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By Peter Hoskin
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Tax
cuts, secret courts and Nigel Farages have set the political pages ablaze – but
there’s a more
unassuming story
that could actually turn out to be more significant than
any of them.

It
concerns a new initiative, called the “What Works Network”, that Oliver Letwin
and Danny Alexander are launching today. You can read details at the Cabinet
Office website
, but it’s basically a new grouping of watchdogs to sift
through evidence and determine which policies actually work. To start off with,
this grouping will cover four policy areas – promoting local economic growth,
reducing crime, bettering the lot of disadvantaged children, and looking after
the elderly – that amount to £200 billion-worth of public spending.


So
far, so anodyne – but this shift towards policy-by-results is tremendously
important. What it does is upend one of the worst features of the Gordon Brown
years: a tendency to justify policy by the amounts of money that were spent on
it. If you wanted to know whether New Labour cared about the NHS, then Team
Brown would invariably cite the extra £billions that were being pumped into the
service, as though that were an end in itself. This meant that other measures –
such as, y’know, quality of care – were neglected. The goings-on at trusts such
as Mid Staffs were tragically overlooked.    

A
focus on outputs, more than inputs, may not just mean better policy, but cheaper
policy, too. At the last election, the IFS noted – with caveats, admittedly
– that:

“If the [Labour] Government had managed to maintain the ‘bang
for each buck’ at the level it inherited in 1997, it would have been able to
deliver the quantity and quality of public services it delivered in 2007 for
£42.5 billion less. Alternatively, it could have improved the quality and quantity
of public services by a further 16% for the same cost.”

Putting the effectiveness of policy
under constant, proper review will surely help improve this “bang for each buck”
ratio. Indeed, the Coalition hopes to save up to £2 billion a year from the
initial efforts of the What Works Network. And that’s just the start.

This
is the same philosophy that informs Iain
Duncan Smith’s
search for a new definition of child poverty – and it ought
to be welcomed. Governments should be concerned about what actually works,
rather than what sounds good in a Budget speech.

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