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Dale Bassett: The Government must keep reforming public services - or risk wasting its time in office

Bassett daleDale Bassett is the Research Director of Reform.

Given Andrew Lansley’s difficulties over the health reform Bill, it is unsurprising that ConservativeHome readers are taking comfort from the rest of the Government’s public service reform agenda. From welfare to education via local government, reforms are proceeding apace. Iain Duncan Smith is reforming benefits. Michael Gove is freeing schools. Eric Pickles is devolving power to councils.

But according to a new Reform report (pdf), even these Ministers may need greater support from their departments. The Department for Work and Pensions is capping benefits and getting more people into work, but the decision to link pensions to earnings rather than prices will wipe out the savings of the other reforms. The Department for Education has freed 1,500 academies from central control, but is maintaining as tight a grip as ever on the other 21,000 schools in England. The Department for Communities and Local Government is giving councils new powers while freezing their ability to vary taxes.

In a few areas, real, deep reform is happening that is revolutionising the way services are delivered. And what’s really striking is that it’s the departments that are facing significant budget reductions that are leading the change. The cuts are working.

Theresa May has implemented a consistent package of reforms which are driving better performance within tighter budgets. Police forces are saving money and improving public satisfaction at the same time; at a Reform event in 2011, the Deputy Chief Constable of West Midlands Police described his force’s financial pressure as a “burning platform” that required it to change for the better. Kenneth Clarke has made the best arguments for competition of any Minister, and has put many prisons and other justice services out to tender. The Ministry of Defence is undertaking radical civil service reform and using the private sector to jointly manage the entire defence estate (amounting to 1 per cent of the UK land mass).

If David Cameron were to take these lessons and apply them across the board, this Government’s legacy could be the transformation of public services in the UK to make them flexible and accountable to their users – and, crucially, to make them deliver value for money. Launching the Open Public Services White Paper at Reform last July, the Prime Minister said: “I know what our public services can do and how they are the backbone of this country. But I know too that the way they have been run for decades … old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you’re-given … is just not working for a lot of people.  Public services were centralised with all the right intentions … to drive progress through from on high, to keep tabs on how that progress was going with targets and rules and inspections. But the impact of this has been incredibly damaging.”

Yet six months later, he was making the opposite case. In the face of an NHS crisis brought on by a ringfenced budget and a lack of meaningful reform, David Cameron intervened by imposing targets on waiting times and micromanaging the frequency of nurses’ bedside visits. This is important for the NHS, but it matters even more for the Government’s entire reform agenda. The danger is that, rather than being an isolated example, the problems over health reform come to fit a wider pattern.

Even the apparent success stories risk slipping backwards unless they are followed through with comprehensive reforms reaching into every part of the public service in question. Education Ministers must not forget the lesson of the thousand grant maintained schools, which Labour abolished overnight in 1997. Halfway-house reforms are vulnerable and are no guarantee of lasting change. The Prime Minister’s trump card is the success of the police and prisons reforms. He must seize on these examples to show what can be done where a consistent, coherent package of reform is enacted, and services are driven to change by the pressure of budget cuts. His challenge is to get his other Ministers to do the same.


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