The revolutionary and the incrementalist - a modern fable - RSA

The revolutionary and the incrementalist - a modern fable


  • Enterprise
  • Institutional reform

Last night, Ed Miliband stepped on the territory of public service reform in his Hugo Young lecture. It was in fact two speeches delivered by two different voices: that of a Fabian incrementalist and a voice of radical creativity. These two voices rarely remain in harmony for long and that is the challenge Miliband now faces: the choice he will inevitably have to make if in office.

For a Fabian incrementalist, services should be refined through a mixture of better big data to enable better targeting and data would be more owned by the service user - potentially empowering them. Consultation would be extended. For example, patient groups would have a much bigger say on restructuring of local health services.

Much of this is fairly positive. Big data is a useful tool for targeting police, public health and community intervention services for instance. As a patient or relative of someone who receives social care or a parent, better individual data is very important. There is little to argue with in any of this.

Putting organised consumer voices into the structure of public services, however, is potentially deeply problematic. One of the early errors of the Coalition was to attempt to magnify organised community voice in the planning system. Let me be clear, this is not an argument against consumer, community or service user voice. It is more a concern with it when it becomes organised and defensive.

So house-building is insufficient, we don’t build enough renewable energy sources, and, in this Labour plan, local services could become stuck in a cost ineffective and poor quality mode. Have you ever seen people on the street campaigning for creative restructuring? The purpose of democracy is not simply to represent the organised; it is represent the voiceless also. Some of the voiceless are not even born – future generations matter too. We’re not allowed to use corporate analogies anymore but how would a company survive if it just sought to meet existing needs and demands? Successful and creative public services should shape demand and realise as yet unarticulated expectations.

So the incrementalist Fabian voice probably secures mild service improvements, some significant better outcomes, but potentially embeds institutional resistance and the status quo in a way that diminishes effectiveness and misses new opportunities for creative change. It leaves ‘concentrations of power’ within the public sector largely untouched. Miliband started off with a reference to T.H.Marshall. The language of ‘social rights’ was useful as the welfare state was expanded after 1945. But now, the language of ‘social rights’ is deeply unhelpful – it embeds the status quo and it is a status quo that Ed Miliband has reservations about. People will hold onto their ‘rights’ for dear life and this can stymie reform.

Counter-posed with this first, compromised voice, was a voice of radical creativity. This talked about devolution as necessary to solve questions of service delivery in a creative fashion as Whitehall simply can’t achieve it from the centre. Multiple approaches and agencies need to be brought to bear on deep-set challenges and Whitehall struggles with this. He talked about education, social care, ‘troubled family’ policy, welfare to work and crime and justice in this vein. The job of the centre is to hold local services to account in this model – a critical component of tackling inequalities of power, opportunity and income.

Alongside this, lateral relationships around public services become critical to provide support, knowledge, cooperation, and exchange. This enables, for example, parents to exchange tips on motivating or encouraging their kids, family and peer networks to be brought into addiction treatment, or those with long-term health conditions provide support for one another. Personal budget-holding is helpful in this regard too: if it works in social care why not elsewhere?

Lateral support could also work between institutions: just say childcare, Job Centres, Colleges, and local small business associations worked more closely together to target a range of issues to enable NEETs to get into work? Or to use a topical example, imagine if the agencies involved in flood defences were better aligned locally and HM Treasury financial rules didn’t block local decision-making? Many of the smart interventions provide for this type of lateral support. Devolution and lateralism are complementary in this regard.

So the second voice, of radical creativity, has an understanding of the need to radical alter and reshape power and networks. And this is potentially a more interesting direction. But why not combine the Fabian incrementalist and the radical creative? They are not opposed surely? Unfortunately, they ultimately are and the dice are loaded in favour of the Fabian incrementalist. History demonstrates this time and time again.

If your objective is equality (by which I mean the oppositie of postcode lottery), then first you fail to relinquish significant control from the centre then gradually, you grab back the small powers you have relinquished over time as service failures lead to central political responses. This is why, as is now the commonplace, almost every party is localist in Opposition but centralist in Government after a while. The Whiggish Fabian incrementalists will always see localities as agents of the central state so it is a choice unfortunately. If Ed Miliband and others who are similarly minded do not acknowledge it is a choice then local, lateral, creative solutions will soon be smothered by overbearing instead of smart accountability. There is nothing in the current thinking that devolves not only power but the authority to grab power to localities over the centre.

The Hugo Young lecture was a welcome contribution to the debate of what we should expect from the state in austere times. Its first voice sounds like a moderately better version of the status quo.  Its second voice promised something far more creative and impactful. Unless there is a clear choice between them, the second voice will become silenced by the first. That is the historical experience. Miliband has put down a marker on a more radical agenda that might be able to confront rising expectations, falling resources, and a static state. The real choice is still ahead.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .

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