Britain’s failing public services need a new management approach

British public services are flagging – even without the wave of strikes provoked by the government’s attempt to force below-inflation payrises. Many are assailed by staff shortages – health services in particular. Backlogs mount in health, the courts and the processing of immigrants. The police seem to be dealing with a diminishing proportion of crimes. The government seems to have little idea how to address this.

What is the cause? There are three obvious ones. The first is the austerity policies in place since the great financial crash of 2008/09, ratcheted up by the coalition government of 2010-2015, and intensified by the Conservatives alone from 2015 to 2017. The second is more demand for services from an increasing population of elderly. On top of these came the disruption of the covid-19 pandemic, which caused many backlogs. These have all doubtless contributed, but the problems go deeper, and will require a new mindset to fix. Take the issue in hospitals of patients who cannot be released back into the community, causing a shortage of beds. This problem goes back a very long way. I remember people talking about “bed-blocking” thirty or more years ago. Or the bullying, racism and misogyny that are rife in the police and fire service, and doubtless elsewhere. Most of us thought that these problems were being stamped out after the 1960s – it is shocking to see that they are unchecked in this day and age. This bespeaks generations of weak management, fending off the modern world with defensive strategies, like extra bureaucracy, rather than true problem-solving. Every time that one or other service says that lessons will be learned after some failure (and it happens more than weekly), you can guarantee they mean that some extra rule has been layered onto the existing thicket of unmanageable procedures.

A lack of leadership, from senior politicians down, is clearly part of the problem – though more in some services than in others – in fact there are many pockets of excellence. But this problem results from institutions being trapped by a system that constrains initiative and crushes rather than rewards enterprise. This arises from how the work is organised – which leads to two related problems. First of all the system is heavily biased to fixing problems rather than preventing them. The best way of stopping health service backlogs is for people to be healthier, after all. Secondly almost all the difficult problems, and especially those that focus on prevention, require multiple agencies to cooperate without adequate structures to ensure that cooperation is effective. Somebody on the radio recently listed all the agencies that had to come together in a criminal trial (courts, police, prosecutors, defenders, the prison service, the probation service, and so on); it’s no wonder that they don’t work efficiently. No wonder, but also nobody’s responsibility.

Problems with public services are nothing new. People have been wrestling with it for as long as I can remember. The Thatcher government of 1979-1990 had the big idea of privatising large swathes of services, which then included many public utilities. In many cases this was very successful – in telecoms and energy, especially. But it soon became clear that there were limits. Privatising prisons, for example, may have solved some problems, but created many others. The next major push came from the Blair/Brown government that took power in 1997. They had two main ideas: establishing quasi-independent agencies in a sort quasi-market economy (academy schools and NHS Foundation Trusts, for example), an idea more closely associated with Tony Blair; and close performance management, with the use an array of performance targets, and managers being disciplined if they were not met, an approach more closely associated with Gordon Brown. For convenience I will call these the Blair and Brown approaches, though both men supported both approaches to some extent. We can learn much from what became of them.

The Blair approach had easily the best press – praised by many right-leaning think tanks and journals like The Economist. They were picked up, and in places turbo-charged, by the coalition government that followed Labour. They had one important success: university education in England. This was linked to a dramatic increase in student fees, linked to a student loan system that works like a graduate tax. This gave the universities a degree of operational independence. Problems continue, but Britain’s university system remains world-class; rationing of university places, as required by Scotland’s directly-funded system, has not been required, with the result that a higher proportion of the population can attend. Elsewhere the reforms are being quietly buried. Much success has been claimed for academy schools, and there have been success stories – but the main thing that can be said for them is that they have not made things much worse. They have been linked to the waste of public money, however, with senior management overpaying themselves. In the NHS the system is being quietly dropped, as it entails much bureaucracy, while doing little to address fundamental performance issues, like integration of care or patient safety. In both health and education, the services were linked to massively complicated and prescriptive funding models, which failed to work like commercial tariffs in the way the designers hoped. This is one way in which it differed from the university reform.

The Brown model, on the other hand, received a much worse press. People complained of complex targets, misaligned incentives, and macho sackings of senior managers – creating a climate of fear that undermined creative problem-solving. All of these criticisms were well-founded, but the system had some notable successes. The Labour government oversaw a dramatic improvement in the quality of teaching in schools, and especially in London. The new academies were part of this success, but local authority schools did just as well, if not better. As a primary school governor, and chair of governors, I saw this improvement happen at close quarters. There was some rather crude top-down management from the ministry, but the professionalism of school and local authority leaders by and large rose above this – and pushed through dramatic improvements. I have seen a quality of management that easily matches what happens in the private sector. Four things stand behind this success. Firstly, schools already had a huge amount management autonomy compared to other public agencies, as their services are relatively self-contained; second standards were enforced by an independent standards agency, Ofsted, which carried out regular inspections of schools and local authorities, and used well-designed metrics to act as benchmarks; third, local authorities proved effective intermediaries between central government and the schools; finally funding was increased, which gave managers more ability to achieve change. Interestingly the coalition government, while pushing the largely irrelevant academies initiative, picked up were Labour left off, by sharpening the focus on quality of teaching, and dramatically improving the funding system with the (Liberal Democrat) pupil premium system, and its attendant focus on disadvantaged pupils. Since the coalition, the focus has been somewhat lost, and funding squeezed; Ofsted went off the boil (doubtless thanks to funding cuts) by easing pressure on top-rated schools.

The Brown model was applied to the NHS too, and the quality of NHS services drastically improved over the Labour years. But this is mainly attributed to an equally dramatic increase in funding. The easiest thing to say about this is that the combination of extra funding and close scrutiny of results achieved much more than either of these would have alone. The Brown government, towards the end of the Labour period, did try to address some of the problems with the performance management system. I remember a new system called “team around a child” which aimed to bring multiple agencies together to address issues around individual cases. But it wasn’t clear whose job it was to knock heads together. Most of this was swept away when the Labour government ended.

Over the last decade or so, the Conservatives have adapted rather than overturned the previous Labour government’s approach, with the important difference that they have squeezed funding relative to demand. They have revived and extended an older idea too: tendering and outsourcing to outside agencies, be they non-profit enterprises or commercial providers. This has been disastrous. The aim has been to save money, and this has meant redefining the services as a skeleton of what they should be to play a fully functional role. The outsourcers then duly cut the service back, by, for example, replacing skilled professionals with less skilled recruits following standard scripts, and who are unable to to make proactive interventions or prevent difficult cases becoming “frequent flyers”.

The problem is that none of the various things that governments have tried in the last forty years have addressed the fundamental organisational problem – which is that responsibility is divided among so many agencies, which in turn are managed at national level. The system is centred around specialist service provision, and not people. Crime, housing, mental health, physical health and family dysfunction are all closely linked together. We may find all these contributing in a particular serial offender, say, who causes multiple agencies to commit resources. But instead of the agencies coming together to find a solution, the system encourages them to continually pass the parcel.

So how to progress? Public services need to be more focused on their users, and services intermediated by professionals empowered to bring different elements of service together. This means more localised control of services, so that those intermediaries don’t have to escalate issues far up the chain of command in order to resolve blockages. It means a local political leadership able to focus on the needs of particular people, and accountable for the overall results in a particular locality. That, inter-alia, means substantial devolution of political power to regions and local authority areas. That is necessary but not sufficient. Scotland and Wales have just as disappointing record on public services as England, in spite of substantial devolution. We need more specific policy reform ideas.

Interestingly Labour’s recent proposals on constitutional reform (proposed by Mr Brown) show that there is a political consensus around further devolution. However the narrative is based more transport infrastructure and economic growth, rather than making public services more effective. I’m not sure if many politicians grasp what is needed to improve public services. Still, in the dying days of the coalition a deal was done make a more substantial devolution of public services to the Greater Manchester Mayor, including some NHS and social care services. As I recollect this was criticised by Labour at the time. According to this study, it has been a modest success, with a slight improvement to life expectancy.

Still the forces of conservatism are powerful. It is always tempting to try and make the current, departmentally bound and centralised system work, rather than undertaking risky reforms – especially ones designed to give credit to regional and local politicians. But politicians need to improve the effectiveness of public services urgently – and through the extra effectiveness reduce demand by solving problems. This needs a huge change in political culture, but once one area starts leading the way, that should generate momentum. With Scotland distracted by the debate on independence, the most promising place to start looks like Greater Manchester. we will probably have to wait for the next government, though.

The British Left needs to moderate its obsession with austerity

I’m not reviewing this book, but title reveal the left’s attitude to austerity

As a Liberal Democrat I’m often described as being on the political left. One word shows that this is far from true: “austerity”. To people on the left, especially in Britain, this word brings up a visceral reaction. To them austerity is the quintessence of evil: the crushing of all attempts to promote the public good, perpetrated by a brutal government out to protect the interests of the rich. But to me austerity is a government policy that is often necessary – and is part of a healthy tension that keeps the state efficient. Still, I always like to understand the arguments of people I disagree with, and when I saw a link on my New Statesman email to an article by William Davies entitled Fascism’s liberal admirers, I thought I’d take look. The sub-title was Austerity is a fiction designed to uphold capitalism – and it has a dark history. The pretext (I would not call the article a review) for the was a book by Clara Mattei called The Capital Order – How economists invented austerity and paved the way to Fascism. The subheadings demonstrate what I mean about the left’s attitude.

Which is why I was expecting a lot of nonsense – and by and large that is where the article ended up. But along the way it constructed a narrative that was fr from nonsense. The book is about the rise of Fascism, and how the pre-Fascist government in Italy in the 1920s was being pressured by Britain (as a creditor nation) to adopt austerity policies. The British ruling establishment had taken on the austerity narrative after the First World War, and was delighted when the Fascists in Italy followed through with these policies after they took power. Ms Mattei’s and Mr Davies’s point is that this narrative came about as a reaction to a socialist narrative that the success of war economies showed that there was an alternative to market capitalism, with economies led by, and substantially owned by, the state. Revolution was in the air. The capitalists needed to stamp this thinking out, and they aggressively promoted pro-market policies and a rolling back of state intervention. It was not a narrative based on economic necessity, but one developed to protect vested interests. It is but a short step for Mr Davies to suggest that this is what has been happening in the 21st century, following the financial crash of 2008, and now – with the fall of the Liz Truss government. That, historically, support for austerity led capitalists to embrace Fascism shows how they will turn on democracy to protect their interests, and economics is just camouflage. The fight against austerity is the fight to preserve democracy.

There’s something in this. Pretty much all economic policy, whether capitalist, socialist or anything else, is a conspiracy of vested interests: people try to persuade the public at large that their ideas are for the public good, using any argument that they think might gain traction, spurious or otherwise. That is how large, complex societies get anything done. Truth is incidental. And, though I’m not an expert, I think that the British ruling establishment over-reacted to the prospect of more socialist ways of working in the 1920s, and their arguments in support of the package of policies that Mr Davies calls “austerity” do not stand the test of time (though economies in the 1920s swiftly moved to growth after austerity – and it was not until the depression of the 1930s that the narrative seriously came to be questioned). After all they did something quite different after the next war, and capitalism (and wider society too) has never flourished more. It is a stretch to say that the same applies to 21st century episodes of austerity in Britain and the Eurozone, but there is a case to answer. Many of the justifications put up by the supporters of austerity policies were nonsense. So if you want to believe that austerity is always and everywhere economic nonsense promoted by self-interest, you will always find plenty of evidence. That is the insight I gained by the article. Evidence, but not proof.

The resources required to make an economy work are always limited. The bottom line is that economic policy will always be limited by resources, and that the more efficiently those resources are used, the more successful an economy will be. There are times when it pays a government to spend money to do things that are useless. Keynes wrote of getting people to dig holes and fill them in again; Hitler ramped up spending on armaments. That is when the economy is running slack and needs pump-priming. The people digging holes or making tanks spend their wages buying other things, creating a virtuous circle of job creation. Austerity is a bad idea at such times. But when the economy is running at close to capacity, or overheating (as is the case in most developed economies in 2022) then that logic disappears. If anybody, anywhere is employed doing things that don’t enhance society, it is means that the economy is running less efficiently than it should. If the government is running inefficiently, then austerity policies can be justified to cut waste, and move people from doing useless things in the public sector to being more useful in the private one. That is the basic intellectual case for austerity. And it is why governments of all economic stripes, capitalist and otherwise, will often carry out austerity policies. For example, Cuba’s socialist government after Soviet subsidies were withdrawn in the 1990s.

It goes deeper. All human organisations have a tendency to become complacent, and settle into inefficient ways of working to minimise internal conflict. In private enterprise this tendency is tempered by the need to compete, and by downturns in the business cycle. I well remember this from my work days. Things would seem to be going well, and then there would be a crisis. Savings had to be made, usually, eventually, entailing job losses. Workers were disappointed and often angry; but the overall effect of this stop-start was a more healthy, efficient and focused organisation. Some good things might be lost in the process, but that was outweighed by the reduction in waste and follies curtailed. The public sector is generally insulated from such commercial pressures, and so has an even greater tendency to become inefficient. Bouts of austerity act as a check on this, and force managers to focus on what needs to be done – though they won’t thank you for it.

But the timing is often difficult to decide. It is not always easy to tell if an economy is running slack or close to capacity. There is an argument to be had about that in Britain in the 2010s. But the real problems happen over resources transferred between countries. Economies are often sustained by using resources provided by other countries. But this creates international obligations – as well as the temptation to profligacy. If people in one country supply resources to people in another one, they do so because they expect to be repaid in some shape or form, usually profitably. If it turns out that poor economic management (or any other problem) puts the repayment in jeopardy, then the creditor countries will often insist on austerity. This is not always the right thing to do, but the basic premise that the debtor country is consuming more resources than it is producing, and needs to adjust to something more sustainable. This can be a capitalist conspiracy, but it doesn’t have to be. The politics around it get messy with truth, as usual, a casualty; creditors accuse debtors of profligacy – debtors accuse creditors of gratuitous cruelty. Some governments practice austerity simply to prevent getting into this sort of situation – the socialist president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is an exemplar of this.

All this is common sense. Austerity – and this is best understood as cuts to government spending, rather than raising taxes – can simply be about the management of finite resources in a changeable environment, and doesn’t have to be ideological. So why do the British left react so violently to the idea? I’m not sure how deep the history goes. The New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the mid-1990s embraced austerity, but they were hardly of the left – but the left seemed happy enough to keep in tow. I think the issue originated from the coalition government of 2010. In the five or so years before this, the state payroll, direct and indirect, had expanded considerably. Many parts of the state had become very inefficient. At the time I could see this in both education (I was a school governor) and health (I was following health affairs closely, as I was looking for a job there). In both areas I could see over-complicated management structures and performance grids, and lightweight policies implemented to placate some lobbyist or other. Capital funding was tied to a bidding process that required the use of consultants on both sides. The bidding process was a matter of verbiage – the trick being to find the right trigger phrases. I read my borough’s bid for primary school expansion (which was successful), and it seemed to carefully saying nothing at all – but it was the work of many senior people, with external advice. In the NHS, funding was driven by something called “World Class Commissioning” – a vastly over-engineered superstructure designed to provide employment to consultants and middle managers. I could go on. The writing was already on the wall before Labour lost the election of 2010, as the crash put government finances under strain, but the government had been slow to apply austerity. Not so the incoming Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. They put in place a vicious programme of spending cuts. Suddenly a whole class of public sector employee found their livelihood at risk – and worse, political leaders were suggesting that their endeavours had all been a waste of time. That triggered an angry backlash. And just as the right tends to be controlled by the interests of capitalists, the left tends to be controlled by the interests of state employees.

By and large the angry people were university graduates trained to look for abstract principles to make sense of events. So instead of just protesting against the concrete adverse effects of particular cuts, they spied an abstract idea to focus their anger on: austerity. Austerity was evil; the cuts were not necessary but ideological. Many economists criticised the cuts as excessive, causing a needless recession and economic wasted resources – and this was seized on as evidence of the evils of austerity. As this line of thinking developed in the usual echo-chambers of social media and friendly journals, it morphed into the idea that austerity is always and everywhere evil. Mr Davies’s article shows how entrenched that thinking remains.

And that is a problem. The left seeks to achieve political power, and to do so democratically they must persuade people that they can be trusted. But most people’s attitude to austerity is pragmatic: sometimes it is required. Most people probably have their own hobby horse of perceived government waste that austerity could be used to sort out – though there will be no general agreement on what these actually are. A class of politicians that cannot let the idea that austerity can ever be justified pass their lips are going to find it very hard to win that trust. And yet it is more than easy to campaign convincingly against specific cuts – at a time when so many public services are wilting under pressure, and the public safety net is obviously inadequate in many places. The politically sensible thing to do is to allow for austerity in theory, but oppose it in the here and now: or to follow the example of Gordon Brown who advocated austerity in the mid 1990s, but once in power and having established public trust, launched the expansion of the British state.

The left are part of the Labour Party, but do not control it. The Labour leadership understand well enough the politics of all this. Polls show that they are maintaining credibility on economic management. The left’s obsession with austerity in the abstract undermines their political influence. Which means the advocacy of any good ideas they have is weakened. In a world when many long-held beliefs are being challenged, the left should challenge this shibboleth.