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A smarter state

Today saw me debating Michael Gove on improvement of public services at the launch of the IPPR’s new programme on the Smarter State. He claimed I was now in a ‘tug of love’ with David Cameron over the phrase ‘pre-bureaucratic era’. What a horrific idea. What’s more, the phrase is not Mr Cameron’s. I think it’s genesis is with Al Gore’s old speechwriter, Andre Cherny, in his great book, The Next Deal. Credit where credits due.

Text of my remarks below…




24TH MARCH 2009

Now is a good time for fresh thinking about the smarter state.

Across Britain people are thinking what kind of economy and what kind of market do we want to emerge from this downturn? This takes us instantly to questions about what kind of state we want to emerge too.

But as we set to work to answer this question, it’s vital that we’re clear about our purpose. Reform without purpose can only be simply posturing.

When we published Working Together – our strategy for public service improvement we put our purpose upfront.

We want a richer and fairer and stronger country in the decades to come.

Gordon Brown has said clearly. Over the next two decades, despite the current travails of the market economy, the world market is going to double in size by about 2020, creating some billion skilled jobs.

If we make the right investments now we could cut a big slice of that wealth for this country.

That creates an extraordinary new room at the top – much as we saw after the second world war.

And if we make the right investments in public services then we can open up those opportunities of new jobs and better wages to a much wider range of people in society; but only if we invest in public services at every stage of peoples’ lives – and only if public services change.

But there’s another task too. Because if we want to steer the UK through this time of change and maintain a political consensus, a political attachment and a political sense of value in keeping our country open to the world, then we’ll have to steer change in a way that means Britain still feels like home when we come out on the other side.

And that means that our agenda for public service improvement has got to foster still stronger communities in this country, and stronger connections between us all.

So, a more socially mobile country and a country of stronger communities is for us the starting point of this debate on public service reform.

Now, the trap that has to be avoided – the trap that bedevils politicians and generals – is the trap of fighting the last war.

If you look back at the last 40 or 50 years of British political history it’s sometimes characterised as a pendulum swinging between more state solutions for one period of time and more market solutions for another.

The argument that I want to make this morning is that this doesn’t help us now.

We cannot answer the questions on the table today by simply seek to strike a new balance between old ideas; old conceps of the market, old notions of the state – when actually both must change.

For New Labour there is no ideological trap. For us what has always counted is what works. But there is a practical test.

Can we step up and lift these new burdens without simply building new bureaucracies? As we go about our work of putting money into people’s pockets, can we combine a strategy for putting power into people’s hands? Can, in other words, we build a smarter state rather than a bigger state? And of course my answer to all of those questions is Yes. Yes. Yes.

Now some would disagree. They would say Labour’s basic instinct is to build a bigger state.

My argument is that is to confuse our attachment to a now-gone consensus with our inherent culture.

The truth is that if you look back at the 20s 30s 40s 50s, our creation of big corporations was simply the consensus. A consensus shared with the Conservatives who created the big, corporate BBC, and endorsed National Economic Development Council.

If truth be told, in our political tradition, the statism and planning of Jay and Dalton has always competed with the radicals like GBH Cole. And, of course, that tradition of political thought in our own party draws some of our earliest instincts – the ideas of Robert Owen, Morris, Ruskin.

In this post-bureaucratic age, it’s these pre-bureaucratic traditions which are our best guide.

And that’s why we published Working Together last week, to set out how over the year to come you will see the most radical year for PSR since this government was elected in 1997.

First amongst equal in the themes therein, is an argument about the movement of power from government into the hands of citizens.

So in health you see not just an argument about choice but in the NHS constitution an enshrinement of the right to choice. The ambition to set personal care plans for 15m people; new legislation coming through the House to give the NHS new power to give people control over their own budgets.

In education you see radical plans for the expansion of 1:1 tuition to 140,000 children in September, rising to 300,000 kids in the year to come. You see report cards giving parents a proper new picture of how different schools in their area are doing.

You see a radical agenda for how communities can shape local policing priorities.

And you see too a clear argument that we cannot give people real power over public services unless we free up front line public servants to use their judgement to respond to the needs in front of them.

So that’s why you see in Working Together a radical agenda for empowering front line staff and empowering front line institutions.

We set out very clearly our ambition to see every possible Trust a Foundation Trust by 2010 with the freedoms that come with it. You see, for example, our ambition to build 180 academies over the next couple of years. There are already 130 Trust schools. Now there are 450 more in the pipeline. In policing, you see the state saying we only need one target – and that is local public satisfaction. So we deliver a radical cut-back of red tape.

But we go further. Because we promise investment – accelerating public net investment up to £40bn over the next year – plus standards.

This is, I think, one of the most important dimensions across which there is a political difference.

Because when we say we want to make sure that people can get into hospital and get seen within 18 weeks – that isn’t in the eyes of most people in this country a bit of red tape; that’s an important right and an important entitlement.

When we say that we will give kids 1:1 tuition if they’re falling behind – for most parents that isn’t a bit of red tape, it’s an important standard.

What we’re trying to set out in our plans for reform is not just an argument about empowerment for citizens and families, not just an agenda giving frontline staff to do their jobs and use their judgement, we want to offer the public not a gamble but guarantees for what they can expect from public services.

When I look at some of the Conservative party’s policies what I fear I see not an agenda for a post-bureaucratic age but for a post –government age; the last redoubt of a fetish for laissez faire.

Take health for example. The Conservatives want to abolish guarantees around 18 weeks waiting times, around evening opening or week-end opening for GP surgeries, around cancer treatment in two weeks from diagnosis to treatment.

That isn’t what the public’s looking for.

In education, if I had one criticism of Michael Gove’s philosophy around school reform it’s that he would abolish National Challenge. Where the government sees bad standards we act quickly to shut down those schools rather than simply leaving the slow withering on the vine of schools to some kind of strange market force.

And, of course, alongside this agenda, we see plans for cutting back public investment.

So, from April this year there are proposals from Her Majesty’s Opposition, to cut public spending by about £5bn. Not to cut the national debt but to offer a tax cut for a certain section of society.

What I see in this is an ideological trap that focuses on MEANS when what we should be focusing on is ENDS.

That’s where I would like to conclude. There are myriad questions I hope the IPPR addresses in its programme on the smarter state.

What for example should front line public service institutions look like in the years to come?

We know that the best public service leaders today are not simply confining what they do to delivery of traditional services.

Most teachers for example would tell you that in order to turn around education standards you not only need to serve children when they are young, very often you have to take on the education of the family, too.

If you work with neighbourhood policing teams, most beat sergeants will tell you that they can’t turn around crime in an area simply by tackling criminals. They have to look at the wider position of things like youth services more generally.

Front line institutions in the future will not simply be confined to what has been defined as their core purpose 150 years ago.

Increasingly they will seek to broaden the services that they offer.

That has big implications for what those services look like. It has big implications for how we blur the boundaries between institutions and the communities they serve.

What, for example, is the role of the charitable, voluntary or Third Sector in bridging those traditional divides between institutions and the communities they serve?

How do we pull forward more people from those communities to actually help shape and produce the public services that we pay our taxes for?

What are the implications of all of this for the centre of government?

How do we carry on shrinking the size of government at the centre and how do you pay for all this in the years to come?

These are big, profound questions.

Having moved public services from the sorry state that we inherited to a sound state, now we have to transform public services into a different place altogether.

That cannot be done through red tape, dictats from the centre.

That can only be done by unlocking innovation, energy, enthusiasm, enterprise, the passion to serve that is alive and well in most public servants.

They don’t simply want to change communities, very often they want to change the world.

That’s an extraordinary asset which we have in this country. PSR in the next decade has to focus on unlocking that passion, because it is through unlocking that passion that we will in turn transform this country over the decades ahead.



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