Waiting in vain for the white paper

16 Jun 11
Colin Talbot

It’s no surprise that the public services white paper has been postponed again. Few governments across the world ever come up with coherent reform strategies

There are reports today that the coalition government’s long delayed public service reform white paper has been further delayed.

Originally announced last October as part of the Spending Review, the proposed white paper would set out the government’s strategy for public service reform, including a new system that would replace Labour’s ‘Public Service Agreements’ (PSAs). Government had sketched out a new system in the Departmental Business Plans published alongside the Spending Review, but a full system would be set out in the paper to be published in March 2011 at Budget time.

Since then the white paper has, unofficially, been delayed several times – from March to June, then July and now maybe September. There are uncanny parallels here with the delays to Labour’s ‘Modernising Government’ white paper in 1997-99 .

The immediate problem is the many U-turns being undertaken by the coalition government – most importantly on the NHS in England. Rumours already suggested that a radical commitment to there being no ‘no go’ areas for privatisation – sorry, mutualisation – was already being watered down before it was even launched.

But there is a deeper problem. Any ‘strategic’ white paper encounters a dilemma: on the one hand it either says nothing new or, which may be even worse, it ropes together a set of diverse and often contradictory reforms under some abstract slogans that can easily be ridiculed by the commentariat (people like me).

Labour went through several iterations of its public sector reform ‘strategy’ and didn’t produce an even remotely credible and reasonably consistent account until a decade after it came to power. Few governments – not just in the UK but across the OECD world – ever do manage to produce such strategies.

This post first appeared on Whitehall Watch

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