Hilton’s horrors

BaldnessI keep returning to Steve Hilton’s comments on the rigidities and redundancies of the senior civil service, as reported in the Sunday Times. It all strikes me as a bit rum.

Hilton was making three main points. First, that members of the Government were only finding out about some policy announcements from the media. And once they found out they didn’t necessarily agree with what was being announced on their behalf. Second, Hilton conveyed his sense that the main purpose in life for the Mandarinate is to frustrate ministers’ desires for action and change. Third, there is much activity and many decisions are taken, with accompanying mountains of paper being generated, but only a minority of it (30%) is controlled by Ministers and relates to delivering on the Coalition agreement. Hilton suggests that a similar proportion relates to “random things” and, for good measure, fully 40% of activity represents Government implementation of EU regulations. [Read more…]

Has local democracy passed its Selby date?

It appears that Selby District Council has restructured its whole organisation into a small group of commissioners – a core group of 14 staff – and a multifunctional provider organisation – Access Selby. We move a step nearer to realising Nicholas Ridley’s vision of the Enabling Authority. We’re taking the idea of the firm as a nexus of contracts to its illogical conclusion.

All we need now is for Access Selby to receive an offer it can’t refuse from an external commercial body and we’re there. As and when that happens, it would be a reasonable bet that the commercial body is going to be one of the large multinational public service contractors.

In the BBC news reports discussing this item today a question of democracy was posed. Doesn’t the separation of commissioning from provision in this way undermine the very idea of a locally-elected body providing services in response to the wishes of the local electorate? [Read more…]

The Work Programme isn’t working …and that raises bigger issues

The Work Programme (WP) is the Coalition Government’s £5bn replacement for the range of programmes – including the Flexible New Deal – designed to assist unemployed people back into work. While the WP learns from and builds upon previous initiatives it also represents a departure. Its key characteristic is a more thorough-going application of the Payment by Results approach.

Last week the Social Market Foundation published a brief report on the Work Programme, which got a fair bit of coverage in the mainstream media. The headline conclusion is that all is very much not well with the new approach, as currently structured. The programme is, as they put it, at risk of “financial collapse”.

Even if assistance for the unemployed isn’t particularly your interest, this debate is important. It has much broader resonance in the light of current directions for public service reform. [Read more…]

Open Public Services: market fundamentalism with a thin sugar coating?

We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.

Amory Lovins, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

The Government’s long delayed White Paper on public service reform – Open Public Services – has now been released into the wild. I blogged an early reaction to its rationale over at Dale & Co on Tuesday. I’ve now had a chance to come to grips with the detail, such as it is. My feeling is that this is an intriguing, infuriating and – at times – alarming document.

It is a document that lacks coherence in a way that suggests it is the product of several hands, or a fevered mind. It is a document that lacks detail in its justification and its implications in a way that is troubling. The policies and initiatives it identifies as being in accord with the Open Public Services agenda are a ragbag of largely unrelated actions, some of which are problematic in themselves.

There are some components of the proposals that are welcome and sensible. They point, for example, to greater local government or community control over services delivered in their area. If the White Paper had stopped there then it would be a very different beast. But such moves to enhance local democratic control are the secondary storyline. This is the sugar coating.

The overarching message is the onward march of marketisation. [Read more…]

Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

Today I posted my first piece over at Dale & Co.

You can find it here: Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

Sense prevails on public services?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 08/05/11]

The reports this week were that the Government is planning to scale back its proposals for outsourcing public services. A significant policy shift means that the delayed Open Public Services White paper will not feature proposals for “wholesale outsourcing” to the for-profit private sector when it finally emerges in a few weeks time. [Read more…]

Tricky business down the job centre

So it appears that the Department of Work and Pensions may not have been entirely correct. The Department initially denied that Jobcentre Plus employees were tricking vulnerable people in order to sanction them and stop their benefits, as reported in the Guardian last weekend. The Guardian yesterday continued the story with the news that:

The DWP has backtracked and released a statement confirming the practice had been going on in some offices due to a misunderstanding between the department and some jobcentre managers. It insisted this was no longer the case. [Read more…]

The mundane malfunctioning of markets – a tale of life and death

We are currently awaiting the fourth visit from a well-known high street electrical retailer to fit a new hob in our kitchen. The first two visits led to a new hob being fitted, only to discover that the new one was faulty. The third visit occurred on the wrong day. No one was at home. When my partner phoned to point this out the company had no record of the booking. They couldn’t revisit on the date we’d agreed (today) because there were now no available spaces. So they are coming next week. Fourth time lucky?

Clearly this is not the end of the world. Rather more salad is being eaten than is normal for this time of year. And there is more oven-based cooking than typically happens. But it isn’t a disaster.

This is the mundane reality of markets. They don’t always work very well. And sometimes the consequences can be considerably more significant. [Read more…]

Public service reform, zombie economics and the “Great Forgetting”

In his excellent recent book Zombie Economics: how dead ideas still walk among us John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland, provides an accessible account of some key economic ideas. These ideas provided the intellectual rationale for substantial social changes we have witnessed over the last 30 years. Many of these ideas boil down to theoretical justifications for the claim that markets are a better means of allocating resources than all available alternatives. Quiggin also summarises arguments against these theoretical rationalisations. The case against markets can be boiled down to the argument that whatever conventional economics might believe to be the case in theory, the real world just doesn’t follow the script. Working on the basis that it does is a recipe for disaster. This raises a crucial question: given that many of these ideas lack strong intellectual support – they are, or should be, ‘dead’ – why do they continue to exert such influence on policy? Societies are being subjected to “zombie economics”.

One of the topics with which Quiggin engages is privatisation. [Read more…]

The ethics of the case for public sector reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 24/02/11]

David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph was the opening shot in what could be a significant battle both within the Coalition and across the House. The case presented raises at least three important ethical issues.

First, the way in which evidence is being used to justify these proposals is deeply suspect. Mr Cameron states that publicly providing bureaucratic and target-driven services might be worth supporting if they delivered quality services: “but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rate, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries“. These are very partial readings of the data. These claims in relation to both health and education have already been challenged and debunked a number of times over recent weeks. Yet they continue to be advanced as a justification for change. [Read more…]