Partnerships – the key to how to run a country?

24 June 2014

The Coalition Government is implementing an historic fiscal consolidation programme to put public spending back on to a sustainable footing. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested that the next Parliament will see spending settlements as tight as the current one, if not tighter. With consolidation set to define the near future, it is imperative that the machinery of government ensures effective and transparent spending policies that deliver better services for the public. These are issues explored under Reform’s major research programme on “How to run a country”. As part of the programme, Reform on 17 June hosted a private roundtable discussion on “Delivering fiscal responsibility: performance of Government in welfare”, superbly led by Mark Hoban MP.

Two themes emerged from the discussion as critical to the underpinning of public service delivery in a manner that is democratic, efficient and sustainable in the long term. The case for change was made during a discussion that highlighted deficiencies and challenges on both accounts.

The first key theme of the discussion was based on the observation that no government programme can be successfully delivered without public consent. The argument was made that while Whitehall and Westminster may be having the right debate; it is not being had with the right people. The long term challenges we face require a public debate about the make-up of our social contract. Currently, that debate is not reaching the wider public. For example, there is a wide belief in society that the welfare state rests on a contributory principlebut in practice very little of this principle has survived. Illustratively, National Insurance contributions are paid into the same pot as our income tax.

The second theme was the need for government agencies and providers to work in partnership with each other but also with the public and the citizens they serve. The Work Programme was held up as a good example of seeking alignment of interests and incentives between providers, beneficiaries and taxpayers. A similar argument was made around the benefit cap implemented in a way that incentivises local authorities to work with other agencies, including JobCentrePlus. Yet partnership working is challenging at the best of times and requires transparency and trust on all sides. One particular challenge is data sharing. Real Time Information (RTI) was highlighted as a powerful tool, which may in future prove to be a building stone of Big Data, and key to enabling partnerships in government and service delivery.

Another aspect of partnership building is the transformation of user engagement. The discussion revealed wide agreement on the need for significant culture change at the front line. The case for change, on the one hand, is exemplified by a mistaken reliance on existing administrative systems. More widely, it is about leaving behind a culture where public service providers “do things to people” – for instance by categorising job seekers by the type of benefit they claim. The new direction must be to re-enable citizens by centring activity on their individual needs, addressing the causes, not the symptoms.

Underlying the whole discussion was an awareness of the scale of the fiscal challenge we face. The argument was made that welfare must be seen as linked to the state of our economy and that public services must be designed to better equip Britain’s economy to perform in an increasingly competitive world. Encouragingly, this may provide an opportunity for building public support for reforms. Reforms aimed at delivering for the long term are more amenable to the public, than short term, stopgap adjustments. Finally, there was recognition that long-term planning is best fostered through cross party consensus, which can create a stable space within which to shape policy. Pensions auto-enrolment was highlighted as a positive example of this.

Overall, the discussion revealed that – at least within Westminster – there may indeed be a shared understanding of problems and solutions; the challenge remains to change the terms of the wider public debate.

A blog by Camilla Hagelund, Senior Researcher at Reform, following a roundtable seminar on the theme “Delivering fiscal consolidation: performance of Government in Welfare” led by Mark Hoban MP, former Minister of State for Employment.

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