‘Labour’s public service reform plans lack clarity – and risk derailment as a result’

Ben Glover
© Martin Suker/Shutterstock.com

The crisis in public services is visible to every British citizen. Waiting lists, crumbling buildings, exhausted staff. All too often, it feels as if public services can only get worse. Thankfully, after years of disregard in Westminster, public service reform is back in fashion. This is to be welcomed.

While austerity has intensified the challenges facing public services, funding is not the only cause of today’s crisis. Public services have failed to pivot to prevention, meaning they are overwhelmed by demand. This is why bringing down waiting lists – a key political and public priority – cannot just be about increasing funding. Changing the delivery model of public services – reform – is also essential.

The bad news? The last time the government had a public service reform agenda was more than a decade ago. Launched by David Cameron amid Big Society excitement, 2011’s open public services white paper described a new vision for public services. Yet the agenda stalled with Andrew Lansley’s doomed NHS reforms and failed to progress much beyond that.

Can Labour be the true party of public service reform?

We have seen setback after setback since then. Proposed reforms to adult social care have repeatedly failed to be implemented. School reforms have largely stalled since Michael Gove’s reforms in 2010 to 2013. Indeed, in those few public services where there has been change – for example the reversal of probation privatisation – these have been centred on the unpicking of previous reforms, rather than the pursuit of an alternative vision.

So will Labour make the most of this opportunity; to be the true party of public service reform? The party appears to understand the need for public service reform and talks about it regularly. Yet despite enthusiastic newspaper briefings – for example to The Guardian in April claiming to be ‘bolder than Blair‘ on public service reform – we still lack the detail.

There are understandable reasons for this. Labour is wary of sharing specifics ahead of the election for fear it is stolen by the Conservatives (e.g. childcare) or used against them in an election (e.g. growing concerns over climate investment).

But these calculations excessively discount a more worrying spectre: a Labour government buffeted by a series of external crises, lacking the mooring provided by a substantive reform agenda. History tells us that governments struggle to develop clear plans on the spot, hence why the lack of clarity is concerning.

Those cautioning against reform are wrong for two reasons

Indeed, there will be some in the party who caution against reform altogether, arguing the party should instead focus on ‘easier’ issues, such as funding. There are two reasons why they are wrong.

First, public services are on their knees. Improving them is a top priority for the public. Typically, that can happen through a combination of reform and spending. But with the latter largely ruled out by Labour’s tough fiscal stance and opposition to nearly all tax rises, reform increasingly looks like the only game in town for public service improvement.

Second, public service reform is needed to show the electorate you have a plan to – over time – keep public spending under control. This is especially important for Labour, who only have a narrow lead on economic competence; 25% of the public think Labour is the best party to manage the economy, versus 21% who prefer the Conservatives.

Our taskforce will answer public service questions politicians ignore

To address this lack of detail – on both the government and opposition benches – Demos this week launched the Future Public Services Taskforce; a major new cross-party initiative to develop a new, cross-cutting strategy for public service reform.

Supported by an expert advisory board – including Patricia Hewitt, former Secretary of State for Health, and Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary to the Department for Education – we will answer the big questions ignored by politicians today and needed to resolve the crisis in public services.

First, what vision should guide public service reform? Talk of visions might sound like highfalutin guff to be expected from a think tank. But without a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve, reforms will inevitably be misguided and pushed aside in times of crisis. Our vision will be grounded in the new paradigm being sketched by councils and charities in the post-crash era. At its core, this is about shifting to a more preventative model of public services, so they finally get upstream.

Second, what system can deliver that vision? The last compelling vision of public service reform – the New Public Management reforms of the 1990s and 2000s – were underpinned by a robust and internally coherent system of governance. The idea? Recast citizens as consumers of public services; force providers of services to compete; competition between providers drives up standards for consumers. While I believe this experiment has largely failed, reformers need a system to rival this, in terms of both coherence and persuasive power.

Finally, the taskforce will describe the practical programmes and policies that can move us towards that system. The next government will need to hit the ground running, producing a white paper on public service reform in its early days to have any hope of reforming the system. This would be a vital first step towards ending the crisis facing our public services and restoring normality to our daily lives. A first step on the path to a brighter, more prosperous Britain. Right now, Labour is not quite there yet. But there is time between now and the next election to fix that.

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