After attending the Prime Ministers breakfast seminar in No. 10 on the future of public services my overwhelming feeling was that the government is still in thrall to the tyranny of the new. An underlying theme was that they needed something ‘new’ to offer.
I am sceptical, for several reasons.
Research evidence suggests that public sector reform and performance follows an interesting pattern. Colleagues from Manchester and Cardiff who have looked at the relationship between performance and electoral success in local government seem to have found that failure to provide reasonable services gets punished, whereas success in providing excellent services makes no difference. I think this means doing basic things right is more important than doing innovative things for political success.
Whilst the ‘sexy topics’ are things like personalisation of services, citizen engagement, etc the things that really affect voters are things like the £9bn worth errors committed by HM Revenue and Customs in tax credit payments, which affects millions of citizens. I can’t help thinking that promising to get the basics right rather than promising “world class services” might have a bit more credibility.
If Labour wants to draw a clear dividing line between themselves and the Conservatives it should not be around further radical reforms. The best that Labour can promise is to consolidate and protect the gains in public service provision in health and education, rather than fancy new gimmicks which will have little political purchase.
The Conservatives’ policy of rapidly reducing the public debt, without increasing taxation, would obviously mean much deeper restrictions on public spending than Labour are proposing. This would get down the national debt quicker, but it has clear consequences for public services. The ‘clear blue water’ would therefore be about consolidating versus cutting.
However, there is also a big issue about the dominant ideas of policy. Many speakers this morning seemed to accept the view that ‘self-interest’ or ‘vested interests’ is paramount in shaping policy, markets and state provision, etc. I disagree: people have mixed motivations that include both selfish and altruistic aspects (amongst others).
Appealing exclusively to self-interest limits public policy and restricts options. Why do some public organisations, for example, respond positively to external demands for better performance whilst others start playing games and react more dysfunctionally? One explanation is the predominance, or not, of one type of motivation – selfish vs public service – shapes how organisations respond. A more nuanced policy position would focus on both self-interested and altruistic motivations rather than just self-interest. Would it be too much to suggest that this might suit Labour rather more than the Conservatives?
PS – it is true, after meeting Gordon Brown for the first time face-to-face I can confirm that he really is a lot more personable and jolly than he comes across on the TV. Which doesn’t obviate some of the criticisms of his policies or administration I might have, but is is worth mentioning.