Satisfaction not guaranteed

2 Sep 05
PHILIP JOHNSTON | The August silly season that follows a general election is often sillier than most, since newspapers’ appetite for reheated government policy announcements has been more than sated.

The August silly season that follows a general election is often sillier than most, since newspapers’ appetite for reheated government policy announcements has been more than sated.

This year, though, there has been little need to fill empty summer columns with trivia because the London terror attacks and their aftermath have provided more than enough in the way of serious copy.

The comprehensive nature of the coverage has eclipsed the domestic political issues that might otherwise have dominated the news in the absence of anything else. Foremost among these is the public sector reform agenda on which Labour fought the election. This would have been expected to monopolise the current Parliament’s deliberations were it not for its inevitable preoccupation with terrorism and the civil liberties’ implications of combating it.

Last week, John Hutton, recently installed in the Cabinet as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with the task of selling the reform package both to the Labour Party and to the country at large, sought to revive interest in the subject. His speech to the Social Market Foundation presaged the forthcoming publication of the health and education white papers. These are the two areas of public service in which Labour has invested so much of our money and their political capital. Yet, as Hutton said, the standard of delivery still varies to such an extent that the inequalities are, if anything, growing because the well-off middle classes, unhappy with the state provision, are going private.

Meanwhile, despite receiving more money than ever before, hospital trust budgets are inexplicably plunging into the red.

Something has gone badly wrong with the way public services are delivered in the UK, and Hutton’s analysis that there has been too much central control and not enough attention paid to the wishes of ‘customers’ is surely correct, if by no means original (remember John Major’s Citizen’s Charter?).

Hutton’s prescription, however, has a horrible familiarity about it. He is intending to commission consultants to draw up a ‘satisfaction index’ in each service that would be the basis of league tables, pitting schools, hospitals and other services, maybe even police forces, against each other.

The one positive aspect of this proposal is that it is predicated on an understanding that the top-down, target-driven, Whitehall-knows-best approach has failed, as was conceded by Prime Minister Tony Blair during the election campaign.

But those of a sceptical bent might detect the substitution of one set of centrally promulgated requirements for another. The problem is that when such systems are introduced, the cost and bureaucracy involved in their administration often outweigh any benefits that might accrue.

As Blair’s biographer Anthony Seldon pointed out at the weekend, the PM desperately wants further education, health and crime reforms to leave a legacy of public services that are efficiently delivered, with a minimum of red tape and with standards so improved that people feel their money has been well spent.

To do this, he intends to embrace a more market-oriented approach, although how much latitude his party will allow him is another matter. With his political reservoir beginning to run dry as his retirement date approaches, the party will increasingly take its lead from Gordon Brown. However, the chancellor’s supporters say he is more enthusiastic about driving the market deep into the public sector than he is often given credit for.

But the market is about more than just finding out what the consumer wants and delivering it; it is also about management. The problem is not that too little attention has been paid to customer requirements, but that politicians have tried to manage the public services and made a mighty mess of doing so.

The danger is that Blair’s search for a bottom-up approach will be hijacked by some new centrally dictated specification for how the system should work. If past experience is anything to go by, targets will be drawn up setting out how fast the indexes should rise in each five-year period; consumer satisfaction teams will be established across the country to ensure they are met; auditors will devise complicated matrices for testing whether they have been or not; and the whole exercise will become mired in a quicksand of inspections and compliance requirements.

This may prove unduly cynical. If the Blair third term really does herald a break with the avuncular Welfare Statism that has dominated British politics for far too long then he really will have left a legacy worth inheriting because everyone will benefit.

The coming party conference season and the next parliamentary session will determine whether Hutton’s reforms turn out to be truly radical or just so much hot air.

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