Brexit and public services – Ben Gummer pledges government “at your service”

17 October 2016

Last week Ben Gummer gave the strongest explanation so far of the Government’s thinking on the implications of Brexit of public service reform, speaking on a Reform platform.

Cabinet Ministers have already explained that Brexit will not knock the Government’s ambitions for change off course. Also speaking for Reform, both Jeremy Hunt and David Gauke gave exactly that message immediately after the referendum. The Health Secretary said that NHS reform would be “categorically” unaffected. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that the delay in fiscal consolidation did not in any way mean a slackening in the productivity push.

Ben Gummer went further by explaining that the Brexit vote was, in part, a rejection of any public service politics that is out of touch, distant, uncaring and unresponsive. It was a message, loud and clear, that government had to be at the service of voters, not the other way around.

He started by saying that 2016 is the centenary of the creation of his department. The Cabinet Office was brought into existence in order to make government work better in the face of a pivotal moment of change (the first “total war” as he put it). The implication was that government will now change radically again, in the light of the remarkable change of our times.

He went on to describe the referendum vote as a “cry about what they [voters] felt about the state of government and their relationship with it”. He said that this feeling represented, “a direct challenge to the way that government operates and the way that it interacts with people”. He said that the Government’s new thinking on public services therefore had to go beyond thinking about the operation of public services, important though that it is. It now has a “degree of importance” which he described as “new and grave”.

On the way forward, he said that he would come back to Reform in the New Year to set out more detail. He was, however, clear that he wants to be:

“at a place, as quickly as possible, where people will volunteer that they actually feel that government is at their service, and that happens at every single stage and every single moment of their interaction”.

That will certainly include new technology, not only to capture data in a professional way (for example, applying for a passport) but also to improve our actual understanding of the workings of services and their impact on people (for example, use of data to reform prisons). He also said that the scale of the change meant that it would not be complete by the end of this Parliament.

The blurry Brexit picture is therefore starting come into focus, for public services at least. It means continued reform and fiscal discipline. It means a focus on opportunity (as Charlie Pickles has written). It leads a new state of mind in which government is at the service of the people. That’s all pretty good.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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