Nadhim Zahawi is MP for Stratford on Avon and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
We remember governments through events and the Conservatives’ time in power will be no different. We came into government with a choking financial system, on the back of the deepest of recessions, with a debt crisis from which only the world’s confidence in our ability to make tough choices could spare us.
The stock market collapses in recent weeks, around the world but especially in China, show that these problems may not yet be behind us. The media is naturally drawn to these dramatic events and the Government’s response must be and has been strong. But, beneath the headlines, the Government quickly realised that without ever-higher spending to turn to, conventional solutions to public service provision won’t cut it today.
As a result, the Government that emerges from these stormy times will not be the same as the one that entered it. Adversity is the mother of invention and, faced with great challenges, we have an ambitious agenda to deliver better government that not only costs less, but exceeds expectations in terms of convenience and efficiency.
Since 2010, we’ve proved the people who argued that public services would suffer under tight budgets wrong. Many had assumed a link between the quality of a service and the amount of money spent on it. Many thought, often with an interest in resisting savings, that any reduction in spending would invariably make things worse.
It’s always easier to deliver better services when you have the option to spend more, but there is always a limit to the money available. Instead, we have reformed creatively without breaking the bank. How you spend money is as important as how much you spend.
Old thinking was pessimistic. It ignored the vast gains in productivity and convenience elsewhere. Technological advancement has made most things easier, cheaper and more convenient. In the private sector, this has been driven by the competitiveness of the market and the obvious need to keep and retain customers in an age when the next disruptive innovation is always right around the corner.
Because of these advances, you can manage your money, book a holiday, find a place to live, and shop for everything imaginable – without being put on hold, having to queue, being frustratingly passed about, paying commissions, or having to like it or lump it if the service isn’t good enough.
The public sector has traditionally lagged behind because it can. It has a natural monopoly. But this means that it needs strong leadership to make changes happen. Right now, that leadership comes in the shape of the Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock. He has taken on a portfolio at the Cabinet Office ranging from Civil Service reform, public sector efficiency and cyber security. He’s at the forefront of the changes that the Government is pursuing, and there have already been stacks of big wins.
These go a whole lot further than just common sense savings – although there have been plenty of these to find. The government has saved £18.6 billion through efficiency and reform in the last financial year alone, a 30 per cent increase on last year.
Beyond the common sense savings that only the Conservatives are willing to challenge vested interests to make, there have been radical rethinks of how central government is run. Public services have to be run for the public, not for those who work in them, and so they need reshaping for that purpose rather than being left to old structures and internal empire building.
A collection of innovations has been spearheaded by authorities saving money, simplifying and improving convenience. This is happening in both virtual and physical spaces as the Government Digital Service and Government Property Unit bring web platforms and government departments under the same roofs. This helps civil servants by bringing them into modern hubs for faster sharing of ideas and information, and improves the user experience on government websites.
GOV.UK has brought 1,882 websites into a single portal, saving over £60 million a year, making information and services quicker and easier to find and, in the last Parliament, there was a focus on making some of central government’s most significant services digital by default.
These changes will also help the Government be more responsive to the needs of the public. As I said earlier, companies elsewhere have come on leaps and bounds in engagement, and the Civil Service is looking to join them. Rather than rely on occasional public consultations, we can achieve constant improvement by analysing data and feedback as it’s received.
At the most radical end of the reforms – and definitely the most interesting – is the Behavioural Insights Team. For years, too much policy was based on the idea that people act rationally all of the time. Both recent insights from behavioural economics and events reveal that to be nonsense. Policy must be based on how people actually behave. Ideas from this policy unit have led to massive increases in the rate of payment after tax letters are sent out. When applied to texts sent out by job centres, it dramatically increased the chances that benefits claimants would attend a job interview. It has helped retirees better manage their savings, and nudged people to give more to charity. On top of that it’s turned a tidy profit, and taken its findings to sell abroad.
These reforms will be missed by most, and won’t be remembered when people look back at this government’s time in office. But, make no mistake, the Civil Service is rising to the challenge that we’ve set it. The Government that will run the gauntlet of this uncertain world will not be the same at the end of its course as the one that went into it. That will be down to the ambition and determination that we show today.