David Cameron at the RSA

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The RSA this morning hosted David Cameron making a major speech about public service reform.  The importance of the event was underlined by Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley being required to attend as audience members.

Although I have had one e-mail from an old friend telling me I have sold out to ‘the enemy’, it is a feather in our cap to be hosting the PM, especially as he took the time to say some complementary things about our work. It also gave me a chance to talk about RSA projects in front of the Westminster press corps.   

I am sure there will be lots of press comment about the speech so I will restrict myself to a few short observations:

David Cameron is a brilliant communicator. He speaks clearly and cogently and answers questions directly and with humour.  Whatever your political persuasion, when you listen to him you are likely to be at least half convinced and to hope that his confidence is well grounded.

This was very much a modernising speech of the Tony Blair style. Indeed David Cameron went out of his way to encourage such parallels by referring to Blair’s memoirs and the importance of not delaying or diluting necessary reform. There were references to the Big Society but it was very much a subsidiary theme.

While talking up the devolution of power to the local level, David Cameron seems also to share my old boss’s blind spot for local government. The only reference to local democracy I noticed was to the proposal for elected police commissioners. I also sensed some ambiguity – or even nervousness – about exploring the full implications of dismantling central control and devolving power, especially in the NHS.

On two topics – the process of change and making sure reform favours the least advantaged in society – the PM said all the right things. But still I wondered whether he had fully grasped how hard organisational change can be and also how difficult it is to decentralise while ensuring those places with the biggest problems and least capacity don’t get left behind.    

Tony Blair too could be unrealistic about change and incurious about the system-wide impact of reform of the least advantaged. But when I or others used to challenge him he would point out that the civil service is there to worry about implementation and the rest of his Cabinet to focus on the protecting the principles of social democracy.  But now, with a civil service being pared back to the bone and a Conservative led Coalition, it is important that David Cameron presses his ministers and advisors hard to prove and keep proving that his ambitious vision is also realistic and fair.

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