One measure of a political party’s trajectory is how it deals with its electoral vulnerabilities, those weaknesses in its appeal that show up in opinion polls and focus groups. Confident parties on the way up confront the problems, weak parties on the way down brush the bad news under the carpet. That’s why the Conservative conference seemed to me to be more successful than Labour’s. The Tories went to Manchester knowing that a key vulnerability was the charge of a lack of substance, but after a week of announcements, including George Osborne’s public spending hit list, the charge had been buried. The opinion polls suggest the Conservatives may have lost a couple of percentage points for their candour but, when it comes to the real choice next spring, this may prove a price worth paying.
Even before their conference one of the Conservatives’ big ideas was ‘the post bureaucratic state’. This is David Cameron writing last March: ‘What is this idea so big, so bold and so wide in its scope? Well, I can describe it in the terms we've been using for several years and explain that we want to usher in a new post-bureaucratic age, where we bring together the opportunities of the information revolution and the deepest values of Conservatism to create a massive transfer of power from central government and its agencies to individuals and local communities’.
Critics of the Conservatives have questioned what the idea really amounts to. Do Michael Gove’s plans to make it easier for parents to set up their own schools, and Andrew Lansley’s to put the central management of the NHS at arm’s length, really represent a fundamental shift in the way government works?
But now the flagship Conservative Council of Barnet (the old stamping ground of Margaret Thatcher) is putting the principles of the post bureaucratic state at the heart of its corporate strategy. The starting point – which chimes with our own thinking here at the RSA – is the lives of the people themselves. The council aims to develop a much deeper and more nuanced understanding not only through conventional methods of public engagement such as a citizens' panel and customer forums, but through ethnographic research into the day to day lives of its most needy citizens. Barnet also plans an integrated and holistic assessment process which provides a fuller picture of the clients (their capabilities and their preferences as well as their needs) which can be used by a variety of council services and, possibly, in time, by other local services too.
This information provides the basis for a strategy of personalisation involving greater use of individual budgets and client case workers, a role which the council describes as ‘akin to a life coach’. These coaches would be ‘recruited because of their own set of experiences and resilience, which would over time replace the plethora of professionals from different services that those in disadvantage currently have contact with’. Crucially, these workers, who would hold multi agency budgets on behalf of clients, would not be public service professionals but recruited from local communities on either a paid or volunteer basis.
The overall aims of the Barnet strategy are to move from a responsive to a preventive approach (a principle which underlies the restructuring of the council’s strategic capacity around multi-disciplinary project teams), to empower citizens and last, but not least, to save money while improving outcomes.
Barnet’s approach, which is due to be confirmed at the Council Executive on Wednesday, is not uncontroversial. In the short term, rationalisation of central functions will lead to job losses. While the council sees allowing citizens to choose to pay more for better services as an important aspect of personalisation, others will see it leading to second class services for those who can’t afford the fast track. If this local version of the post bureaucratic state is seen to work it could be the blueprint for Conservative strategy nationally and in other local authorities. Ironically, the biggest challenge to Barnet may come from a David Cameron Government. For the authority’s bold approach to social need to pay off will take several years but whether this strategy can survive in a context of deep public sector cuts remains to be seen.