Shock, chaos and public service reform

17 May 2011

The long-delayed Public Services White Paper is apparently proving very difficult to finalise. Adrian Brown argues that we shouldn't be surprised.

The Coalition’s plans for reforming our public services have been breathtakingly bold. From hospitals to schools, criminal justice to welfare, the pace and scale of the proposed reforms have taken many by surprise. But the government seems far more coy when it comes to publishing the long-delayed Public Services White Paper. What’s the problem?

Shock therapy and chaos theory

The government’s approach to public service reform over the past year has been radical in three different ways.

Firstly, the reforms are ambitious in their scope, leaving few stones unturned. The welfare system is being revolutionised rather than tweaked. The health proposals will radically restructure the NHS. Important reform themes include opening up public services to new providers and extending the use of payment by results.

Secondly, many policies are being rolled out very rapidly. The first ‘free schools’ will open this September after the Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament in the first few weeks of the Coalition. Many aspects of the health reforms are being implemented even before the legislation has been finalised (which, incidentally, will make them extremely difficult to reverse).

Together these two points have been described as “shock therapy“- radical reform that is unapologetically revolutionary. Tony Blair’s admission that he wished he’d been more radical during his first term is often cited as a cautionary tale that justifies this big bang approach.

Thirdly, the Coalition’s emphasis on devolution aims to push control and accountability for the reforms away from Whitehall and ‘unelected bureaucrats’ and into the hands of ‘real people’. This is in contrast to the Blairite approach in which many aspects of reform were guided through top down targets and plans.

This third element has been described as the “chaos theory“ approach to reform. As Nick Boles, MP explained last year, “‘chaotic’… in our vocabulary is a good thing.”

Can I have that in writing?

I doubt the authors of the white paper will use the words ‘shock’ and ‘chaos’ very much so their task is to explain all this in slightly more prosaic language. But there is a more fundamental problem. The revolutionaries are getting cold feet.

Even before the health reforms were put on hold there were doubts being expressed about just how far certain elements of this agenda could be pushed at speed. For example, the Liberal Democrats were always more cautious about opening up public services to outside competition and Francis Maude now seems to be rowing back on this as well according to a leaked memo.

Payment by results, long cherished by Steve Hilton, Paul Kirby and others in Number 10 also looks to be in retreat. Danny Alexander explained, “in each case we need to think what reform is appropriate, so the payment by result model may be suitable for the work programme, but we need to avoid a sweeping blueprint across the public sector.” Hardly shock therapy.

As for chaos theory, the government has yet to match its localist rhetoric with action and ministers continue to make top-down pronouncements about ostensibly local matters such as rubbish collection. For localism to work, ministers will need to let go of the steering wheel. But, as our recent report shows, that is easier said than done once you’re in office, especially if everyone is still holding you personally accountable for any ‘chaos’ that ensues.

The Institute’s recent work on better policy making argues that rather than embracing full-blown ‘chaos’, the coalition should adopt a ‘system stewardship’ approach. This would require Whitehall to start thinking seriously about the complexity of policy problems – and of the government systems which try to tackle them. Policy makers would then attempt to set appropriate high-level goals and the ‘rules of the game’. The result would neither be chaos nor micro-management, but discerning oversight of progress towards policy goals.

(A bit) radical

So the authors of the white paper have a tightrope to walk. Given the radical precedents it would seem odd (and a little late) to tone things down now. But the paper must also reflect the changing tone of the coalition and its growing uneasiness with the full ‘shock’ and ‘chaos’ ideology.

The ‘get out of jail’ option is simply to not bother writing a white paper at all and let individual departments craft their own visions for each public service. This certainly has a superficial appeal but given the Coalition’s wobbles, and the health reforms’ travails, having a single, clear reform vision which everyone can rally around looks increasingly attractive.

Expect further delays.

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Comments (2)

  1. Jamie Saunders on 2 June 2011 at 1:17 pm

    How do you see the link to devolution to local tiers of government (community leadership, place shaping and place-shielding) and progressive ‘localism’ with and through communities and citizens?

    How might this be viewed from the perspective of the “(imposed) freedom regime” described in Paul Kirby’s work for KPMG, Payment for Success* for both ‘public services reform’ and for ‘liberating’ people, organisations and places to take greater responsibility for their own destinies?

    * Latter pages

  2. Simon on 3 June 2011 at 6:20 am

    Adrian,

    your piece does not get to grips with the specific reasons why these reforms do not work. That is that they are ill thought out – they do not fit together and they seek to solve a problem that does not exist. There is little or no evidence that different service models or diversity of service providers will drive up standards, this is purely a market based faith, but we know that markets fail.

    The governments lack of strategy and inability to get things done through departments mean that the legacy this government will leave is a sense of incompetence, it will take a long time to sort out the train wreckage of competing ideas. This is what you get when you give power to a group of people who have never had proper jobs.

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