Balancing localism and efficient public services

The Government wants public services to be not only localist but also efficient. Last year’s Spending Review said as much and the forthcoming Public Services Reform White Paper will add further details.

The discussion at the Reform-Mitie roundtable explained why the Government has rejected the centralist route (as indeed did many Ministers of the previous Government in its latter years). Bernard Jenkin argued that British government had tended to centralism since the 19th century. But the central grip had failed in its own terms, as proved by the persistence of the “postcode lotteries” that centralism had intended to solve. Hugh Risebrow described the perverse consequences of the central target to wait no longer than four hours in his A&E department. Ruby McGregor-Smith explained that successful private sector organisations have to fight forces of centralisation and bureaucracy too. And Ian Ellis warned that even this Government has fallen prey to temptation. The creation of the Government Property Unit had succeeded in stopping deals but not in “driving better use of what you’ve got”.

The seminar went on to explain how localism can be efficient. Nick Botterill explained how a more confident approach to asset sales was locking value in Hammersmith and Fulham. David Lloyd told how the devolution of budgets right to the level of the councillor had led to a more accurate use of funds. But most importantly Ruby McGregor-Smith explained how her success depends on the motivation, personal responsibility and pride of Mitie’s individual members of staff: “you give them responsibility for and some power around what they can create, [and] what you create is a fantastic service”. Sarah Davis and Carole Leslie explained that employee ownership is helpful but not a requirement for that kind of accountable empowerment. Public services are people businesses and in my view the public sector workforce is the most important idea for Ministers to grasp.

The remaining question concerns the role of Government. Bernard Jenkin and Ruby McGregor-Smith called for a “plan”, which does not mean command and control (far from it) but instead provides a clear understanding of the Government’s vision of public sector reform. Bernard Jenkin pointed out that this is just as important for people within government – for Whitehall – as for companies and public servants without.