So did things really get better? by Madeleine Bunting and Simon Parker

21 Sep 06
As the Labour Party gathers for a tumultuous annual conference, Madeleine Bunting and Simon Parker ask what almost ten years of Blairism has really meant for public services. And how can New Labour renew the optimism and confidence of a decade ago?

22 September 2006

As the Labour Party gathers for a tumultuous annual conference, Madeleine Bunting and Simon Parker ask what almost ten years of Blairism has really meant for public services. And how can New Labour renew the optimism and confidence of a decade ago?

Almost a decade ago, on a bright May morning, Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street to cheering crowds and ended 18 years of Conservative government. Blair was swept in on a mood of profound hope – our predecessors at Demos went so far as to release a breathlessly optimistic pamphlet called The British spring. Here was a chance to put 18 years of under-investment in public services behind us and transform for the better everything from dentistry to defence, and from work to welfare. The hope was that it would mean an end to crumbling classrooms, leaking school roofs and those haunting pictures of dusty, unused medical equipment sitting in closed wards.

If those were the iconic images of the Conservative Party's handling of the public sector, what, almost ten years on, might be those for Blair's term in office? Gleaming new hospitals and schools, investment in public spaces: there is no shortage of tangible evidence across most of the country of the unprecedented budgetary increases.

Nor is it just the glitz of major capital investment. Blair can – and frequently does – point to significant improvements in almost every area of public services by almost every measure you care to name. Capacity and performance have been improved through the familiar formula of investment and reform.

But despite this achievement, Blair is gathering no plaudits – only a sullen resentfulness greets him when he catalogues the statistics charting the improvements. The central paradox of his ten years in power is how his ambitious efforts to secure state-funded services in health and education for a generation have won him so few allies. He has managed to alienate public support from his reforms. The gap yawns between the statistics and the disappointed public perceptions of the quality of service.

Has all the money had much of an impact or has it disappeared in a black hole of increased pay and pensions for public sector workers? Hasn't 'modernisation' just meant more managers, more bureaucracy? And, finally, hasn't the impetus for reform got bogged down in an audit culture, initiativitis and a quagmire of targets? Labour's love affair with new public management has failed to deliver public trust and in so doing has tainted the whole concept of public service reform – reducing public appetite or interest in any more of its painful medicine.

Key to that alienation of public support has been the antagonising of the public sector professionals on whom Blair's chances of delivering successful reform depended. As one Cabinet minister mentioned ruefully last week, a GP sees hundreds of people a month and that amounts to a much greater reach on public opinion than any politician. Infuriate doctors, nurses and teachers and you lose the support of their patients and pupils' parents too. Looking back on it, Blair's now infamous 'scars on my back' speech in 1999 has cast a long shadow. It might have earned a short-term dividend in setting himself in opposition to public sector professionals, but long term it has been deeply damaging.

Domestically, the Blair years leave a number of very serious policy issues unresolved – far from fulfilling his historic mission to make public services safe for a generation, the PM's years in power have raised as many questions about the future of schools and hospitals as they have answered. In the bloodless language of 'modernisation', Blair promised step changes and transformations, but in reality he spent most of his time taking existing services and trying to make them better. The reform programme never went deep enough to really challenge the purpose and methods of the state.

Blair was never able to set out a convincing vision of the society he wanted his public service reforms to create and be part of. That is why he could never engage fully with the trends that were changing society – finding subtle new ways to intervene in our lives, grasping the challenge of joined-up government and embracing preventative services and community participation as ways to meet the increasingly complex needs of an intelligent and demanding population.

Only recently, in his declining months, has he started talking about the issues that ought to have defined his premiership. Back in July he argued that the state needed to help people to take responsibility for their own weight – pointing the way to a health service based on prevention, changing behaviour and engaging the public as partners in service delivery, rather than just a higher turnover of hospital operations.

That is why the question of who comes next is far more significant than the current beauty contest might suggest. The former home secretary, Charles Clarke, hinted at some of the policy divisions within Labour in a recent lecture – the real contest, he argued, was between Fabians and social entrepreneurs. Should the future be about the Treasury's tax credits, ensuring social justice from the centre, or a more localised approach that focuses on mobilising the energy of people and organisations on the ground?

But those are not the only options on offer. Contrary to Clarke's attempt to paint Blair as a social entrepreneur, the PM has generally seemed more interested in treating the state like a business, using market pressures and competition to drive change. Service markets are not really about mobilising local energy – payment by results in the NHS is much more about customer focus than helping people to deal with their own health through support groups. It's an approach that our colleague Charles Leadbeater has called the 'McKinsey state' – no doubt alluding to the fact that Blair's Delivery Unit is run by a former management consultant.

Of course, this is not just a debate about the Labour party. Conservative leader David Cameron is also starting to feel his way towards a distinctive programme of reform – trusting public sector professionals, bringing in the voluntary sector, devolving greater freedom for local service providers. His argument that 'there is such a thing as society, it just isn't the same thing as the state' might lack policy substance, but it sounds great.

The basic planks of a new public service reform agenda – devolution, greater public accountability through markets or democratic engagement, trust in frontline professionals – are starting to fit into place, all in the context of tighter public spending. The challenge for the next prime minister is to make the reforms add up to some kind of vision of a better society, in which people can lead more fulfilling lives. To do that, they will have to navigate at least three major challenges that will linger on long after Blair has quit: finding ways to connect technical public service improvements to the public's experience; restoring trust in politics and public services; and finding a more sustainable relationship between local and central government.

If there is one word that describes the country's mood after ten years of Blair, it is probably 'alienation'. In the wake of the PM's recent drubbing at the Trades Union Congress, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the government has lost the support of many mainstream public sector workers. Despite providing big, no-strings-attached pay rises to large parts of the workforce, Blair's decision to make 'modernisation' synonymous with 'private sector', and his centralising distrust of professional skills and motivation, have created a bitter legacy for his successor.

But the rot goes further than that. Listen to groups of people talking about public services, as we have done over the past few months, and you hear them demanding that the government 'get real' – identifying and delivering the things they actually want and doing it in a way that creates a positive experience for the end user.

The result of not doing this over the past decade has been an increasing disconnection between people's experience of public service and what is increasingly seen as a looking-glass world of official statistics. People's experience is simply not matching up to the graphs that demonstrate success.

In a recent Demos pamphlet, our colleagues Sophia Parker and Joe Heapy argued that: 'NHS spending will be 90% higher in 2007/08 compared with 1996/97. Schools spending will be 65% higher and transport will be 60% higher. Yet these investments are doing little to shift the stubborn figures which indicate that we still have low levels of satisfaction and trust in public services overall.'

Parker and Heapy suggest two reasons for this. People are changing faster than organisations – decades of growing wealth and choice have left us looking for a personal and meaningful experience. But public (and indeed private sector) providers find this difficult to achieve because they tend to view their services as commodities to be delivered to people in the most cost-effective way, rather than as a form of human interaction.

This leads to what might be called 'the tragedy of the call centre'. A council can outsource its customer contact services to the private sector, which will simplify, standardise and speed up the way that calls are dealt with. In objective terms, the service is almost always better, providing a seamless way into the council, dealing with calls quickly and efficiently. But the customer's experience is probably one of touch-tone menus and impersonal call handlers who are paid to get people off the phone as quickly as possible. Performance indicators might go up, but experience and trust decline.

The trust problem is replicated in public life, as the electorate increasingly stops believing in the power of politics to change society for the better. Democratic participation in particular is declining as many people channel their energies into voluntary groups and protest politics, or simply stay at home and complain ineffectually. As the Power Inquiry argued earlier this year: 'The current way of doing politics is killing politics.'

Obvious options for restoring trust and engagement include reform of the House of Lords, strengthening Parliament's select committees and introducing votes on issues such as going to war. But ultimately the question of whether we trust politicians rests not on institutional structures, but on the behaviour of our leaders. Blair famously claimed to be a 'pretty straight guy', but his party has managed to give the impression of impropriety time and again. Fairly or otherwise, it is a fact that the prime minister who started out asking the country to trust him personally ended up being seen as the man who lied to take Britain to war.

As governments start to deal with increasingly complex problems such as climate change and deeper kinds of public service reform, it is becoming clear that heroic politicians seldom have all the answers. They should admit as such and find better ways to engage the public in finding solutions. As Demos has argued in the past, political leaders 'must be able to focus on problems that they do not know how to solve, and mobilise people to generate long-term solutions. To do this successfully, leaders need a form of authority rooted in the ethical imperative for addressing the big challenges that face society'.

This new kind of leadership needs to be rooted in a very different relationship between local and central government. Devolution of decision-making and accountability to councils offers our best chance to create more participation and trust in public services by engaging local people far more deeply in making decisions about their area. Neighbourhood devolution takes a good idea a step further.

But if we start to devolve amounts of power to the local level, then we will almost certainly need to reappraise the role of Whitehall as well. The micro-management that used to characterise so many departments will have to end, as civil servants take on the role of setting the direction of travel and the rules of the game, but leave the job of delivery to the local level.

This will probably mean significant transfers of staff from London to local and regional government, the creation of a unified public service to allow much more movement around the system, and a genuine focus on learning from frontline innovation. Departments would need to be slim and strategic, probably making policy in partnership with networks of practitioners close to the ground.

Finally, Blair's successor will need to recognise just how important their decisions about public service reform will be. Councils, schools and hospitals don't just provide services, at their best they also influence behaviour, build community capacity and model the kind of society we want to live in. Blair's markets and consumerism deliver efficiency, but they will do little to restore social capital and reverse the decline of democratic participation that is sapping our trust in the ability of government to improve our lives.

Strengthening communities and engaging the public can have all sorts of benefits, from higher levels of economic performance to improving educational outcomes – but doing that requires a much more participative kind of reform, based on producing services in partnership between the state and local people.

As Blair leaves Downing Street for the last time, probably on another bright May morning, he will rightly think of all the good he has achieved – such as reducing child poverty, Sure Start, the minimum wage and significant public service improvement. But if he's honest with himself, he might also worry about whether he really answered the big questions, and feel a little anxious about what comes next.

Madeleine Bunting and Simon Parker are respectively director and senior researcher at the think-tank Demos


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