Posted by: davidjmarlow | 09/07/2011

‘Better’, ‘more’ or ‘less’ – in search of radical Public Services Reform

Lord Adonis’s ‘Ashridge Learning Bite’ on Public Services Reform (PSR) at IoD (8th July 2011) was coherent, well-articulated, and rooted in the real experience of a Minister for 12 years in the Labour Government (and current Director of the Institute for Government). In summary, he characterised Labour’s PSR as ‘Better (public services) for more (expenditure)’ whilst the current Coalition’s ethos was ‘Better for less’. He then argued that ‘better for more’ and ‘better for less’ felt very similar in terms of the difficulties of introducing completely new services; fundamentally redesigning existing services; and increasing citizen co-payment. Lord Adonis’s views deserve respect, but they seem, to me, to suffer from an over-generous interpretation of the Coalition’s approach.

Although there were changes at the margin, the bulk of Labour’s expenditure focused on tackling deficiencies in basic core services – partly because of decades of underinvestment and poor performance. Therefore, in the main, additional education expenditure produced new schools, better paid teachers, and stronger performance management rather than radical innovative changes in approach. Producer interests resisted radical reconfigurations. Citizens were resistant to co-payment in the state sector; and so, after the introduction of university tuition fees, government did not take this battle on for a significant service again.

With the current government, public austerity tends to prevent introduction of new services; producer interests remain very strong(witness BMA and NHS reforms); and, on major copayment, government may again be bruised by fighting the (same if much more severe) tuition fee battle.

On this analysis, fundamental PSR remains elusive and changes marginal. This is a valuable perspective and a ‘reality check’, in a period when most commentators are accentuating the radical character, profound impact, and dramatic break with the past of Coalition policies. It also provides explanations of the Coalition’s U-turns as they appear to drift back to incrementalism.

However, Adonis’s potentially fatal flaw is the ‘better for more’/’better for less’ counterpoint. A more orthodox argument would contrast Labour’s ‘better for more’ with a Coalition’s ‘LESS for less’ approach. On this basis, major services are being radically reduced (e.g. welfare reform) and/or replaced (e.g. affordable housing regime); with copayment either increased under a Big Society smokescreen or services being removed completely from communities with low social capital and/or ability to pay.

‘Less for less’ is predominantly a deficit reduction phenomenon, where the driver of change is almost totally financial, and NOT a coherent approach to PSR at all – hence the repeated delays in the Coalition’s PSR White Paper announced at the October 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

One can be much more positive than Adonis about the PSR impact of ‘better for more’ on new services (e.g. ‘Surestart’/Nursery Provision); the much-needed reinvestment in Education, Health and infrastructure; and even the attempts towards the end of their tenure to wrap this up in a coherent approach to ‘Total Place’. As the financial consequences of CSR begin to be played out; and in the absence of a coherent approach to PSR, this feels very different to ‘less for less’.

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