Blair sees no end to public service reform

Public service reform will continue but in the future it should be self-sustaining and not require any “prodding and pushing” from government, Tony Blair said today.

The prime minister told a conference in London that the health, education and transport sectors must adapt to a changing world and changing aspirations of users – otherwise, the public would no longer accept continued major investment.

He said change must come from within the public services themselves, and called on ministers to back officials in experimenting with new ways of working – however, he rejected suggestions that the government had been using officials as scapegoats.

Conservative leader David Cameron will later today call on cabinet ministers to accept responsibility for their failures, in particularly those that led home secretary John Reid to admit his department was “not fit for purpose”.

“When I hear ministers bashing bureaucrats, or declaring their departments are not fit for purpose, I wish they’d have the decency to admit that very often it’s their policies that are at fault, not the people who work for them,” he will said.

But Mr Blair hit back at what he described as a “superficial way in which to conduct the debate about public services”, in saying who was to blame for problems that arose.

“The truth is we all of us have a common desire to improve the services we offer, so I don’t really think that is the issue. The issue is how we do it,” he said.

The prime minister told delegates at the public service conference that given the vast amount of money invested, the public needed to see that it was having an affect – what he described as a “basic deal – investment for results”.

“I know that if having put in this extra money we can’t show clearly and demonstrably that the service has got radically better then the consent from the public that’s necessary for the extra money is in jeopardy,” Mr Blair said.

There had been improvements, he insisted, citing standards in primary schools and falling NHS waiting times, but he noted: “All of them have been through reform and that’s why it needs to be continued and extended.”

Attempts to introduce choice into the health and education sectors has been fiercely opposed by many professionals and people on the political left, who argue principles of competition that apply in the business world cannot be applied to public services.

Today, Mr Blair said it was obvious there were differences between the private and public sectors, but he warned of the “great pitfall” of assuming that this justified inefficient and wasteful public services.

“The danger is we use the obvious truth to ignore the fact that in many respects public services do indeed operate like business, and in doing so confuse the ethos of the public services with the vested interest of keeping things as they are,” he said.

Mr Blair added: “With the best will in the world, change and reform within the public sector is going to be a continual process – you’re not going to get to the state where you say, that’s it.

“The real challenge for us is how we get to the point where structures are sufficiently clear that the capacity to innovate is there within the public service and doesn’t need continual prodding and pushing from the government to do it.”

The government had begun to shift away from central targets, Mr Blair said – “that day is now gone” – to giving frontline staff more freedom to innovate for themselves. This was the only way to ensure public services would continue to adapt in the future, he insisted.