It used to be said that reform of the public sector would involve increased spending, at least in the short term, and that it would not be realistic to seek to reform at a time of cuts. That would certainly be the pitch from the bureaucrats to the politicians. But compared to the last 30 years, the Cameron years stand out for combining a (small) overall reduction in state spending with more radical public sector reform than seen for a long time.
I have been reflecting on this after reading The Politics of Public Sector Reform: From Thatcher to the Coalition by Michael Burton (Palgrave Macmillan £26.29).
Mr Burton is a non-partisan figure. As editor of the Municipal Journal he certainly allowed plenty of space for those "forces of conservatism" wishing to "defend the sector."
With Tony Blair there was the aim to achieve reform. A performance unit, a delivery unit, a strategy unit. The intensions were good but the results were derisory. There was "a huge increase in public spending" which Mr Burton feels ""led to improved public services. However, this was not matched by proportionate increases in public sector productivity."
To take schools, as an example, the general picture was of reverse. There was more bureaucracy. Ofsted lost its edge. The Assisted Places Scheme was scrapped. Grant maintained schools were replaced by the emaciated foundation school status. On the other hand, league tables for exam results continued as did the City Technology Colleges. Indeed there were more CTCs – renamed academies. By the time Tony Blair stood down as Prime Minister in 2007, after 10 years, there were 47 of them. (There are now 3,086.)
Mr Blair's successor Gordon Brown "was less enamoured with public sector reform."
Of the coalition, Mr Burton notes the significant reforms in health, education, local government and welfare and adds:
The changes occured against a backdrop of sharply reduced spending which put pressure on public sector management to opt for 'transformational' rather than incremental change. The long-term squeeze on their budgets means public service providers must reconsider how they deliver services in order to maximise efficiencies, and early pooled budget pilot studies show evidence of major savings.
The Troubled Families Initiative has generally passed the media by but Mr Burton rightly spots its importance. While there has been much talk of different bits of the public sector being in "silos" rather than "joined up" the Troubled Families initiative is proving an effective way of doing something about it. Far from it meaning more spending for the 400,000 families concerned, it is about breaking their dependency on welfare and involvement in crime.
Mr Burton adds:
The Coalition's Universal Credit and Work Programme are highly ambitious reforms, brought in quickly. If they achieve their goals of reducing welfare costs and long-term benefit dependency against the backdrp of a sluggish economy they will prove to be one of the most successful public sector reforms of the past three decades.
Just as Margaret Thatcher's reforms – including privatisation – were followed around the world, Mr Burton says that:
The UK government's efforts to reduce its deficit and change the public sector are being closely observed by other nations with similar challenges.
This is a cautious account. Lots of provisos. Mr Burton is not a man to swing from chandeliers. There are plenty of people who think the cause of reforming public services is hopeless or undesirable. However, for those who believe the cause is worthwhile, fair minded observers would surely conclude that Mr Cameron has achieved more in two years – without an overall majority for his Party in Parliament – than Mr Blair did in ten years with landslide victories and money coming out of his ears. Pretty extraordinary. Mr Burton doesn't make this conclusion explicit but I suspect he believes it – so even may Mr Blair.