New government 2015-20

20 June 2014

Reform held its second annual conference on Thursday 12 June with 200 attendees including four Ministers and Shadow Ministers. It aimed to identify elements of the next government’s programme to deliver reform of government, public services and public spending. I am exceptionally grateful to all those that attended, to the 20 sponsors of the event and to the superb hosts Microsoft.

In Norman Warner’s words, the first element of successful reform is “muscular leadership” on the part of politicians. Reconfiguring parts of the NHS or expanding the airport capacity of the South East of England require politicians to use their mandates to argue for change. That does not mean politicians need to intervene in the day-to-day management of public services (far from it). Getting a mandate for change means that politicians aspiring to be muscular after May 2015 should start flexing their muscles now.

Lord Warner’s second key to successful reform is the ongoing programme of spending discipline. That might mean more difficult decisions because (to some extent) the easier savings will have been achieved in this Parliament. Jeremy Browne made the related, key point that globalisation is only in its beginnings. The third element is a relentless focus on organising public services around the needs and wishes of citizens. This came over particularly strongly from the Shadow Ministerial speakers, Liz Kendall MP and Steve Reed MP. Choice, personal budgets, citizen leadership of public services (“co-production”), genuine commissioning for outcomes all fall under this heading. Muscular politicians (again) are needed.

If these aspirations are not just to be “happy clappy” (Norman Warner again), they must mean real, visible change in public services. As Paul Corrigan has just written for Reform, three-quarters of the NHS should be run according to new business models by 2024. A significant part will be new online services. Tim Kelsey spoke of turning the NHS into a “knowledge economy”. Apple has just made health a key part of its software development. These are radical changes which voters will notice if they are effective. Politicians need to explain the change to them.

The corollary to all this is near-total freedom for providers – with new business models and partnerships with private and charitable providers the norm. As with health, technology will be integral. Derrick McCourt of Microsoft said that, by 2016, smartphones and tablets will put that level of computing power in the hands of 1 billion citizens. 70 per cent of organisations are using or investigating cloud computing solutions.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the centre of government. The centre can deliver transparency, and David Gauke called for government to publish tax and public spending data at the level of the individual citizen. It must be more capable, which is the root of the ongoing conversation on Civil Service reform. Louise Casey spoke powerfully on the need for family workers to identify the underlying cause of the problems of troubled families, often domestic violence, and to focus public services on solving that rather than the many consequent problems.

Describing a family in her care, Louise Casey said: “A family who’d moved house nine times in 11 years because of domestic violence …. Since the youngest child was born, they’ve been to the GP surgery 226 times, been seen by the Out of Hours Service 65 times and had 18 referrals to secondary care. They have visited the minor injuries unit 12 times, made four trips to the Emergency Department and four 999 calls.” She asked, “How much money has been spent on this family?” The underlying point is that another tight Spending Review after the next Election can and must go hand in hand with better public services. The discovery of “more for less” in this Parliament (on which Theresa May and Danny Alexander made great speeches at Reform’s 2013 annual events) is the foundation for a deeper change in public services and government. As one conference participant put it: “Reform is the new default”.

Andrew Haldenby, Reform Director




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