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Reform publishes “Annual conference 2015: a smarter State” conference brochure, with articles from Mike Turley, Keith Davis, Dave Spencer, Gideon Skinner, Mark Dearnley, Mark Hughes, Simon Hamilton MLA, Tracy Westall and DCC Dave Thompson QPM.
Francis Maude is fond of quoting Mario Cuomo’s insight: “We campaign in poetry and we govern in prose.” Certainly much of the mood of the Government is practical and business like, as it applies financial pressure and reform more widely across the public sector. Something genuinely exciting is happening nevertheless. The public sector has now begun a historic period of change that should see true advances in our wellbeing, improved public services and greater control of costs over time. Those changes are the subject of Reform’s 2015 annual conference today.
In a key speech in early September, the Prime Minister made the case for a State that is both smaller and smarter. He argued that the right government action can intervene in social problems early. By solving them, public services can both improve lives and save a lot of public money downstream. People have made the case for early intervention before, but there is a new momentum behind the idea. Continued financial pressure is driving a better understanding of costs (and other aspects of public sector finance). That better understanding means that government will be more willing to intervene early because it will have more confidence in the financial savings that can be achieved as a result. The UK is following countries such as New Zealand. Its government has employed independent auditors to work out how to reduce future welfare bills by improving services now.
This is a genuinely new approach. Lower spending, or a smaller public sector headcount, in itself doesn’t mean a different kind of State. Those budgets could just increase again when economic times improve. Something similar happened in the 1990s, as John Major’s recession was followed by Tony Blair’s spending boom. But things really will change when the State tries to operate differently, and save money as a result. Long overdue changes in the organisation of public services, such as the division between NHS and social care, will follow as services focus more clearly on changing lives.
The conference’s first session will focus on this shift to transformational change in the public sector. It will launch Reform and Deloitte’s latest annual edition of The State of the State, our joint report on the finances and reform progress of the public sector across the UK.
Earlier in the summer, the Government announced that the themes for the forthcoming Spending Review would be devolution and digital technology. George Osborne followed that up at the Conservative Party conference by announcing deeper devolution, giving councils greater controls over their business rates for example.
Reform’s work so far has suggested that devolution can make a difference but may not necessarily do so. The test is whether local areas gain new energy, which enables them to overcome any underlying resistance to reforming services. We will hear today from areas of England and the UK where Ministers have invested much hope of local innovations helping solve some of the big policy challenges.
One of the themes of Reform’s Party conference work was the growing importance of digital technology. We heard of apps that use real time data on the weight of train carriages to predict which carriages have spare seats. The potential impact on the NHS is particularly great, as technology enables both a higher uniform standard of care and greater numbers of ‘expert patients’. Grasping the benefits of the technology will mean excellent commercial capability and a willingness to see the shape of traditional services change, in particular their workforce.
The goal of ‘more for less’ continues in this Parliament but it is not more of the same. An ever clearer focus on the outcomes of public services – that is, the key things that they need to achieve – will improve the lives of citizens. It will also mean much wider change in their organisation and structures. We greatly welcome your interest and support.