Power surge

It could be the week that marked the beginning of the end for ‘Labour’s institutional statism’ as Ben Lucas of the RSA suggests on page 9, following keynote interventions last month by Ed Miliband and by Jon Cruddas, the latter addressing the New Local Government Network. The shift to decentralisation has been foreshadowed in centre-left circles since 2010, with Tessa Jowell arguing for the ‘relational state’ in Progress’ own Purple Book in 2011 and IPPR working on the idea extensively. Neither Miliband nor Cruddas specifically made mention of the relational state but the concept may yet prove influential. Launched the same week, IPPR’s report, Many to Many, outlined principles for the ‘how’ of managing public services in a relational way once the government finally gives power away.

Recognising the difference between ‘tame’ and ‘complex’ problems (how to get the bins collected each week versus, say, sorting out the interrelated ills of low skills, antisocial behaviour and unemployment), IPPR argues for a ‘decentralisation of budgets to local authorities and city-regions to unlock innovation, improve responsiveness and break down silos’ and ‘greater pooling of funding, so that services can take a “whole person” or “whole area” view’, and ‘designing institutions that strengthen relationships between citizens and enable them to tackle shared problems together.’

The same week Progress published a thinkpiece, Reform in an Age of Austerity, which critiqued aspects of relational state thinking but concluded that the ‘ideological battle for public service reform, for flexible, people-centred, non-directed, user-focused services has been won. The battle to do public service reform well has only just begun.’ Part of the critique revolved around the question of what happens if ‘locally endowed institutions … choose to pursue their aims not by providing services themselves, but by asking others to do so, whether through a private company, a charity, or an existing public service.’ As the authors note, ‘Those who argue for a state that rejects standardisation and targets cannot also dictate how their autonomous bodies choose to deploy resources … “You will have a cooperative, like it or not,” says the minister for relationality from Whitehall.’

IPPR argues, rightly, that ‘the first step towards the relational state is decentralisation’ but still slightly open-ended, then, is the question of what the second step is – and what happens if the next step is not ‘relational’ in character but simply transactional in nature, with newly powerful local authorities choosing to commission private companies that are uninterested in spending time fostering relationships in local patches. With a handful of Tory councils embarking on large-scale outsourcing in the last few years it is by no means a moot point.

Similarly left untackled for Labour is the issue of ‘exit’ in public services. IPPR reports the results of its qualitative research in which service users relate that they do not like the idea of quitting services to get change and would rather they were of high quality in the first place. But this is unsurprising – no one wants such upheaval and everyone rightly expects their local services to be good. In the debate about ensuring quality in the first place the influence of service users’ power to walk out the door has been left largely undiscussed. Meaningful power may mean the power for people to leave an institution, not merely to ask those who run it to be better in future when it fails.

The left is still finding its way towards a coherent position on power and public service reform, though the post-‘big society’ right seems largely to have given up on such thinking. Few tanks on the right appear to be seriously engaging with such questions with the exception of Policy Exchange, which continues to release a succession of reports on discrete topics ranging from supporting lone parents to improving public parks. In terms of the coalition’s reforms, what is the unifying thinking behind elected police and crime commissioners, unelected clinical commissioning groups, rapid academisation and outsourced welfare-to-work schemes? True decentralisation may bring its own complexities but at least these may be brought about by the clear, driving principle of pushing power down, rather than splintering it in many directions.

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