Putting the front line first


If the small type can be agreed in time, today (Monday) should see the launch of the Government’s latest paper on modernising the state. It is, in fact, the fourth such paper in the thirty or so months Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister.  While critics will question the credibility of strategies that seem to be superseded before the ink is dry, Number Ten argues that each paper builds on the previous one as part of a seamlessly evolving strategy.

For those interested in public service strategy I would recommend reading ‘Putting the front line first’ (the working title until last week at least).  Unusually, for a Government publication, it is both substantial and digestible. These are my main impressions:

* From what I understand there is are some good elements to the plan including enhancing rights and entitlements (which was the focus of Building Britain’s Future, the previous plan published in the summer), greater digital access to services, opening up Government data, and steps to devolve more power to individuals and communities. But it doesn’t knit quite together into a single powerful narrative.  Labour continues to find it hard to get heard so this is a problem.

* The plan will contain references to some very radical ideas, especially in relation to encouraging greater civic innovation. One such is the Social Impact Bond which provides investment for third sector organisations who commit to delivering long term reductions in public spending by achieving social outcomes.  When I worked in Number Ten I proposed the idea of ‘open door contestability’ (yes, I know, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue), allowing any organisation which thinks it can be more effective than the Government in tackling social problems the opportunity to do so, as long as they are wiling to be paid by results. Social Impact Bonds are an interesting way of doing just this.

* The paper will set out to shoot some Conservative foxes. Not only does it promise to reduce overall expenditure on the civil service, and commit to further cuts in central red tape, but I understand it will pledge a substantial reduction in arm’s length bodies (or ‘quangos’ as they are more usually termed).

 * Despite its radicalism in other areas I hear that the plan will continue to duck the hardest and, arguably, more important problem with Whitehall, which is simply that we have far too many ministers and quasi-ministers, all crashing around generating work and trying to get noticed. The Government admits that the number of senior civil servants has risen even as the total in Whitehall has fallen. But why?  Surely, it is in large part because each minister demands their own high level team?*

Feeding off public hostility to politicians, David Cameron has promised fewer MPs.  But while it is not obvious that the UK population is over represented, it is clearly over-governed. By failing to tackle the political overkill at the heart of Government, Number Ten has not only missed a trick but undermined the credibility of its commitment to smarter Government.

Having said which ‘Putting the Front Line First’ is more evidence that, whatever else its failings, the Brown Government is not running out of ideas. This is another way in which 2009 seems to me to be a political moment more like 1991 than 1996. (But having been told to steer clear of political musings on the RSA website, of this I will say no more.)

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