Public service reform to stall - what public service reform?

An interesting article by Nicholas Timmins in the Financial Times today looks at whether public service reform will stall under Gordon Brown:

"The odd straw in the wind has been spotted, captured and analysed to death for any sign of a repudiation of the previous administration's approach.

Does Alan Johnson's declaration that further independent treatment centres will be built only where their extra capacity is clearly needed amount to a reversal of previous policy? Does giving local authorities a bigger say in the location of new academy schools similarly signal a retreat? Does an apparent loss of enthusiasm for the idea of 11 big private sector contractors delivering welfare-to-work, and the fresh emphasis on local authorities' role, amount to declining interest in private sector involvement? Or is it merely part of a sensible debate about whether there is a better way? Does the statement by Andy Burnham, the Treasury chief secretary, that consumer and citizen power - "choice and voice" in the jargon - will play a bigger role in improving public services, and that central targets will play a smaller one, demonstrate the opposite: that nothing has changed?

In other words, the Kremlin watchers are asking, how many touches on the tiller make a U-turn?

In practice, that may be the wrong question. Because for the Blair agenda to stall and disappear, U-turns are not required. It only needs ministers to stop actively driving it forward."

The problem with the arguments about whether Tony Blair's reform agenda will be actively repudiated or merely allowed to wither and die under Gordon Brown is that they assume there was a serious reform agenda underway in the latter years of Tony Blair's premiership. But there really wasn't anything much more than tinkering around at the edges.

Tony Blair's moves to increase choice in the NHS were better than nothing, certainly, but fell far short of the changes that would be required to fix a health service that is ranked as just about the worst of 19 peer countries by the British Medical Journal. City Academies will never, by themselves, be enough to transform an education system where four out of ten pupils leave school without
the minimum standards in English and Maths that the QCA deems necessary
for ‘Life, Learning and Work’.

To bring the performance of our education, health and policing services up to scratch, politicians need to remove themselves from day-to-day management, for which they have little experience or subject knowledge, and concentrate on setting high-level policy, for which they are far better qualified. At the same time service users need to be empowered with the fiscal control that only the rich currently enjoy, while for policing, there needs to be genuine local acountability through regular elections.

We can be pretty certain that this strategy for better government will not be implemented under Gordon Brown, but then it was never going to be implemented under Tony Blair either. Politicians of all parties need to be more realistic about their strengths and weaknesses - it's the only way to ensure meaningful change and improvement to public services.

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