PUBLIC SECTOR-THE REFORMING ZEAL
Pace of change harbours dangers for coalition
Right across Whitehall public sector reform is top of the political agenda . Tony Blair has claimed that his biggest regret was that he was not radical enough in his first term, a charge that couldn’t be levelled against this Government. Eric Pickles is introducing new localism and adding flesh to the Big Society agenda, heralding, he claims, a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create “free schools” and to radically transform the curriculum . Iain Duncan Smith is reforming welfare . Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing and forging a long term energy policy. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation Jeremy Hunt ,at Culture and Sports, anticipates a digital revolution sweeping the country. Liam Fox wants to modernise the MODs procurement system, and Francis Maude leads fundamental reforms to the quangocracy, procurement and the public services market, giving SMEs more clout. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister’s principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who wants everything changed we are told by 2015.The Prime Minister is proving by most accounts to be a better Prime Minister than he was leader of the opposition giving Ministers their head and showing some leadership skills helped by the fact that the opposition has yet to find a coherent narrative and its leader a clear voice.
The squeeze on public sector finances was seen by some as a precursor for a do nothing Government, one of retrenchment and cuts, sack cloth and ashes. But the funding squeeze has not dampened a reforming zeal, but fired it up. One Conservative member of the cabinet told the Observer “The state of the public finances has forced us to be more radical.” Another Tory cabinet minister offers a differently nuanced explanation: “It has been politically easier to argue for reform – it gave us an excuse, if you like.”
The downside to this, of course, is that the Whitehall machine is creaking and the civil service is notoriously conservative when it comes to radical change in telescoped time frames. Too much change in too short a time may lead to delivery problems and we have seen the DFE, particularly, creaking under the pressure over school building cuts, the Academies and Free school initiatives and, most recently, funding for school sports. Cabinet Ministers who appear competent in opposition may not have the leadership and management skills required to impose their wills on their respective Departments to drive through reforms (this appears to be the case in at least two Departments). What you will from the centre can quite often come unstuck, particularly if there are many links in the delivery chain .And you have in evidence a curious paradox operating here of strong direction and prescription from the centre, combining with concurrent demands for devolved decision-making and delivery at the local level, at a time when less public funding is available at the local level.
The Government, of course, hopes and expects that local authorities will think creatively and re-imagine how they can deliver and commission services within their communities, with less funding, through local community organisations , the third sector and social enterprises- all taking on a greater share of the load. But it is clear that there is a way to go before this translates into a clear understanding from local authorities as to what is expected of them and how this will work on the ground. It is already clear though that for the ‘big society’ to work it will require devolution of financing as well as decision-making and accountability.