Still making difficult decisions – the Spring Statement

In 2010 the coalition government started with the objective of eliminating the structural current deficit by 2014-15. It introduced a package of savings, a public sector pay freeze, welfare reforms and significant reductions to every department’s administration budget. There was still a desire to protect the most growth-enhancing capital spending.

The target originally set by George Osborne when he imposed austerity on public services was only achieved this year. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the deficit reduction was still ‘quite an achievement given how poor economic growth has been’.

What are the lessons of the last eight years?

As the Chancellor gives his ‘no frills’ Spring Statement this week, and prepares more far reaching plans for tax and spending through his Budget in the Autumn, it is worth drawing some conclusions on how the government eliminated the deficit and what aspects of the austerity agenda should remain:

  • The government maintained a clear and measurable fiscal target (the Chancellor has made a ‘pledge of fiscal responsibility, to borrow no more than two per cent of national income by 2020-21) and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) should continue to assess publicly whether this is likely to be achieved.
  • The departmental spending review prioritised areas with benefits to a broad sweep of society – next year’s review should promote growth (like transport and education) and fairness and social mobility (providing routes out of poverty for the poorest, improving incentives for work and tackling ‘wicked problems’ such as the increasing public health hazards of air pollution).
  • Eliminating a sizeable deficit was not a normal budget exercise and a more open and inclusive approach is required – government should consult widely, beyond departments, asking public sector workers and the public to suggest ideas, convening expert advisory groups and holding regional events to listen to people’s views.

Of course, external conditions are now favourable and the reforms introduced in 2010 (including spending controls, back office shared services and commercial reforms) have been sustainable. But the United Kingdom cannot rely on external conditions to remain as favourable as they are now. Particularly as uncertainty lingers about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union and the economic costs of divergence with the EU become clear.

What needs to change? Meeting the UK’s future challenges

The squeeze on public services is showing up in higher waiting times in hospitals for emergency treatment, low satisfaction for GP services and a staggering decline in prison safety. The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that local councils are at financial breaking point. If they keep draining their reserves at the current rate, one in ten will have exhausted them in just three years’ time.

The improvement in the public finances gives the Chancellor some leeway to spend in his Spring Statement. But the expected £5bn to £10bn windfall is not going to transform the delivery of public services. It is not enough to solve the UK’s long-term fiscal challenges. For example, demographic change will demand either a significant increase in taxation or a radical change to the funding of health and pensions. There is an immediate need to put the funding of social care on a sustainable footing

Achieving better internal efficiency is a necessary but not sufficient part of public service reform. At the same time public services must come up with innovative, less resource-intensive and more effective ways of achieving the government’s aims. In the Spring Statement, the Chancellor should provide funding and direction:

  • To move away from the traditional tools of legislation, regulation and taxation – which can be expensive to design and implement – and develop and apply lessons from behavioural science (designing policy that reflects how people really behave).
  • To renew the transparency agenda, as a way of achieving ‘better for less’ – by consistently releasing data into the public domain, individuals are able to draw their own conclusions on the way public services operate, incentivising efficiency through accountability, and stimulating innovation through ‘information marketplaces’.
  • And, where appropriate, for public services being open to a range of providers competing to offer a better public service, with a greater emphasis on outcome-based contracts, and joint work with the private sector to access private capital and expertise to make fuller use of core public assets in an enterprising way.

A final thought – accountability and public services

I appreciate that the third suggestion is not shared by everybody. Over the past five or six years problems have emerged in the UK public service market, particularly in the commissioning of complex services. This came to a head with the liquidation of Carillion.

The reality is that the public are more pragmatic than the politicians. For example, sixty-four per cent of people do not think it matters who runs hospitals or GP surgeries ’as long as everyone has access to care (Populus poll, January 2018).

But we still need to recognise that one of the most important differences between a private and public service is the different and often enhanced levels of accountability for the delivery of that service to a broader range of stakeholders. Private sector organisations that want to deliver public services have to be aware of, and work within those boundaries.

There is an urgent need for a more transparent and robust way of measuring the quality of services provided by the public and private sector. The Chancellor should ensure the rapid implementation of Sir Michael Barber’s report into improving value in public spending.

When fast gets very fast: the dizzying pace of technology in the private sector and what this means for the public sector

In recent blogs I described why I think organisations are compelled to introduce new business models due to intense competition. And this competition is accelerating because of global markets and the introduction of new technology.

Contrast this with the system that is supposed to drive innovation and service improvement in public services.  Innovation in a global market does not – and cannot – rely upon a best practice circular. Yet our mindset in government and across the public sector is that this is precisely how we expect innovation and continuous improvement to be stimulated and reproduced.

We still have a distinctly top down system based on sucking in best practice to some central agency.  There it is checked, audited and inspected.  Then it is spat out over the next five years to a reluctant audience on the front line.  The manager in the local hospital or council has neither the incentive nor the inclination to accept what a ‘colleague’ down the road is doing because, as you would have heard many times, ‘it might work there but we are different’.

This mechanism is clumsy and ineffectual. Yet in the private sector, we appear to have found a different way to share best practice – we pinch it.

The intense pressure from competition forces the best companies to copy and refine whatever they can from their competitors to become best in class.  And the rate of innovation and adoption will continue to accelerate. Take, for example, the smartphone technology that gave rise to Uber (despite their recent problems in London) and how, before the world figures out how to regulate ride-sharing, self-driving cars will have made those regulations obsolete.

It is in that vein that I am increasingly struck by the dichotomy of language that describes the difference between the public and private sphere. It is not uncommon to hear the Government, when talking about the economy, to constantly emphasise the challenge to improve private sector productivity and to create a more entrepreneurial society.

Yet, when it comes to reforming the public sector, the emphasis tends to default to centralised controls.  There is unease and opposition in some quarters to flexibility and change, with insistence on preserving structures and centralised systems.  These two worlds, public and private, which you and I inhabit daily, cannot remain artificially divided forever because, contrary to popular belief, these two worlds are not made up of fundamentally different people.

Nor are the pressures on the public and private sectors completely different.

Both face the challenge of becoming more responsive and accountable to their customers or service users, their employees and wider society.  Also, if we are to remain true to concepts of the welfare state, universal provision, social justice and equity in the delivery of public services, we need to address the pressures of global markets and the challenge to representative government.

Why?  Because these pressures are calling into question the ability of traditional tools and levers – such as the way the Government exercises legitimacy, ownership and control – to respond to modern needs and pressures.

Our challenge is to construct new tools and levers that stimulates public services to find a way of promoting practitioners whose experience and reputation gives them the self-confidence to lead others to innovate. And for the system to develop a set of incentives, and the institutions a set of capacities, to continuously reinvent themselves in ways that align individual interest with the wider public realm.  I am not saying the private sector has all the answers, but it is certainly worth exchanging ideas.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy another recent post inspired by the innovation demonstrated by Apple.

I future blogs I plan to dig deeper into how public services can be reformed and the role of competition and choice in public service supply chains. As always, I’d be grateful for your thoughts and comments – please get in touch.

The world is still flat: how economic change is straining our ability to remake public services

I want to talk to you about what is arguably the greatest domestic policy challenge facing governments over the next decade.

How to create the conditions for a sustained transformation in our public services in a way consistent with the fundamental values that underpinned their creation.

In this first in a series of blogs, I want to anchor the debate about public service reform in the context of a number of global pressures affecting governments.

Every government is challenged by a similar set of pressures. The most significant of these is when a combination of rapid technological change leads to profound transformation of the economy. This has significantly increased prosperity. But governments are struggling to maintain a consensus of support, particularly as communities experience periods of insecurity and upheaval when technology is introduced.

The change unleashed is provoking tough and searching questions for governments of all political persuasions.

How do we reconcile rising flows of goods, services, capital and labour mobility with the need to create and sustain socially cohesive communities?

At the same time the capacity and capability of health, education, social care, housing and other public services to respond to change is curtailed by continuing austerity. And our ability to build cohesive communities is even more difficult when the very mechanism for reconciling competing tensions within communities – the institution of government and the process of democracy – has never been more questioned.

People’s sense of ‘connectedness’ with government and the political process looks increasingly weak and shattered.

Next week, I’ll post about how business has responded to the challenge of technological change. The most successful businesses are agile – attempting to reinvent their their business model to meet rapidly evolving customer needs.

Meanwhile if you enjoyed this you might also enjoy my summary of our government digital trends survey. We asked civil servants how their work is influenced by new digital ways of working and the benefits for the public