Reform of the civil service may seem a long way down the list of priorities for the next Labour government. There are plenty of pressing concerns: jobs, growth, pensions or getting the NHS back on its feet. Yet I believe this is the time to think hard about transforming the way government works, which would allow reforming Labour Ministers to deliver the changes the country needs.
For the first time since the Second World War, all three main political parties have current or recent experience of government. All expect a closely-fought general election. So there is a unique opportunity to develop a degree of consensus about how and why we should reform the civil service. This is one of those once-in-a-generation political moments.
That’s why this morning I’ve launched, jointly with Tory MP Nick Herbert MP, a new independent cross-party project GovernUp, backed by former ministers, senior civil servants, business leaders and academics. Our advisory board includes Margaret Hodge MP, John Birt and Martha Lane-Fox. You can read Nick Herbert’s article on ConservativeHome here.
The mission of GovernUp is to challenge the scope of current debate and consider the far-reaching changes needed for more effective government. The UK’s civil service has huge strengths, including its impartiality, dedication and resilience despite deep spending cuts. But it also has weaknesses, and those are holding Britain back.
Over the next year we want to look at the organisation of government; the balance between central and local power; the role of modern politicians; the skills and accountability needed in today’s Whitehall, and the opportunity for technology to transform government and its relationship with citizens.
Some say, why should Labour supporters be concerned with all this? My answer is fourfold.
Firstly, Labour believes in the power of the state to redistribute resources, organise public services and provide policy direction for economic growth. We have a keen interest in ensuring the state is effective because we know in many areas the market isn’t. We need government to be better.
Secondly, because of the Coalition’s failure on growth and clearing the deficit, the next Labour government will operate in very straitened times. We must be clear that every penny we spend is being spent efficiently. That means a civil service using its full capacity to deliver the programmes we want.
Thirdly, society is changing rapidly but the British system of public administration was designed in the 19th Century. Despite its strengths, it is no longer equal to the challenges. Modern governments face fiscal pressures, a rising demand for services, growing public expectations and the need to improve both regional and international competitiveness. All governments, including Labour, have found difficulty in matching strategic vision with execution.
Fourthly, when Ed Miliband moves into Downing Street in May 2015, we must govern well from day one which means being clear about what we will do, and also how we will do it.
I know civil service reform never comes up on the doorsteps of Barnsley or Rotherham, or anywhere else. The next election will be fought on the economy, immigration, jobs and on who can best deliver public services. But how we then run the country also matters, especially to the poorest and most vulnerable people we seek to serve.
John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne