I had a visit last week from Government advisors exploring how best to describe the Coalition’s approach to public services. This was, I guess, partly because I was credited with helping to provide a narrative for the Blair reform programme.
The latter comprised four elements: first, strategy, accountability and funding from the top; second, choice and voice from the bottom up; third, diversity and contestability providing dynamism among providers; and, fourth, a general attempt to build capacity and confidence through the system (for example through the proliferation of public service leadership institutes – many of which are already, or soon to be, toast).
The fascinating starting point for last week’s conversation was the statement by one of the advisors that Whitehall civil servants have been cast adrift as a result of the effective abolition of outcome targets. The public service agreements which provided the core rationale for thousands of Whitehall jobs have been swept away, and many other regimes focussed on achieving measurable results – such as the local authority comprehensive performance assessment - have also gone. In time we are likely to see a major downsizing of Whitehall itself but in the meantime, the advisors asked, what are the officials to do?
Their answer was an elegant diagram exploring the different dimensions of Big Society public services. The problem with this, I thought, was it assumed central Government has a major constructive role in society. So, for example, the advisors identified increasing civic capacity as a task. The implication is that civil servants can shift from trying to deliver public service outcomes to trying to build the Big Society. But this misses the point. Labour believed the centre could make good things happen, the Coalition is much more sceptical.
Instead, I suggested the Coalition’s approach might be better captured as a set of radical principles. Here, for discussion with readers, are what seem to me to be the key assumptions/principles:
• Markets are in almost all circumstances better than planning as a way of allocating resources
• Any collaboration between public service institutions and agencies should be voluntary. It is counterproductive to enforce or incentivise collaboration (see, for example, the lack of enthusiasm for Total Place)
• In most cases third and private sector providers are better than public sector providers
• Outcomes should be a function of bottom up deliberation, implementation and scrutiny not top down
• There is a substantial underused resource in civil society, including in deprived communities
• The primary way in which this resource can be accessed is if third sector and community groups take responsibility for delivering services previously provided by the state
• Differences in local service levels and outcomes is the inevitable and justifiable price for innovation, local accountability and civic engagement.
The new, much more circumscribed, task of civil servants is to enact these principles while trying at minimal cost and with minimal regulation to ensure that other public policy imperatives (such as Parliamentary accountability, basic equity, and financial probity) are observed. This is not an easy thing to do, especially in the context of severe austerity. So the task of civil servants is much changed, and much more limited in scale, but in some ways even more important.
What I have called the ‘civic market state’ will need a smaller, tougher, more strategic Whitehall. Who’s to say that isn’t a good thing?