This Thursday will see the fifth Conservative Party policy group report. [11.45am: Sensibly, the report has been rescheduled to the following week]. Stephen Dorrell and Baroness Perry will present their proposals for modernising Britain’s public services. As with the competitiveness and social justice reports we can expect to see individual ideas trailed in the press on a day-by-day basis. The report will have to compete with a news agenda that is heavily focused on the consequences flowing from the shooting of Rhys Jones. As Matt d’Ancona writes in today’s Sunday Telegraph – and as ConservativeHome urged on Thursday – Mr Cameron’s social responsibility agenda may have found its moment.
But back to public services for now and an important op-ed by Stephen Dorrell in The Sunday Times. Mr Dorrell, Health Secretary under John Major, attempts to pre-empt claims that his plans to entrust professionals amount to ‘producer capture’:
"The case for strong and independent professions is not the case for a return to the status quo ante. It is the case for challenging the professions to accept their responsibilities – to acknowledge that they, and they alone, are able to ensure the reality of public service excellence matches the rhetoric."
Mr Dorrell argues that measures to counter the poor professional standards of the past – measures including waiting time targets in the NHS and literacy and numeracy hours in schools – brought short-term benefits but their "inevitable long-term consequence [is] that discretion is drained from professional structures and centralised in the hands of interventionist ministers."
He says that Britain can choose to continue to impose "an increasingly arcane set of bureaucratic measures and targets, or it must seek ways of reengaging with the aspirations and idealism that originally motivated the vast majority of professional people to devote their lives to their profession."
Mr Dorrell argues that this is no choice at all. Whilst accepting that patients and pupils must be free to move from one hospital and school to another he sets out principles for renewing public service professionalism:
- "The professions must be engaged in the management of the services. When professional people experience management as an activity “done to them” rather an activity in which the profession itself is engaged, it becomes too easy to reject management objectives as service distortions.
- Public services need to develop more reliable and publicly available outcome data – including data related to the performance of individual professionals – to allow all interested parties to see the evidence about performance.
- The professions need to be engaged in the preparation of the outcome data in order to reduce opportunities to discuss the preparation of the statistics instead of the facts they reveal.
- The leaderships of the professions need to develop the stature to act, locally and nationally, as both effective advocates for the professions and effective monitors of standards."
The advance publicity for the Dorrell-Perry report also begins today with a story in The Observer. In an idea very similar to that proposed by Iain Duncan Smith, the public services policy group will say that parents should have the power to set up new schools to rival those of local education authorities:
"In areas where schools are performing badly, the councils should have no power to stop such a move, a Tory policy review will recommend this week. Co-chaired by former cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell, it will argue that forcing local authorities to fund the schools would boost exam performance."