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Elizabeth Truss: A new state

Reform Elizabeth Truss is the Deputy Director of Reform.

Change seems to be in the air this year. In the US Presidential election we are told about epic struggles for control between the old and new generations. And from a seemingly benign economic environment in Britain, we are facing serious economic challenges. Just of course when the money is running out and the last of the Government’s spending increases hits the public sector.

The uncertainty which everyone is feeling from the British high street shopper to Hillary Clinton, I believe is reflective of genuine underlying change. That change is the coming of age of the internet, not least demonstrated by ConservativeHome. The internet’s influence has spread to every office, school and home. It is altering the way we live, the way we interrelate and our perceptions of the world.

Communication where leaders made decisions, communicated and then were lauded or rejected is being replaced by the continual iteration of thousands of individual transactions. The huge increase in available information has empowered the individual to make choices and direct their lives to a much greater extent. It has created alternative networks and increased horizontal communication, in many cases removing the role of intermediaries and middle management.

Big Government is out of step with this trend and unreconstituted public services will find it harder and harder to deliver people’s expectations. If the economy was difficult to plan and manage in the 1970’s – it is impossible now with the degree engagement required in a modern organisation. In spite of the money that has been pumped in, Britain’s public services are still working in a very old command and control style, characterised by targets, edicts and vast bureaucracies.

The challenges to the big state will not come as they did in the 1970s and the 1980s through public protests and letter writing campaigns, demanding better public services. Increasingly it will be through people opting out of engagement with Government and acting independently. There are signs already of greater participation in private education and healthcare. A generation of people schooled in the art of everything being available at the click of the mouse are not going to wait for months for an operation or hope that that child will survive an underperforming inner city state school. Whereas lack of delivery previously created an atmosphere of complaint, people will now supplement or go elsewhere.

Finally, there will be a growing divide between those who are benefiting from the state and those who are outside it. This will be particularly pronounced between young and old but will also reflect the vastly different levels of state engagement across the regions and social groups. Reform’s reports on the IPOD generation described a generation of people who are being short-changed in government spending which disproportionately benefits the old. With the technological divide, we can expect to see resentment grow from a group of people who don’t understand why the state’s services are so expensive relative to those they access on-line and why they should continue to pay for them.

Although change may be painful for the state, these developments also present a great opportunity to rebalance the responsibilities of government and individuals and get much more value from tax payers money.

Government needs to work with the grain of the way people now operate. It should rethink what it should actually be doing given an engaged and interlinked population who want to take more control of their own lives.

This means reassessing its role in provision, making use of the vast private and voluntary networks already in existence to get things done rather than clumsy replication and critically reducing its “footprint” on the lives of the individual.

The next generation are not disillusioned with politics; they just know that the ability to achieve is more in their own hands than it is in politicians’. The self expression and “Do it yourself” culture of the internet has been embedded in the media, business and the home. It must now impact the way we are governed.


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