A little over a year ago, I was called to a meeting with two senior civil servants, from two different government departments, to be briefed on the government’s public service reform white paper, Open Public Services. The aim of the paper was to present a new angle on the government’s strategic agenda. Yes, there was austerity, yes there would be cuts, but the white paper would present the positive case for reform, joining up the change agendas in health, police, schools and local government. It was explained that, at the next election, the government wanted to be able to say more than it had cut the deficit. It also wanted to be able to articulate its underlying strategy and achievements in public service reform.
However, the white paper, as then drafted, never saw the light of day. It was caught up in inter-governmental disagreement, partly between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, partly between departmental interests, and partly between those who believed in harder or softer policy. In the end the paper was re-written several times and, although accompanied by a strongly worded article by the Prime Minister in the Telegraph, it was eventually launched to a bit of a shrug of the shoulders from public service chief executives. Everyone could see its pro-market rhetoric, but what impact would the words on the page actually have in the real world of services designed or commissioned? It was written as if market forces didn’t already exist in great swathes of public services and yet had little to say about how more would be done in this direction. Furthermore, perhaps because it was read as a post-hoc attempt to make sense of existing (and much harder-edged) policy commitments in health, police, schools and local government, it had nothing like the bite of those departmental drivers.
Interestingly, therefore, Ben Brogan at the Telegraph has an update today saying that “Downing Street is starting all over again on public service reform.”
I agree with Fraser Nelson who says this is “depressing,” but it is not surprising. The white paper was always a bit of a badge, stuck on to create the impression of change, but running the risk of over-promising what the government had no idea how to deliver.