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.

 

 

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.