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?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times