Ministers are digesting the results of the Total Place pilots, 13 schemes around England which explored in depth how public money is spent locally on a particular set of outcomes. It seems that the pilots have found scope for major savings as a result, first, of the simple exercise of analysing why things are being done and whether they achieve any purpose and, second, by much greater inter-agency collaboration - for example, recognising the savings that can be made on health and social care costs by investing more earlier to help people stay in their own homes.
The results of the pilots will go towards yet another Government public service strategy (the fifth in three years) which will emerge around the time of the budget. If there is to be any chance of a disengaged and sceptical public noticing a new approach, it will have to be very bold. And so, yet again, the debate is on in Whitehall between the devolutionists and the centralists.
Of course, all the party leaders have pledged to remove power from the centre yet none so far have engaged properly with the implications such an approach would have for Whitehall, Westminster and the public at large. This means the fine words have very little credibility.
If this is to change, Whitehall needs to undertake a piece of work which has, to my knowledge, never previously been commissioned. Instead of another review of whether power should be devolved, or of what the next grudging incremental step might be, Number Ten needs to commission research which starts from the assumption of radical devolution and then explores with rigour and realism what is involved in making this happen.
What does a post devolution Whitehall look like? How does accountability in Westminster happen if most service outcomes are determined at the local level? How can the media be educated to accept that ministers cannot be held responsible for devolved outcomes? If local politicians are to have more power, how should local accountability be strengthened? How can we - without undermining the core strategy - address the social and legal issues arising from people getting different services depending on where they live? (By the way, one of the myths used by those opposed to devolved power is that people get the same outcomes in centralised services. They don’t. It just that differences result from bureaucratic and professional discretion and differential performance rather than choices made through democratic processes.)
If this piece of work was undertaken it might slightly increase the chances of Labour’s new strategy being taken seriously. But even if it did nothing to change the likely outcome of the election it would be a valuable resource for an incoming Government. And, given the apparently limited impact that Conservative blunders (and haven’t there been a lot!) and the Brown media offensive are having on the polls, legacy may be all the current inhabitants of Number Ten have to comfort themselves.
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