Mark Hoban is a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Employment Minister, and is MP for Fareham.
Being a minister was one of the happiest periods of my working life. Yes, it is stressful and challenging, you work long hours and family life can be disrupted, but it is also rewarding. I gained so much satisfaction from driving through regulatory reforms in the City, and turning round the Work Programme. And, yes, it was disappointing when it came to an end in last Monday’s reshuffle, but now is the time for reflection, not regrets.
To those starting with their first foot on the ladder to ministerial office, treat your civil servants as allies not enemies. Whitehall isn’t the real life version of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It (or at least not always). My experiences in both the Treasury and DWP have been positive. Civil servants do ask difficult and challenging questions when you are developing a policy. This is valuable: it helps prepare you for public scrutiny and might smooth some of the rough edges but you should not allow those questions to dissuade you from pursuing a course which you know to be right.
The notion that the civil service runs the country only holds true where they are working in a political vacuum. Ministers with a clear sense of purpose can and do make a difference. In both the Treasury and DWP, I have worked as part of ministerial teams with that strong sense of purpose. As a consequence, we have been able to drive through change and push the agendas we were elected to pursue.
My move from the Treasury to DWP took me from policy making towards delivery and implementation. As I look across government, I can see really good policy making processes, but more needs to be done to deliver good public services in the twenty-first entury. Just as businesses have to change to deliver their services to a more technologically savvy customer base, so too does government.
The last Labour Government approached this in a very haphazard and piecemeal way with a multitude of departmental websites and some clunky online services. It is this Government that has had to transform delivery – meeting higher expectations whilst cutting the deficit. It is not easy; we had to work hard to move 80 per cent of JSA applications on line. The launch of Universal Jobmatch modernised work search for job seekers.
But to go further, we need people with the right skills and expertise. Francis Maude’s reforms to improve the capability of the civil service, improving digital, leadership and commercial skills are vital if we are to have a government that delivers modern, efficient public services.
I have never had any doubt that public services can be delivered well by the private sector. This will be a growing trend over time as fiscal pressures drive us to find better value for money and we shift towards payment by results and away from payment for inputs. No one should fool themselves that this will be easy. Issues around contracting have been well documented on PFI and other projects, and I’m not going to rehearse them here.
But I do think that the CEO of every outsourcing business should have a picture of Margaret Hodge on their wall. Doing business with government is different and difficult. You are under public scrutiny. And it’s not just Margaret Hodge. If you let down Government, taxpayers and the people who use your service, you should expect to be challenged and scrutinised.
When someone fails to deliver to a private sector customer, there are no statements to Parliament and only limited, if any, interest in the press. As the recent coverage of the dispute between the Ministry of Justice and G4S and Serco shows, if there is believed to be a failure of delivery, the dispute can play out in the public arena. Business needs to understand that the failure to deliver is not just a commercial failure but a reputational risk for government and ministers as well as for the business itself. Yes, the private sector can and does do a great job in delivering innovative services, but ministers and contractors need to know that public scrutiny can be uncomfortable.
One of the drivers of better public services is choice. We have made great progress over the last three years in expanding choice in schools and hospitals. For example, we have given people access to more and better data so they can make an informed choice. But we have also raised expectations: people expect to be able to exercise their right to choose. So we have made it easier for schools to increase pupil numbers to meet parental demand, but this requires them to have spare classrooms.
If schools are already at capacity, they can bid for money from the Education Funding Agency, but if they are unsuccessful then parental choice can’t be satisfied. Academies could try to fund expansion themselves by borrowing, but Treasury rules prohibit this as it would count as part of government debt. Surely it is time to lift this barrier to parental choice. If each of the almost 3,400 secondary school academies borrowed £0.5m this year, this would be the equivalent of only 1.4 per cent of this year’s borrowing requirement. Isn’t it time that academies, that have so many freedoms already, have the freedom to borrow so more parents can choose the right school for their children?
Over the last three years, I have had front line roles in the Treasury and DWP. I learnt a lot – not just about policies but also people and processes. It has given me a different skill set. I have seen both the strengths and weaknesses of small “g” government but I leave proud of what I have achieved as part of this Government.