapted and improved.
Such flexibility is certainly needed for, while little in it is new, the open public services white paper's aims are remarkably ambitious. As the paper partly acknowledges, there are big questions to work through. Will the public really allow school or hospital closures, which are the natural consequences of increased reliance on public sector markets? Can government work out ways of paying providers for the results they achieve, even in areas (such as reoffending rates) where outcomes are hard to measure, difficult to put a value on and affected by a wide range of factors (such as wider crime rates) that are beyond the service providers control? And will ministers be able to resist the temptation to intervene in policy areas that no longer fall entirely within their purview?
Addressing such questions will not be straightforward but doing so is essential for the health of public services. As the country implements the largest ever expenditure reductions in recent history, it is simply inconceivable that public services can improve without significant reform. Equally, if the government cannot or will not spend heavily when things go wrong, it is arguably more important than ever to get these reforms right.
Tom Gash is programme director (Public Service Innovations) at the Institute for Government.
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