Economics, politics and the reality of the 'squeezed middle'

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Haven't I seen this revolution before?

David Cameron's public service reforms suffer from a serious zeitgeist problem.

Buried under the detritus of the escalating News International scandal is the government's long awaited public services white paper. Assuming you missed it, it's all about the need for "narrative" and to demonstrate a coherent governing project.

Senior politicians, and the commentators they talk to, obsess about this. Strange though it may seem to much of the public, the need to produce these wide ranging plans on public services can feel all-consuming to those working in No.10. On this front, the current administration is no different to its predecessors.

Generally these occasions tend to leave the public undisturbed. During the Labour years, in all the conversations I had with nurses, teachers and social workers -- many of whom begrudgingly supported much of what the government was doing -- there was almost no awareness of our "big public service argument", as it used to be termed.

The few who registered these efforts at all tended to view them as little more than a vanity exercise for the PM of the day.

Nor are these exercises popular across Whitehall. "I'm from the Cabinet Office White Paper team and I'd like to talk to you about our new public service reform narrative" must be one of the worst lines in government. Once uttered, departmental doors close, conversations dry up, and policy ideas get hidden away.

Hence these exercises are never easy. And this white paper, with its troubled gestation, will have been harder than most. The recent NHS debacle has both overshadowed it and undercut its ambitions. Being convincing about your radical intent on public services is hard going when you've spent the last few months submerged in the politics of U-turn, compromise and painstaking public reassurance.

So what's new? For all the effort to make it sound like a departure into a brave new era of personal "choice and control" the White Paper is characterised far more by continuity with the past than the coalition, or many on the Labour side, would like to recognise. "A right for anyone with a chronic condition to receive a personal budget." "Every hospital to become a Foundation Trust". "Takeovers and mergers to create a new generation of a not-for-profit chains of schools." A "default assumption" that all government data will be open source.

Sounds like strong stuff. Except all of these lines are from Labour's 2010 Manifesto -- and all have a clear echo in yesterday's publication.

Where the white paper seeks to go further is in relation to the role of the private sector and charities in running any public service. The early press briefings, which suggested a far-reaching right for the private sector to takeover services, will no doubt have generated grave concerns from those fearing the widespread privatisation of core services.

Personally, I think they can relax, at least on the basis of what's actually in the white paper. It's hard to see what new in it would force any of this to happen.

Similarly, the main proposal for securing individual choice across public services appears to be a byzantine plan to consult with various Ombudsmen on how they might be able to offer some type of (as yet unspecified) redress to citizens who feel dissatisfied. If you are scratching your head about what this means, and how this bureaucratic sounding procedure might work then, rest assured, you are not alone. Suffice to say that I gather it was not the most rigorously thought through part of the document.

Government strategies like these, which are supposed to demonstrate governing coherence, always involve a concerted effort to conceal the contradictions that necessarily plague any administration. What is right for policing is very unlikely to work for schools. But for Cameron there is a deeper tension between the part of him that wants to be a visionary - even reckless - reformer willing to tear up all manner of existing institutions, and the other Cameron - the cautious Burkean conservative - who recoils from blue-prints and grand schemes.

Sometimes the cracks show. Look at schools policy, the alleged exemplar of the new agenda. The most telling thing that Michael Gove has said over recent months is his commitment to all schools achieving 50 per cent 5 A- Cs at GCSE, including English and Maths, by the end of the Parliament (which build on Labour's previous 30 per cent ambition).

Just in case you missed it, this is a "top-down target" -- you know, the sort coalition is supposed to shun, that Labour were so keen on.

Personally, I broadly support Gove on this ambition - it is right that the centre of government has a sharp focus on under-performing schools. But this would necessitate a far more balanced approach to school improvement then Gove's existing agenda. In this, as in other areas, the Coalition's own goals will crash into their self-declared model of statecraft - a point that has been commented upon before on these pages.

Above all, today's report suffers from a serious zeitgeist problem. If an argument about public service reform is to have any prospect of resonating beyond the world of Westminster it needs to somehow chime with the times we are living in.

At his best, Tony Blair pulled this off. His mission to extend individual choice in public services - whether you liked it or not - connected with the post millennium era of rising prosperity, increased consumerism, and fast-growing use of the internet as a source of empowerment in our daily lives. These currents are of course still relevant: the popular demand for a good local school or hospital is just as keenly felt as ever. But the prevailing public mood is now darker - characterised by economic insecurity, falling living standards, and the desire to protect work.

It is possible to provide an account of how reformed public services can help speak to these challenges. We have some of the most expensive childcare in the world and it is highly inflexible, jarring with the working patterns of many parents. Reform is badly needed. Equally, millions of older workers will need support to help them stay in work, not least as the pension age rises. Again, existing services need to change.

But these are not questions that today's white paper attempts to answer. The events at News International are not the only reason that today's report, like many of its predecessors, is likely to be lost without a trace.

 

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.