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A message from a former Downing Street aide. Too much civil service. Not enough political vision.

By Paul Goodman
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How much reform can a Government manage?  Given the timetable of five years or less, should it strive to change everything, or try to achieve a few key strategic aims and if so, what are they?  These perennial questions are re-posed today in the Guardian by Sean Worth, the party's former Policy Unit head and a senior ex-Downing Street special adviser.  Mr Worth has apparently moved backwards by leaving Number 10 to join Policy Exchange: the conventional course is to travel the other way round.

The interview helps to explain this Tardis-type progress.  Although he left Downing Street for family reasons, he is frustrated by the slow pace of reform - and keen to see more social enterprise running more public services.  This was one of Steve Hilton's leitmotifs, and Mr Worth shares Mr Hilton's transformative vision if not his confrontational methods (so, for example, he doesn't share the latter's enthusiasm for shredding the civil service).  He warns that "the government has the 2015 election as a deadline to prove that it has made tangible improvements on the ground".

Mr Worth is absolutely right to warn that civil servants can't provide Downing Street with a sense of political direction, criticising their dominance of its implementation unit and (surely) policy unit: "They are civil servants; you can tell them that is what you want, but that is not the same as being a Conservative and it being in their blood".  Top marks for that: Tim Montgomerie and I have repeatedly made the same point. For example, I've argued that CCHQ needs a policy unit of its own).

But is his analysis right?  The central issue in general elections is the economy.  I can't see why the next one should be different, especially given the squeeze on living standards and the turmoil in the Eurozone.  None the less, a Conservative-led Government that didn't try to improve the public services wouldn't be worth having, but that only re-raises the question: how much reform? The answer may depend on whether you believe government is more like a military operation or sailing a ship.

Mr Hilton is just about the last person I associate with the army, but he left Downing Street with the frustration of a staff officer whose juniors just won't do as they're told.  George Osborne is nearly the last person I associate with Tory pessimism, but the Chancellor has become the main force in government for the other point of view: that civil society isn't like a big army, and that governments must manoevre to realise their aims amidst squalls and storms (from the hacking scandal to the Euro-crisis).  It follows that they can't fight all the pirates at the same time.

Forget for the moment whether Mr Osborne is helping the steer the ship well or badly, and simply ask: which of these two conceptions is closer to political reality?  Experience suggests the second - which is why Margaret Thatcher didn't get round to major public service reform until her third term, and even then didn't try to do everything at once, as this Government, at times, seems to be doing: welfare reform, schools reform, NHS reform and (now) police reform, not to mention the localism drive that Eric Pickles refers to today in his interview with Harry Phibbs on this site.

I draw what seems to be a different conclusion from Mr Worth: namely, you can't do everything at once.  Furthermore, what you do won't always have quick results.  The great example of this is Michael Gove's school reforms: the results won't be fully apparent until this generation of pupils go on to University and out into the workforce.  So if a Government can't take on all comers, what public service should it prioritise?  My answer is: schools and welfare, which together can help create the great virtuous circle: strong families, fine schools, good jobs.

Mr Worth would probably think this aim a bit limited, but whether you agree or not his interview reminds us of something worrying.  This Government isn't yet halfway through its term, but his departure is only the latest of several: Tim Chatwin, James O’Shaughnessy, Peter Campbell and of course Mr Hilton himself.  This rate of attrition sends a message - that those who work at the core of this administration aren't enthused enough by it to want to stick around.  Perhaps not being able to decide in favour of Vision Hilton or Vision Osborne is part of the explanation.


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