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Following Through with the Vision: Public Services in 2012

    In the thirteenth of the CPS' 'UK Policy Resolutions for 2012' series, CPS Research Fellow Robert Colvile explains the importance of public service reform in 2012. Yesterday, in the twelfth in the series, Ted Bromund provided lessons from US defence policy for the UK.

    UK Policy Resolutions for 2012:

    • Shift focus of public services from employees to users
    • Be radical in introducing choice in public services

    When it came to power, the Coalition promised to transform not just how much government spent, but how it operated. Writing in The Daily Telegraph in February, David Cameron said that the imminent White Paper on public service reform would revolutionise the provision of health, education and so much more. There would be a duty of choice, meaning that businesses and charities would have as much of a right to provide public services as the existing employees. As Cameron wrote, “Instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.”

    There was just one problem: the Liberal Democrats. After their vigorous objections, and liberal use of Danny Alexander’s red pen, the White Paper was eventually published in July. However, no action was taken; the latest news is that there will be another review of the review within Downing Street – effectively ripping up the existing plan and starting again.

    This is a huge mistake – and a huge opportunity. The great danger for the Coalition, given the gravity of the economic situation it faces, is that it will focus narrowly on the bottom line, leaving us with a government that does the same kinds of things, but throws a bit less money at them. Yet the model for the public services is badly out of date.

    There are people at the top of government doing brave and interesting things – Francis Maude, for one – and there have been commendable attempts to get to grips with, for example, the impact of the online revolution on public service delivery. But the state machine itself responds only spasmodically to the prodding from above: so vast and sprawling has it become that it is nightmarishly difficult to effect real change.

     

    UK POLICY RESOLUTION FOR 2012

    The great beauty of the duty of choice was its simplicity. Where public services were efficient and effective, they would be retained. Where they were failing, the work would go elsewhere. True, there is a danger of a race to the bottom, with price being prioritised over effectiveness, but setting the right incentives would mitigate that. More to the point, it would shift the focus of public services from their employees to their users – making it crystal clear that what matters is not the comfortable pension, or the job security, but that the public receives a first-class service.

    Such a move would, effectively, complete the Thatcher revolution. Introducing choice and competition throughout the public services – and, crucially, the possibility of failure, so that the worst providers lost out due to market forces – would be a great transformative step, and leave behind a legacy that David Cameron could be proud of. The White Paper has already been diluted to the point of ineffectiveness, but if this fresh review can reintroduce some of the radicalism of the Prime Minister’s original vision, it will bring incalculable benefits to the country.

     

    Robert Colvile is Comment Editor of The Sunday Telegraph and an editor and leader writer on The Daily Telegraph. He is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Policy Studies.

    This article represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily represent the policy outlook of the Centre for Policy Studies, its board, staff or affiliated members.

    Robert Colvile is Director of the CPS and Editor of CapX. He was previously head of comment at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and news director at BuzzFeed UK, as well as an editor, columnist and leader writer with the Telegraph.

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