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.



  1. Genuine localism certainly “requires devolution of financing as well as decision-making and accountability”. Apart from some removal of ring-fences (aka Devolving the Axe), there is not much evidence to suggest the government is planning to give local authorities greater financial rights and responsibilities. Who pays the piper through central grants …

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