Emran Mian is the Director of Social Market Foundation and a former Director of Strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and director responsible for the Cabinet Office and Number 10 Business Partnerships team.
Typically, every government has two public service reform agendas: the Cabinet Office agenda, and the Treasury one. The Cabinet Office agenda is the fun stuff, looking outwards to social movements and technological change. The Treasury one says: that’s all fine, but talk to me about the outcomes and the money.
The Cabinet Office agenda is enacted by setting up a couple of teams at the centre. They go out talking to other departments and voluntary organisations, and then they publish an annual progress report showing what’s been achieved. Unfortunately, what’s achieved is usually in the margins of the reforms driven by the Treasury agenda.
The extracts released from Ed Miliband’s speech tonight suggest that he’s talking about the Cabinet Office agenda – not the other one. And there is a remarkable similarity between his ideas and those of the current Government.
The Labour leader suggests that people should have greater ownership over the data about them that is created inside public services. This data can be used to drive innovation and change. Now that’s precisely the agenda of the present Cabinet Office Transparency and Open Data team. They have been played a leading role on this, contributing to the UK holding the chair of the worldwide Open Government Partnership this year.
Ed Miliband also talks about people combining as users of public services and influencing delivery rather than being passive users. This is the work of the Social Action team and is exemplified, for example, by the Dementia Friends initiative, championed by the Prime Minister. The purpose of this programme is to train a million people who are starting to see the effects of dementia in their families and neighbourhoods to help people who suffer from it.
The final element of the reform agenda that Miliband is laying out – perhaps the most significant – is about the transfer of power and responsibility from public service managers to citizens. This is a complex and ambitious set of changes to make, as the Coalition has found in promoting what it calls Open Public Services. If Miliband wanted to talk through the challenges in achieving this, the best informed expert in the country is probably the free-wheeling Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin.
This continuity in reform between the Coalition and Labour may be a very good thing. The problem the Cabinet Office encounters on any of these issues is resistance from departments, which is sometimes plain opposition to change, though typically it’s because the Treasury agenda takes precedence. So while making public services more open to citizen engagement has been the aim of the Cabinet Office during this parliament, reducing budgets have meant that departments have at the same time commissioned more services from large private sector providers. This suggests a different sort of bipartisanship will be needed for the reform agenda to take root, common purpose between the Cabinet Office and Treasury as well as between the Coalition and Labour.
This common purpose will be very difficult to achieve. The Labour Treasury team has made a commitment to achieving a current budget surplus by the end of the next Parliament. This means that they are signed up to what Hopi Sen has called the ‘long ugly’, continuing spending cuts for several more years. If Labour wins the next election, it will have to conduct a spending review over Summer 2015. This review will have to contend, for example, with the effects of demographic change on the NHS, where even a budget that is flat in real terms will require ‘efficiency savings’ in excess of £30bn by 2018.
What is Labour’s plan for delivering these? There have been reports today based on a leak from DWP about options the department is considering for savings in its administration budget. These will be in the hundreds of millions. Will Labour be willing to see some services consolidated or placed in the private sector? The Treasury agenda may leave few other options. Even these savings are dwarfed by the billions that will have to be saved from the welfare budget itself. Restricting the eligibility of migrants for benefits, or even that of young people, will make very little difference. What else will Labour do? The questions here include what approach it will take to payment by results in the Work Programme, another part of the Treasury agenda for public service reform rather than the Cabinet Office one.
Tonight’s speech is unlikely to tackle these questions. But what it could begin to articulate is a broad approach for how Labour will seek to answer them either over the next few months or if in power. This is vital, and without it Labour will lack credibility on how it delivers its spending promises. One useful source of insight might be the history of the New Labour administration where, despite the Blair-Brown rivalry, the Cabinet Office agenda was as well integrated with the Treasury one as it ever has been, via the Public Service Agreements and the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. It’s either that or settling down for a long chat with Oliver Letwin.