On the woeful Work Programme

Information on the performance of the private contractors responsible for delivering the Government’s Work Programme is beginning to leak out, seemingly despite the best efforts of the Department for Work and Pensions to keep us all in the dark.

And the news is not good. It appears that A4e is seriously undershooting on the targets set for it, failing to achieve even the lowest level of performance anticipated by the DWP. Only 3.5% of the jobseekers referred to it were found sustained employment. Is A4e a particularly bad performer? Ian Mulheirn in his piece in yesterday’s Guardian thinks this unlikely: it is more likely that all the other providers are performing similarly badly.

The question then becomes: what should be done about the woeful Work Programme? [Read more…]

Adam Smith writes … on NHS Reform?

Yesterday I was rereading a paper by George DeMartino entitled The economist as social engineer. DeMartino’s main argument is that economics needs a professional ethics because the prescriptions it offers to policy have the potential to do great harm, as well as deliver benefit.

In the course of the paper DeMartino quotes Adam Smith extensively. Not The Wealth of Nations, but The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [Read more…]

A last desperate throw of the dice?

Is that it then? Has the single transferable vote system allowed the Liberal Democrat leadership to breathe a huge sigh of relief? The motion to drop the Health and Social Care Bill won the first round of the ballot to select an emergency motion to debate on Sunday morning. But once the second preferences had been allocated it was beaten by what was labelled, and will be forever known as, the “Shirley Williams” motion. Even though it seems quite widely accepted around the conference venue that it was actually written by Nick Clegg’s office. If that is the case then appending Shirley Williams’ name to the motion is a slightly desperate and transparent strategy to garner support. It is, though, one that may well pay off in the short term. On the other hand, if it isn’t true then the credibility these rumours are accorded tells us something important about the suspicion with which the leadership is viewed by some – many? – activists. Either way, it is certainly referred to as the “establishment” motion. [Read more…]

Privatising Policing: A Step Too Far?

[Originally posted at Dale&Co., 03/03/12]

This week’s instalment of the Leveson Inquiry has raised some pressing questions about inappropriate relations between members of the police and corporate interests. We were presented with argument that highly questionable, if not corrupt, practices were commonplace among public officials.

It’s therefore unfortunate timing that the Guardian reports today on plans by West Midlands and Surrey Police to place £1.5bn worth of business out to tender to the private sector. Or perhaps it is good timing. Because this could prove to be a development of profound significance. It demands close scrutiny. [Read more…]

Public service reform and liberal democracy

[Originally posted at LSE British Politics and Policy, 01/03/12]

Last week on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, Will Tanner argued that the government needs to change direction on public service reform. Tanner makes three points that flow from his frustration with progress. Mainly, he claims the government is being too cautious and it is placing an undesirable emphasis upon fostering mutual and not-for-profit alternatives to conventional public provision.

Tanner argues that “meaningful” reform needs to be faster and it needs to happen on a larger scale. This point resonates with KPMG’s 2010 paper Payment For Success, which sets out many of the measures you’ll find in the coalition’s Open Public Services white paper. The KPMG argument is that change needs to be rapid so it can more easily override objections and overwhelm resistance. Tanner thinks that new business models are not being embraced as extensively as they should. Rather, they are being restricted to specific policy areas. Finally, if we want to see public services dismantled more comprehensively then we need to reduce “barriers to entry” such as annoyingly inflexible and generous public sector pension arrangements. [Read more…]

Appraising health reform

Blogging is a fantastic medium for providing a brief statement of your views. Or for building an argument involving a small number of points. Or, perhaps, for giving a high level summary of a more complex argument.

But it’s not a great medium through which to appraise complex arguments or carefully weigh the evidence. Where a blog draws explicitly on evidence it tends to draw on one or two studies to illustrate its point. For some purposes that works just fine. But for others it can be misleading. It can give the impression that there is a robust evidence base to back up the points being made, whereas in fact the evidence is being cherry-picked. The weight of evidence may lie with the other side of the argument. Or, more likely, the evidence does not offer many simple messages.

A couple of weeks ago I made this point in the comment thread on a blog post about competition and choice in public service reform. It wasn’t entirely warmly received by some other commenters. [Read more…]

… but words can never hurt me

The Coalition’s big economic idea is that significant cuts in public sector employment will be more than compensated by a veritable blossoming of the private sector. Displaced public sector workers will find themselves rapidly migrating to new private sector jobs.

There are plenty of reasons for thinking that the economic reasoning is flawed. And there is precious little evidence that it is happening. The public jobs are disappearing sure enough. But the promised private sector expansion is rather slower in arriving. That is not in itself great surprise, if you read the economy more plausibly.

But on Wednesday night the local news in my area offered a troubling additional angle on the issue. [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…]

Choice, public services and the predatory state

I have recently had cause to reread CentreForum’s Your Choice: how to get better public services, published back in the summer. Don’t ask. It’s for a thing.

The resonance between the sorts of prescriptions that emerge from Queen Anne’s Gate and the policy prescriptions within the subsequent Open Public Services white paper is all too evident. Equally obvious is the rather thin intellectual base for many of these ideas. As a piece of think tank advocacy Your Choice isn’t attempting to be a rigorous academic study, seeking to provide a balanced review of the ideas under consideration. But it is rather too evident that it draws its intellectual authority from a relatively shallow well comprising previous CentreForum publications, publications elsewhere by CentreForum members, and publications from the axis of management consultants and other organisations with a vested interest in promoting its agenda. The principal credible contemporary academic work cited is by colleagues at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation and that is hardly unambiguous in its support.

But my main concern here isn’t really the problematic role of think tanks peddling flaky ideas into the policy process. I blogged about that a while ago. I have a broader concern – consensus and credibility. [Read more…]

Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? [Read more…]