The British state is a monster and it’s a consequence of its constitution. Ministerial responsibility, the centralised, unitary state (inEngland) and departmental separation have left an inefficient, ineffective, unaccountable and wasteful state apparatus. We should be getting far more for the £700 billion we spend each year.
The scale of duplication is horrendous. This is a result of departmental organisation and silos. The last government’s Total Place strategy outlined how, in Leicester and Leicestershire, there were 450 face-to-face access points for service users, 65 call centres, all at a cost of £15 million per year. Ministerial responsibility means that initiatives proliferate and duplicate with different departments spending resources in aiming to achieve similar things. The same report found 120 projects or programmes delivered by 50 providers across 12 funding streams to help people into work in Lewisham.
People are furious at public sector waste – and they are right. This is nothing to do with service providers and public sector workers, who are efficient. It’s simply a matter of the British state and how it is structured.
Only minimal change can come from top-down efficiency drives. As soon as one programme is eliminated, another initiative is innovated that creates more duplication and waste somewhere else. All of this matters far more in an atmosphere of fiscal constraint – better outcomes per £1 spent become imperative.
We need a radically different approach. Let’s just take the welfare-to-work and support in work agenda. To get the best support for the individual possible, it is necessary to marshal resources devoted to skills, childcare, tax credits, welfare support, the work programme, rehabilitation and addiction management, job centre plus, careers advice and support, economic development and many other areas besides. It is simply not possible to co-ordinate all this from the centre or to respond effectively to individual and local needs; democracy also suffers a deficit. For a Total Work approach, there has to be some co-ordinating local mechanism.
The approach up until now has been for central government to push powers down at a painfully slow pace. Instead, why not put rocket boosters on the process? Give any local authority or group of local authorities or Local Enterprise Partnerships the ability to insist on being granted powers over resources impacting their area, subject to basic minimum requirements and a commitment to improve outcomes. A Self Determination Act of this nature could reverse the logic of the British state. Anything else is just fiddling round the edges and will fail.
This article was originally published in the Fabian Society’s Summer edition of the Fabian Review. It forms part of the Fabian Society’s Next State project. We’ll be publishing other articles from the series this week.