How should we reform public services?
My answer to the question ‘how should we reform public services?’ is …
Please don’t try. At least, not yet. Do it a bit later.
If the left has a fault, it is that we are not very good at waiting for the right moment.
We will have one huge problem when we win the election: there will still be a significant deficit. growth will likely be sluggish, unemployment high.
The prime minister and Treasury will wrestle with the challenge of driving growth through the economy. Any spare resources will be devoted to supporting struggling families.
So until 2017 the first priority for public services should be cost-effective delivery.
There will be reforms needed to deliver this, but most progressive policy solutions require either spare capacity or extra funding.
Stuffing mouths with gold is key to structural reform. So why not wait until we can offer both carrot and stick?
There’s another argument for holding fire for a year or two.
We don’t know what sort of services we will inherit.
The government NHS reform won’t work. Yet, because it is unlikely to work, between now and the election we’ll see a series of revisions, changes and patches.
The NHS in 2015 will be different to Lansley’s conception of it today.
When we inherit it, will we really want to unpick GP commissioning just at the point the worst of its idiocies have been destroyed by reality?
In education, there will be an unknown number of free schools, an unknown number of academies, and we could well be facing a capacity crisis, a growing number of schools with severe resource restraints, or both, in different places.
The immediate priority will be correcting the worst of this.
Third, opposition is a terrible place to do detailed policy work. You have to spend all your time at by-elections or getting on the Today programme. Post-1945, we had five years of detailed policy lifting in government to build on.
We’ll only get one shot, so do it right.
I expect few will love major reforms undertaken with no new money, expensive structural consequences and a lack of policy detail to support them.
So why fight battles at a poor moment, on poor ground, poorly prepared?
I’m not unambitious. I want us to be focused in our ambition.
There are two areas where progressives can really make a difference in the early years of the next government.
Luckily for me, they happen to be in Stephen and Liz’s patches.
I’d be in real trouble if Yvette was here.
Actually, I’d just change my priorities. I’m a coward.
The first is care services. The government flunked the test here in the Queen’s speech.
They’ve kicked reform into the post-spending review period, and because they’ll have little money, and it’s not a political priority for them, it’ll be delayed even further. We must not.
The one good thing about the delay is that we will have pilots and policy detail to build on, and there will be the opportunity to take dramatic action that has a real impact on lives.
We should think of adult care, not just as a model for adult services, but as a way of delivering that can be extended to deliver socially just aims in other services too, without overburdening the exchequer.
So, for example, we can use successful care pilots to show how co-production can work to reduce cost pressures and make lives better.
I think now if you say ‘co-production’ you’d get blank looks. In five years’ time, you’ll still get blank looks, but we’ll have charts.
The second area is around skills, FE, vocational and postgraduate education.
I think most of us agree the last Labour government could have done better here.
One of the few things we could build on are university technical colleges, (a Labour idea, by the way) which could be a path to further and higher education for those who have been excluded from it.
UTCs look like being the neglected stepchild of free schools, when they should be the star.
We should also unpick the funding divide between university education and the best vocational education. If you can get a student loan to be a barrister or a teacher or a mechanical engineer, why not for a skilled trade?
Reforms in those areas should be enough for a time when we’ve little extra money to spend.
They might even be enough to fulfil the most important role of any reform of public services – ensure ambitious cabinet ministers get promoted!
Hopi Sen is a commissioning editor to Progress magazine and a Labour blogger. He blogs here and tweets @HopiSen
Hopi Sen, Labour, public service reform