Last week The Economist published a short article about the failure of Britain’s reform of child maintenance collection. The article highlights the human consequences but does to point to any wider lessons. And yet our political class needs to see what was wrong-headed about the idea, or else we are destined to keep repeating the mistake.
The original reform was in 1993, when the Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up. The problem it was designed to solve was that of absent parents (usually fathers of course) not contributing to the maintenance of their children. The idea was to replace a haphazard and costly system enforced by family courts with a centrally enforced system run by the new agency. Single parents lost the right to chase ex-partners through the courts for arrears; the agency would do that. But the CSA soon became overwhelmed, and it was closed in 2012 with arrears then amounting to £3.7bn. A new agency, the Child Maintenance Service, then took over. They are now close to writing off nearly £2bn. In many cases no serious effort has been made to collect the arrears at all. Apparently the new agency doesn’t even try unless it is provided with information by the partner to whom the money is owed – a tall order for often very stretched people. The government’s legal obligation to collect has been tossed into the bin, to the benefit of shirking parents, who may only have had to shrug off a standard letter or two, if that.
This is often what happens to attempts to reform public services. Reformers see a messy system involving a lot wasted or duplicated effort, and dream of something much simpler and more rational. They hope to achieve greater effectiveness at a lower cost. But the reform involves sweeping away the human efforts of, and information possessed by, many thousands of people and replacing them with a void. Failure is nearly inevitable.
This is just one example. Right now we are witnessing the slowly unfolding calamity of Britain’s Universal Credit (UC) system. Even now, many people assume that is simply a good idea delayed by cack-handed implementation. They can’t see that the whole idea is deeply flawed. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015 seemed particularly vulnerable to this sort of mistake, with not just UC, but a misguided set of reforms to the National Health Service, the trashing of the probation services, and a deeply flawed idea of “payment by results” for outsourcing public services. The Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, seems to have been particularly susceptible to such half-baked schemes (most notoriously “the Big Society”), and, to be honest, his coalition partner Nick Clegg, wasn’t really any better. They were both products of a political system that did not value true administrative experience.
The previous Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not have such a dire record, though Mr Blair was as susceptible to the same sort lightweight thinking – for example launching the ill-directed Academies reforms of schools. Instead Labour liked to smother its reforms in layers of bureaucracy and masses of meaningless verbiage that had the effect of reserving things to an elite class of bureaucratic waffle-merchants. (You will sense some bitter memories coming through here: I bumped into this as a school governor, as well as my interest in the NHS in the vain hope of getting a job there). The Labour government’s flagship identity card system was heading the same way as UC before the Coalition sensibly killed it. The problem was similar: excessive centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall, with political leaders too easily seduced by lightweight ideas from political think tanks, made flesh by armies of overpaid consultants. Implementation was always somebody else’s problem. Ministers and consultants alike would move on to their next job before the consequences became apparent.
And it’s not just in Westminster where such disasters occur. The Scottish Government under the SNP has been trying to centralise local services and wipe out the human interfaces by which such services work. The reforms to the Scots police services were the most notorious. Northern Ireland has its own example of astonishing incompetence with renewable energy schemes, and doubtless there are examples in Wales too. The problem infects the entire British political class. I can’t see much sign of this changing. Instead I see hopes (as usual) being placed in new technology. But Artificial intelligence and machine learning will not solve the core problem that centralised institutions do not understand the problems they are trying to solve because too much of it is outside their remit.
So what direction should we be taking? Services should be drawn around the needs of individual people, allowing solutions to be tailored that will actually solve problems rather than perpetuate them. That means drawing together services related to physical health, mental health, education, social services, policing, justice, housing, benefits and so on. And that means two things in particular: empowered intermediation, and decentralised authority. In turn these almost certainly mean devolved political accountability.
By empowered intermediation I mean capable professionals meeting with services users (physically and not through IT interfaces), establishing their needs and making arrangements with the necessary service agencies to take things forward. There are plenty of examples of such intermediaries: social workers, teachers, and general practitioners. But the tendency is to disempower them, and to replace them with less skilled people with narrower briefs. The hollowing out of probation services is a particularly dire example of this. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for both UC and the child maintenance fiasco, is no so far down this culture of de-skilling that it probably needs to be abolished.
The need for decentralised authority is easier to see perhaps. In order for service providers to respond to the generalist intermediaries, they need the power to adapt flexibly. That is impossible in highly centralised administrative silos, which pin managers down to tight procedures and inflexible budgets.
That this leads to the need for greater devolved political accountability is also an obvious step. Attempts to make decentralised agencies accountable through the use of Key Performance Indicators, and the like are clearly a mistake. It is much easier to game the indicator that solve the underlying problem, which often makes things worse in the short term. This is where political accountability for the overall results should come in. But there is a trap here. It is tempting for politicians to think that political reform is the key step, and not the much harder job of re-engineering of public services into models that interact positively with users and collaborate productively. In fact devolved political administrations can get trapped in their own conservativism and become captured by local vested interests. British devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot be seen as an outstanding success.
And yet the failure of our public services is becoming more apparent. For now “austerity” gets the blame. I live in hope that people will start to understand that the issue is much deeper.