Public service reform: credible treatment requires bold diagnosis

February 17, 2014 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

For those of us who think the Westminster and Whitehall model of public policy is fatally flawed, there was cause for hope in speeches last week by Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas: Devolving power, opening up Government – especially its data – and building services around the preferences and needs of citizens were all important themes.

The problem is we have heard most of this before. A recent Institute for Government pamphlet surveys the mixed record of initiatives in an English system that remains among the most centralised in the developed world and concludes:

While all parties have been good at making commitments to devolve power, governments have found it hard to implement decentralising reforms in practice.

And here is a quote that would fit neatly into either Labour speech:

The effects of this redistribution of power will be felt throughout politics, with people in control of the things that matter to them, a country where the political system is open and trustworthy, and power redistributed from the political elite to the man and woman in the street 

These are the words of David Cameron in 2009, promising as Prime Minister to create a ‘post bureaucratic state’.

Yet, when it comes to letting go of power, the Coalition has been another Government with a mixed to mediocre record. On the positive side of the ledger lie significant initiatives including City Deals and community budgets, on the negative side are the top down reforms and ceaseless micro management of major Whitehall service departments, as well as the decision to place the main burden of austerity on to the shoulders of local authorities. In addition there are half baked schemes including Police and Crime Commissioners and the Community Right to Bid which someone with a Machiavellian outlook might suspect were designed to give people-power a bad name.

I largely exempt from my scepticism the Open Policy Making team in the Cabinet Office. My enthusiasm however has less to do with what has yet been achieved – not much – than with its starting point. It is this analysis of the fundamental failings, not just of aspects of central Government, but a whole way of thinking about power and policy which is missing from the account of both Miliband and even the more thoughtful Cruddas.

To believe that next time could be different for Labour we need to hear points like these:

For many decades the overall record of central Government public policy has been atrocious

I am not here merely referring to the well-known cock-ups forensically analysed by Crewe and King in their excellent recent ‘Blunders of our Governments‘ (e.g. Child Support Agency, London Underground PPP, Poll Tax), nor even the failure of major outsourcing projects like NHS patient records or most of the Work Programme.

In the thirty years since Margaret Thatcher’s second term our health service and schools have been subject to almost continuous intensive reform. Imagine if across this time, hospitals, GPs and schools had received the same funding to spend as they deemed best but with some basic mechanisms to ensure community and citizen accountability. Imagine also that instead of all the legislation and regulation and ring fenced budgets, central Government had restricted its role to acting as a strategic resource providing information, good ideas and networks, and only intervening in extremis and then only to demand a local solution. Isn’t it pretty likely that the health and school system would have evolved – learning from success and failure – into something equal or better than what we now have? Then, finally, imagine that the many tens of billions of pounds that have been spent on centrally mandated re-organisation had been available to invest in front line services.

The forces making central Government policy inept are accelerating

Partly this is about politics and the media: parties getting weaker and more unrepresentative, news becoming 24 hour and increasingly shrill in its desperate attempt to grab public attention. But more fundamental is the complexity and pace of change of modern life.

It is an axiom of Open Policy Making that change outside large organisations is now often faster than change can take place inside such bureaucracies (leaving aside the whole problem about the demarcation of inside and outside). Government with its cumbersome processes of policy making, regulation and accountability is even slower to adapt than the major corporations that have for years been trying to discover the secret to ‘agile’ operation. The slow, sludgy, distorting feedback loops of traditional Government policy-making are a recipe for continual under-performance and occasional farce.

Rather than the problem for policy being mobilisation, the problem for mobilisation is policy

The tools of traditional policy makers are regulation and money. Confronted by growing evidence of failure and public disenchantment, Whitehall decision makers have sought to graft on elements of public engagement. There has been ‘voice’ in the form of consultation and various consumer rights and ‘choice` in the form of greater diversity of provision and some capacity for citizens themselves to decide who they want as a service provider. Not all of this has been superficial. For example, direct payments for social care is a genuinely radical shift, albeit hampered by falling budgets. But by taking a narrow consumerist angle on policy problems, some reforms have generated bad outcomes. Enhanced parental choice over school places has become a stronger driver of inequality.

Most new initiatives from those who consider themselves modernisers are an extension of voice and choice, like Miliband’s promise to strengthen the right of parents to demand intervention in weak schools (never mind that such a power already exists). But this misses the point.

Generally, the goals of public policy – a better educated, more law-abiding, healthier citizenry – by their very nature depend on public mobilisation. This is not just about individual behaviour change but also wider social consent to change, as well as civic engagement in designing and driving that change. Thus the question should not be ‘how do we mobilise citizens around the policy we have chosen?’ but ‘who are the citizens and groups who influence outcomes in any given area?’, ‘how might we engage and mobilise them behind a shared vision of progress?’ and ‘does that involve traditional central policy (with all is inherent failings) at all?’

The way to predict the future is to create it

Jon Cruddas offered five principles for Labour’s policy review: ‘1. Transformation 2. Prevention 3. Devolution, 4. Collaboration and cooperation, 5. Citizenship and contribution. But what about ‘design’?.

Observance of Chatham House rules requires me to protect the source of the following brilliant observations from an official currently seconded to the Cabinet Office.

‘Having never worked in Whitehall I spent a few weeks wondering around, going to meetings and watching people work. After a while I figured it out: Central government is basically a publishing house. It is full of people writing stuff, contracts, consultation papers, regulations. These things take ages to write. Because they are so long and complex they inevitably contain flaws that are only discovered when they are implemented.

‘Innovation for designers involves doing stuff and testing it on people, for policy makers it means writing stuff and selling it to people.

‘Policy makers and designers have a fundamentally different view of mistakes. Designers like mistakes because they provide useful information that can be used to adapt and improve the model. Policy makers hate mistakes because they are so hard to undo, so they tend to ignore or suppress information about failings.

Around the world social innovation labs and service designers are making incursions into Government, but their work still feels tenuous, a bolt-on to the creaking old system. A design-based approach to change needs to be seen as a radical democratising project deserving support from the top not just a clever bit of technique to be tolerated at the margins…….

There is little in this post that is incompatible with the themes of Labour’s recent speeches. Indeed, from a passing reference he makes to expanding the work of the Government Digital Service, it seems Cruddas knows an incoming Labour Government should try to preserve the best of what is going on in the Cabinet Office.

But Labour and the other parties must take heed of the failure of previous governance reform. Cruddas and Miliband argue eloquently that the reform they advocate reflects the best traditions of the centre left. But Cameron maintained the same thing from the right. Vague aspirations and a basket of unconnected policies will not do. We need the central pillars of old policy making to be dismantled for the simple reason that the only alternative is continued failure.

The real test will be this year’s party conferences and next year’s manifestos. In the run up to the election the Institute for Government’s prosaic observation should be put in neon lights above every party HQ:

‘Party leaders must also be careful not to allow their colleagues to develop strong positions on policy areas they hope to decentralise’

Postscript: This afternoon I met up with Susannah Walden who has been working on our Whole Person Recovery project. Maybe because it’s her last week here she was  frank about the challenges of our ‘people-powered’ approach and what we have had to learn from getting things wrong as well as right. The fact that user-driven, design based, experimental change is hard is another – perhaps the most important  – reason we need to understand that existing policy methodologies are bust. Otherwise when things get tough we will be tempted to revert to the illusion of central control.





  • Edward Harkins

    Matthew a lot of good, high grade thinking and evidence on the theme. I, however, really would like to see more on how for there to be a truly ‘bold diagnosis’ the stakeholders at the sharp end have to be meaningfully and effectively engaged with. I find myself repeatedly restating that in the UK. government departments, agencies and individuals at all levels are generally poorly trained, equipped and operate on a culture that precludes such engagement.

    That general failure is, of course, against a background of a democratic system across the UK that is IMO no longer fit-for-purpose.

    We can work over the entrails of structures, process and theory sets all we wish, but if we do not get engagement (and the democratic infrastructure) right, IMO we just go on the same old treadmill of insanity in public services in the UK.

  • matthew taylor

    I agree Edward but imagine a centre which saw its role as based not on power, control of money and regulation but influence, expertise and networks. What a happier, more attractive, more open and mroe effective place Whitehall would be.

  • ewdard harkins

    Oh yes, let me know when that Utopia becomes a Nirvana and I’m getting the bus to it :-)

  • David Moss

    … from a passing reference he makes to expanding the work of the Government Digital Service, it seems Cruddas knows an incoming Labour Government should try to preserve the best of what is going on in the Cabinet Office …

    The Government Digital Service (GDS) have created GOV.UK which replaces the previous central government departmental websites. GOV.UK supports Whitehall’s publishing requirements, just as the previous websites did. Net progress – nil.

    The progress GDS is aiming at is to make public services digital by default, as called for by Martha-now-Lady Lane Fox in her revolution not evolution paper. The revolution involves centralising policy-making and budget control and news dissemination in GDS. Centralisation on steroids.

    For digital by default to work citizens have to be able to transact with government on-line. Two problems.

    Firstly, something like 16 million people in the UK can’t or won’t transact on-line.

    Second, for those of us who can and will, we all need to be identifiable on-line. We need the on-line, dematerialised, digital equivalent of an ID card.

    For that, GDS have the Identity Assurance Programme, IDA. IDA is already late. It creates a new institution in the unwritten British Constitution – the “identity provider” (IDP). GDS have five IDPs.

    Will the British public trust these IDPs with all their personal data? Will companies trust them? It’s unlikely. The media are full of stories all day every day about breaches of security on the web. If even US military contractors can’t protect themselves – and they can’t – why should the IDPs be able to? No reason.

    Without IDA, it is impossible for GDS to move on from publishing to transacting. Which is why the dial on their “transformation dashboard” is stuck stubbornly at 1 – of 25 transformation projects on the table, only 1 has gone live.

    GDS show no sign of being able to get IDA off the ground. They also seem to have a blind spot about security. They just can’t take it seriously.

    If Mr Cruddas is relying on GDS for transformation, he may like to consider the points above.

    He may also care to consider GDS’s promise, if digital-by-default ever does take off, to make 40,000+ public servants redundant, replaced by intelligent software agents and applications program interfaces. That would be the effect of the Lane Fox prerogative – massive centralisation and standardisation. Let us hope that IDA remains late for a long time to come.

  • Adrian Perry

    Totally agree about the waste in reorganization (add in costs from PFI and there’s your next set of painless budget cuts, right there). And when I hear the word transformation, I reach for my … tired and cynical grin. It is a cliché so old that even George Orwell took the mickey out of it. There is a political obsession with reorganization and restructuring as a way of changing behaviour, yet it has failed so often – and often when it has no prospect of success. Why should changing the governing body of schools raise standards, for heaven’s sake ? Where is the evidence that police commissioners have improved public safety ? The ending of the National Rivers Authority – that worked out well, didn’t it ?

    You haven’t mentioned the triumph of neo-liberalism. Just as the full failure of markets has been revealed, the governments of all parties fall in love with them. It seems the only way that proper public administration is allowed is when there is some idea of ‘market failure’. The continental idea – that the activities of the state are the expression of our better collective selves – has been lost in a welter of public choice theory. How convenient also for ministers to have devolved tough tasks to arm’s length organisations. In the past, a Minister would resign after a cock-up: now they express grave concern and call in the Chief Executive for a rocket. But it is contradictory to create Next Steps organisations and then try to micro-manage them (“Did you threaten to sack the Director of Prisons ?”). I have my own experience of micro-management – when a college Principal, I remember being asked to bid for ‘challenge funds’ that were less than one tenth of one per cent of budget.

    A question – do citizens want to have services that they micro-manage around their needs, and choices, with even less expertise than Whitehall ? Surely they just want better things (a steal from Ab Fab, I know). And even then only for relevant periods – you lose interest in primary schools when your kids become eleven.

    In passing, one way to devolve would be to let local government have its head – but there is a deep contempt for local government – as shown in the sponsorship of academies – the advantages of which are flimsy (see research – I mean real academic research, not paid-for departmental and consultancy cheer-leading) and whose only selling point is that they are ‘independent of local authorities’. Further and (particularly) adult education has been slowly destroyed by the removal from LEA control – because there are no longer any local enthusiasts. The need to have connections between (e.g.) economic development, vocational training, schools, housing, has been lost in a welter of atomization.

    OK – what am I in favour of ? Overall, what is needed in place of emphasis on structures is a focus on outcomes and behaviour – improve schools with better staff training (look at the profound impact of Blunkett’s Success For All initiative – which was dumped for more choice and competition after raising success rates by 20%). Building up a cadre of dedicated and committed staff (which means privatisation as an absolute last resort – just look what has happened to social care). I think nudge helps – for example, if you are really keen on NHS hospitals charging foreigners, allow them to keep the money they charge as bunce on top of their UK budget (rather than doing a line-by-line deduction). Use of targets to assess performance in a shared and consensual way, not to beat people up (or, worse, pay them bonuses – in either case it leads to gaming behaviour, or lies). Lots of research fed into the service (I worked in technical colleges for thirty years, and cannot remember a single research-driven initiative). Above all, public policy to be introduced in a calm and consensual way, based on evidence, and with estimated improvements in outcome. Consensus where possible – which it is, from apprenticeships to floods and all stops in between. And Ministers to be fired if their changes don’t work.

  • Matthew Mezey

    Lots of questions spring to mind after reading this post of yours…

    Presumably current policy approaches tend to use the Hierarchical lens (from Cultural Theory) ie top-down, expert-led?

    What would policy look like which simultaneously drew on all the active lenses of Cultural Theory (Hierarchical, Solidaristic, Individualist) – in other words ‘Clumsy’ policy? (Better understood as policy that honours the reality of poly-rationality).

    That paper by Verweij and Ney (‘Messy Institutions for Wicked Problems’) found that the the most Clumsy/poly-rational approaches to developing strategies and policies were things like Future Search Conferences, Design Theory, Citizens Juries, Deliberative Polling, Planning Cells and 21st Century Town Meetings.

    Should the RSA be supporting these kind of approaches, perhaps?

    These approaches would all sit well over on the ‘co-creation’ side of the spectrum of stakeholder involvement techniques – – a long way from ‘Telling’, ‘Selling’ etc.

    A central government that develops a focus on ‘influence, expertise and networks’ – as you mention – would perhaps be a central government beginning to move away from the ‘Diagnostic’ methods towards the emerging ‘Dialogic’ approaches to policy…?

    This is a generative distinction that Bushe and Marshak are writing about, in the world of organisational development.

    The ‘Diagnostic’ approach is linear, modernist, research precedes decision – probably tends to towards the ‘Hierarchical’ lens, where ‘the few decide for the many’. The top-grade policy of the experts is then passed out to the groups who will implement it. (Or will they? Everyone else wasn’t much involved in developing the policy, so there’s always going to be a problem with getting people to buy in to a pre-determined solution – an ‘engagement gap’ is created).

    Dialogic approaches are about disruption, changing core narratives with generative images etc. They are ‘start everywhere, spread out’ rather than ‘start at the top, work down’ – and they’re apparently loath to focus on fixing ‘gaps’, believing that is more an impediment than a resource for transformational change.

    Perhaps there will come a day where high involvement ‘Large Group Methods’ such as Open Space are in more common use in policy circles? (With its need for highly diverse groups, passion, conflict, urgency). Though possibly not in fact ‘Open Space’, as the Cultural Theorists tell us that it focuses solely on a Solidaristic approach, so isn’t in fact a ‘clumsy’ method, like Future Search Conferences, even if engaging.

    What would the Diagnostic vs Dialogic distinction look like, when transferred from Organisational Development to the policy milieu, I wonder?

    We need policy-makers who recognise both these mindsets, and can leap between them in themselves, when needed.

    I’m mot sure I really understand any of this stuff, but there you go… I find it challenging and interesting, so I’m trying to understand it. Plenty of RSA Fellows are steeped in this complexity-aware way of thinking. I had a good chat with one of them – LSE’s Prof Eve Mitleton-Kelly – at our big event in the Great Room for new Fellows recently. (And Fellows seem to be getting interested in complexity-aware approaches to project evaluation such as Patton’s ‘Developmental Evaluation’ too. I watched a video that Laura Billings recently posted about it: It seems to be an approach to evaluation that is particularly appropriate for social innovators to use).

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • Oliver

    Whitehall is a saddening place. As is Westminster as a whole. It cannot be described in prose, only the word ‘eerie’ comes close. We talk of enemies more than we used to. Oftentimes the only thing more dispiriting than emotionally barbed adversarialism is feigned adversarialism, particularly for the purposes of feeding a machine or advancing position. Worse still, as can be observed in all political systems or any large organisational structures, one of the key hindrances to right action is not bad action or mistaken policy, but inaction. Every large organisation or spider web of governance requires performance in three primary areas: it needs direct results (however one decides to quantify them); building of values and their reaffirmation; and the nurturing and development of a new generation to a higher level, only possible without feelings of personal threat or inadequacy that come from most downward authority. The story of the next thirty years will be the third of these, the collapsing of that that distance, and the mechanism will be, “How can I contribute?” The story has in fact already begun.

    Too many of us simply live to fight another day. We get by on doing the bare minimum, keeping the lights on and somehow taking home a pay check – but it’s OK, because our families are fed. And all too often our families being fed is dependent on our not understanding (or acknowledging) the reality of how they’re being fed. So long as we can take home that pay check, most of us will rarely allow for sufficient introspection for the growth of a candid and self-effacing spirit, the repercussions of which may well include the admission of inconvenient truthes. The knowledge that we may not really be earning that paycheck: that we have not contributed enough; adapted or grown enough; helped enough to nurture those who now beginning where we once embarked. Pushkin once said the illusion that exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths. There may be something in that.

    A major cause of failure is an unwillingness or inability to change with the demands of a new landscape. A shockingly high number of able individuals failed or stagnated during World War II Washington; not merely because they found it too political, or themselves as mere spokes in a wheel. Consider the way others proved themselves highly effective even though they had no political sense or had never worked in anything larger than a small law practice with a handful of employees. Robert Sherwood, speechwriter to Roosevelt and later a highly effective Director of the Office of War Information, had previously been a playwright, whose only prior experience of an ‘organisation’ had been his desk and typewriter.

    The “how can I contribute?” mindset makes intelligible these individuals and their unlikely successes. It may also help to explain the effectiveness of Robert McNamara as Defence Secretary under Kennedy; summoned from the corporate world of Ford, he was put in one of the toughest cabinet jobs. At Ford he was quintessential inside man, unprepared for and innocent of the world of politics, preferring initially to leave congressional liaison to subordinates. Quickly realising his role depended on congressional understand and support, he drove away from his comfort zone, formed relationships with these people and humbly immersed himself as a novice in the strange art of politicking and in-fighting. Despite his publicity-shy and non-political nature he acquired a level of mastery in an altogether new craft, characterised by what he felt were uncivilised and distasteful traits. He did it nonetheless, and went on to be regarded by Kennedy as the star of his team, called on for advice on a wide array of policy areas beyond national security.

    McNamara once said towards the evening of his days that his most painful lesson was in not knowing himself or the group he was leading. He did, however, always know – and more importantly empathise with – his enemy.

    We talk of enemies more than we used to. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Happy Friday everybody.


  • Benjamin D

    Love the publishing house comment.

    I’ve been ‘wandering around’ CCGs for the last 7 months, and believe me they are local sub-offices of the publishing house as they re-build their governance processes from the ashes of the PCTs.

    A specific example, the Francis inquiry has been wonderful in creating another round of paperwork, but cultural change? Don’t hold your breath.

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