Ten years ago, when the Conservative and Liberal Democrats entered coalition, there was a certain energy about the way the new government wanted to approach public services. Gone would be the lumbering, heavy-handed nanny-state of “New” Labour. In would come something more focused, less costly and with a greater community involvement. The Economist enthused about the coalition’s apparent radicalism. In 2020, almost nobody remembers this energy. If the verdict is not entirely negative, the Coalition’s record on public services was more failure than success. It is as well we try to understand why that was.
The energy came from a meeting of minds between the Conservative modernisers led by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the “economic liberals” from the Lib Dems, led by his deputy, Nick Clegg (often referred to as “Yellow Bookers”). Neither faction had a secure grip on their own party, but there seemed to a meeting of minds across the coalition’s leaders. Alas neither leader had a strong grasp on how to manage public services, and most Conservative ministers had their own take on how things should be done. The left has made its principal line off attack on “austerity”, and blamed lack of funding for the coalition’s failures. But problems went much deeper than this.
At the start, though, it is clear that something needed to be done. After 13 years Labour’s public service policy was both bogged down and bloated. Labour’s strategy had been borne out of a tension between Tony Blair, who favoured business-friendly and market-oriented approaches, and Gordon Brown, who favoured top-down discipline and expanded budgets. Mr Brown won, mostly. The result was mountains of guidance coming down from on high, a highly complex system of numerical targets, and in the case of the NHS, a massively over-engineered commissioning system (“world-class commissioning”) supported by the biggest and most complex transfer-charging system in the world (“payment by results”). It was a job-creation scheme for management consultants, whose output was blather designed to incorporate as many as possible of the favoured buzz-words, and a slow atrophy of decision-making. Labour had achieved a lot in their 13 years, raising health spending and driving up standards in schools, but by 2010 the whole system was looking more than tired.
Unfortunately the Coalition found that sweeping out the nonsense was easier than replacing it with something better. The first thing to fall by the wayside was any idea of community engagement. Mr Cameron had promoted this through his idea of a “Big Society” which overlapped to a degree with the Lib Dem idea of community politics developed in local government. But Whitehall, both politicians and civil servants, jealously guard their power and nobody wanted to make concessions to interests not represented in Westminster’s lobbying industry. I had a sharp experience of this when local parents in Wandsworth tried to set up one of the government’s new “Free Schools”. This fitted the template of bottom up initiative promoted by Conservatives before the election, but the local, cross-party activists were quickly bundled out of the way, and the contract for the new school given to one of the well-connected academy-school groups. The Big Society was very quickly forgotten.
The next mistake was an obsession with structure over substance. The most costly mistake was a massive reorganisation of the NHS, which destroyed morale, but, to my knowledge, had very little benefit to show for itself. The minister in charge, Andrew Lansley, was given a free hand, and then sacked. Much of the new structure has shown itself to be useless or worse in the face of the pandemic, though that may have been as much to do with policies implemented after 2015 (such as cutting resources for public health), and hospitals have shown themselves to be in good shape organisationally. Another clear mistake was the energy put into the “acadamisation” of schools to take them out of local authority control. This proved to be a succession of costly errors. First managers of the new academies started overpaying themselves, then ministers found that academy chains were making the same mistakes that local authorities did. A huge amount of energy was wasted, and yet the country still suffers from the phenomenon of “coasting schools”. In both health and education the government would have been better off trying to make Labour’s structures work better.
A further mistake arose from a wrong-headed approach to outsourcing. There were two big problems. The first was a policy of divide-and-de-skill borrowed from the private sector. The idea was to divide services into separate functions, define their objectives, and then seek to meet these using as many untrained and inexperienced staff as possible. This may look fine on paper, but it is a complete misunderstanding of what public services are. Public services should be about solving problems, and especially the more complex ones, which will otherwise keep coming back at you. The private sector is not interested in solving people’s problems: it just wants people to keep coming back for more. Solvi8ng problems requires different services to be integrated, not carved up, and it requires highly skilled professionals to craft solutions around services users’ needs. The disaster that deskilling entailed is especially evident in social services and criminal justice.
There was one case where the government wanted to solve complex problems, using a people-centred approach implemented by skilled professionals. This was the troubled-families programme, which was to focus on 100 families that generated a totally disproportionate amount of impact on public services. Alas this fell foul of the second big problem: the idea of “payment by results” – the same words as Labour’s NHS transfer-charging system but with an entirely different use. The idea was to pay organisations more if they achieved measured results. Unfortunately, in the case of troubled-families, there was no good numerical basis of measuring success on the sort of timescale needed, so it simply led to the usual perverse incentives. Furthermore this type of remuneration ruled out smaller social enterprises that were unable to manage this type of financial risk, but which were more likely to embody the kind of public service ethos needed.
The coalition’s record was not all bad. The reform of university funding stood outside other reforms and was based on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the previous government, not to mention being led by two of the government’s more intelligent ministers – Vince Cable and David Willets. It secured additional resources for universities, allowing them to expand their intakes, including to more disadvantaged students. It compares favourably with the zero-fees approach used by the Scottish government, which forced universities to restrict access to the disadvantaged. Gradually people understand that the loan finance system works like a graduate tax, though the more recent imposition of high interest charges undermines this. That leaves plenty of problems with universities their financing, but it was a major step forwards.
Other bright spots on public services included improving school provision for disadvantaged pupils, through the pupil premium and better accountability, and a much stronger focus on mental health. But many big problems, like social care, were left unsolved.
After the coalition ended in 2015, the Conservatives doubled down on all the worst aspects of the coalition’s policies, with an almost vindictive cutting of public money. This came just as the longer-term problems stored up by earlier policies started to come back, with an increased crime rate, for example. In 2016 the new prime minister, Theresa May, tried to reverse this, but was quickly overwhelmed by the Brexit nightmare.
Labour’s top-down approach had got stuck, but the Coalition and the then the Conservatives on their own, looked for the answers in the wrong places. Readers of this blog will know what I think. Public services must become people-centred, allowing complex problems to be solved by crafting solutions across the boundaries of existing agencies. That cannot be achieved using a structure answerable to Westminster, or even at regional level (Scotland and Wales have just as many problems), but by devolution of power and accountability to a much more local level. This should be standard Lib Dem policy, though was not pushed in coalition; a few more Labour people talk about it nowadays, though it looks far from the way current Tories approach things. I would like to think it could be the basis of a Lib Dem-Labour-Green coalition, but I’m dreaming.
The Coalition’s failure shows just how hard our political system makes the effective management of public services.