Don't try to control everything

Matthew Taylor argues that ministers must encourage the public sector to take risks

Welcome to the evaluative state. Shortly before Christmas a white paper set out targets that must be met, both by government departments and by initiatives (such as crime prevention and family support) that cut across departments. Some of these Public Service Agreements (PSAs) are familiar: the manifesto pledges on class sizes and NHS waiting lists, for example. Others are more obscure. These range from the detailed and measurable - the Department for Culture is to ensure that 75 per cent of libraries are linked to the Internet - to the broad and intangible - the first Foreign Office objective is to "build a modern Nato, adapted to the needs of the new millennium".

Alongside them we have the growth in evaluative agencies: the best known is probably Ofsted, which enforces standards in education. Among the new agencies are the Commission for Health Improvement and the Best Value Inspectorates in the Audit Commission. Only last month Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, announced Quest, an agency that will measure value for money in the arts (ministers wisely decided against Ofart).

All this is certainly better than what came before. As Tony Blair wrote in the introduction to the white paper: "Too often in the past, governments have only made commitments for what they put into public services - money, manpower and policies - not what the public will get out in return." The Conservatives did not fundamentally challenge this "input culture"; instead, they privatised, introduced quasi-markets and steadily eroded local control. In contrast to the Tories' anti-state rhetoric, Labour aims to strengthen support for public expenditure by providing citizens with clear evidence of where their money is going and what it is achieving.

But accepting the idea of target-setting is one thing; setting the right targets is another. Doctors have argued that the numbers on waiting lists - which Labour has pledged to reduce - are less important for individual patients than waiting times. The waiting-list target does not tell us whether those in greatest need are being seen first. Again, the target for 50 per cent of pupils to achieve five A-C grades in GCSE gives schools every incentive to concentrate on those of middling ability (so that they get five rather than four A-C grades) but much less reason to bother with those at the lower levels of attainment. The target thus becomes a measure not of school performance but of the head's ability to direct resources ruthlessly to a particular group. Education ministers have now recognised this, and included a target to reduce the number of pupils leaving with no qualifications. But the reality of league tables means that schools will to continue to focus on improving the performance of the middle and top bands.

It is a characteristic of management by target that more and more measures have to be developed to correct the perverse incentives created by earlier ones, rather as the judge in the film What's Up Doc? took so many pills to deal with the side-effects of others that he forgot what was originally wrong with him.

Further, ministers and civil servants, knowing that they will be judged by outcomes, start to take stronger and stronger powers to shape those outcomes. They move further and further "upstream", trying to control the process by which targets are reached. In primary schools, for example, ministers have set targets for literacy and numeracy; now they are dictating time, content and method for these subjects.

And therein lie the dangers. If ministers try to extend their control to process as well as outcome, the scope for public managers, local councillors and public service volunteers to use their own initiative will become ever more circumscribed. Creative minds are hardly going to be attracted to public service by the financial rewards. People need to feel they can lead, respond to local circumstances and make a difference. Yet school governors, for example, find themselves acting as managerial assistants to head teachers, dealing with an ever-growing tide of regulations from the Department for Education and Employment or the town hall.

Labour's commitment to civic engagement and the renewal of communities is an important part of its new ideology. It is an area where the values of traditional liberalism and new social democracy are complementary. But by exerting too much control from the centre Labour risks invalidating its commitment to active citizenship.

What is the answer? In championing the PSAs, Blair and Gordon Brown often speak of "money for modernisation". To this should be added the idea of "freedom for modernisation". As public services deliver on their targets, the reward should be not only more resources but also more autonomy over how targets are pursued. Ministers have already proposed "beacon councils", to be given special freedoms as a reward for meeting best-value targets, and even Ofsted - supposedly the big bad wolf of the evaluative state - is developing "light-touch" inspections for demonstrably successful schools.

Such ideas should be extended. But the government will have to do two things it sometimes finds difficult. First, it will have to resist the temptation to exert ever more detailed central control. The muted response to the idea of targets for the patients' charter being set locally is not a good sign. Second, as a thousand flowers bloom in the public sector, the government will have to be willing to take a hit when local innovators get it wrong or when their methods are viewed as too unconventional by Daily Mail standards.

In its recent white paper on competitiveness, the government argued that a greater tolerance of business failure was the price for encouraging risk-taking. It would be good to see a similar standard applied to the public sector. Who knows: it may convince people that ministers are not control freaks.

Matthew Taylor is the new director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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