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Nick de Bois MP: Making the positive case for public sector reform

DeBois NickNick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North.  Follow Nick on Twitter.

Any new Government coming to office after a three-term administration has to introduce reform of public services. With ever-increasing demands on our doctors, nurses, police and teachers, the fact is that if you don't continue moving our public services forward you end up standing still or even going backwards. For the coalition Government, the dreadful economic legacy it inherited created an unprecedented urgency for radical reform.

Making the case for reforms that are radical enough to meet the challenges facing our public services has inevitably involved criticising some of the ways our public services are currently operating. Michael Gove has had to make the case for why we need to make it much easier to sack bad teachers. Andrew Lansley needed to justify why private providers should be allowed to compete with the NHS. Theresa May has argued that police budgets can cope with 20% cuts without the frontline being affected. In every area, the left has attempted to portray the case for reform as an attack on public sector workers. And yet teachers have no desire to keep in the profession people who are clearly not up to the job, patients don't care who provides their healthcare so long as it's good quality and free at the point of delivery, and no police officer would defend being able to receive £100 just for answering a telephone call.

The Government's reforms are opening up the public sector to innovation that will solve major problems facing our public services. In Enfield where we have a crisis surrounding the provision of primary school places, the extra school places we have received from the setting up of three new free schools has been absolutely vital. We have also seen excellent results of schools gaining academy status. But turning this all on its head, I firmly believe we should welcome innovation wherever it comes from. While free schools have been a godsend, we also have previously under-performing state comprehensives that have been turned around by new head teachers who have used existing powers to improve the curriculum, introduce a proper uniform code and restore discipline to the classroom.

It is therefore important in making the argument for radical reform to ensure the language reflects the reality. There are many talented public servants at all levels  and the case needs to be made that reforms will allow that talent to be recognised and advanced by rewarding innovation and successful outcomes. Presently many public sector workers believe the system does not always reward those who innovate. For some, working in a culture where no one's career ever seems to suffer if they continue to preside over an inefficient status quo, but where if people try something new that does not work, the culture makes them feel very exposed. This is not something most people take to kindly and why many public sector employees will in fact support the aims of
government reforms.

Both public and private providers should be as rigorous in examining, testing and challenging the status quo and positive about introducing  innovation and change. The Government needs to make it clear that we are supportive of those who try new things and particularly welcome these from the public as well as the private sector.

Allowing the left to gain traction in its unfair and cynical claims that the case for reform is an attack on the public sector - that we are accusing public sector workers of failing - is very dangerous as well as untrue. If public sector workers believe it however they may start to feel that accepting the case for reform would mean agreeing that they have been failing. It will back people into a corner where they feel they need to defend everything about the past rather than embracing change. It would be a mistake to think that all the public sector reject the case for change and we should speak to those people by emphasising the positive case for reform and champion innovations from within the public sector . As I said, we need to welcome innovation wherever it comes from.

If the Government wants teachers, police, doctors and nurses to boldly embrace reform they need to ensure that they highlight the excellent work they are already doing. The reforms are as much about introducing competition as unleashing the power of public sector employees to deliver the changes they want to see. Competition is not enough; we need the public sector to embrace the reforms and provide innovation in order to meet the challenges that will keep on coming.


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