Opportunity missed for reform?
16 June 2011
Will the government ever produce its long-promised public service reform white paper? Don't hold your breath, warns Colin Talbot, who suggests that the coalition partners have developed cold feet over many of the big ideas
British governments seem to have a penchant for producing public service reform white papers early in their term of office, setting out their overall prospectus for "modernisation". Ted Heath did it, so did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and now the coalition government is, falteringly, about to do the same.
(Notably, Margaret Thatcher didn't do it – she just got on with changing stuff without the bother of a rationale.)
However, these overarching white papers are nearly always problematic. As former No.10 adviser Dan Corry recently pointed out, they tend just to restate what you are already doing, but organised into some grand narrative that can almost always be rubbished.
Critics will point to specific reforms that don't fit the overarching principles – because, with good reason, some reforms might work in one area but not in another.
And the grand narrative will almost always contain internal contradictions and inconsistencies – especially as it is cobbled together from across our messy system of ministries and mandarinates.
Finally, the media will inevitably point out that we've heard it all before anyway.
Maybe this is partly why grand statements often run into problems getting produced. The modernising government white paper wasn't produced by New Labour until 1999, despite the fact much of what was eventually in it had been discussed before they even came to office.
So with the coalition government – originally we were promised a white paper setting out the reform agenda by the March 2011 Budget. Since then it has been pushed back several times and is now, unofficially, said to be appearing this month. But don't hold your breath.
If the coalition had managed to produce a white paper back in March there might have been more chance it would have offered a more or less coherent vision of where they are going with the many changes to the machinery of government and public services that go beyond cuts, cuts, cuts.
Certainly they are doing plenty – more than Margaret Thatcher ever attempted and we'd have to go back to the 1945-51 Attlee government to find such a pace of reform before. But what does it all mean? Are we going from the Big State to the Big Society or maybe the Big Market? Will this really be the first "post-bureaucratic government" as David Cameron promised before last year's election?
But while there certainly seemed to be a high-level ideological fusion taking place in the early months of the coalition, leading to very bold measures proposed in health, benefits, education, university and policing reforms, suddenly the momentum has faltered. Both parties have, to some extent, got cold feet. Most obviously the Liberal Democrats, battered by the AV referendum and election results, have done a handbrake u-turn on health reforms.
More broadly, both coalition partners seem to have cooled on ideas that were being floated by Cameron about there being "no no-go areas" for outsourcing of public service provision, with the exception of core security and defence services. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude reportedly briefed business leaders that wholesale outsourcing to private companies was politically unacceptable.
All of which bodes ill for those trying to draft an overarching policy statement that sets out a coherent approach to public service reform. The one key idea which could bind together all sorts of disparate initiatives is David Cameron's Big Society, but the Liberal Democrats have been cool on this even before their current travails.
When – if – the white paper does finally appear there will almost certainly be some continuity with previous efforts. A common theme has resurfaced in various guises since the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 – the idea of separating policy-making from delivery work.
What will be different this time is that rather than arms-length restructuring being seen as an end in itself, or as a precursor to outsourcing to the private sector, it will be touted as a way of developing new models of service delivery – mutuals, cooperatives, joint ventures, public corporations, public interest companies etc. Whether it gets a fancy label – post-bureaucratic government or Big Society – remains to be seen. Whether it appears at all may even still be in question.Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at the University of Manchester Business School