Goodbye to the control freaks?

The spending review suggests the Chancellor is willing to put more trust in public servants

Gordon Brown's mission of social improvement marches on. Far from making a U-turn on his expansion of public services and help for the poor in the face of tougher public finances, he has expanded their scope. Yes, the growth in public spending has slowed, from about 5 per cent to 3 per cent a year in real terms. But the commitment to steady public sector growth has widened, with initial priorities of health and education spreading to new privileged areas such as housing, overseas aid and security.

One of the most telling features of the pile of Treasury papers making up 12 July's Comprehensive Spending Review was the commitment, in a paper reviewing child poverty, to provide poor families not just with incomes, but with affordable homes. The social mission is becoming ever more joined-up, at least in the mind of Brown, if not always in the actions of departmental ministers and civil servants.

An unprecedented and quite possibly unachievable aspect of this mission is to use efficiency savings and Whitehall cuts, in place of tax rises, to maintain the momentum of public service expansion. Previous economy drives over the past 20 years have often fallen short of promise, but never has a chancellor relied on them so heavily to balance the books. For that reason, the screw will be turned even tighter than in the past. But to make the promised savings, the government will need to effect certain fundamental changes.

Some of these changes would be clear improvements. There remain huge inefficiencies in the computerisation and delivery of services such as social security payments, which are as frustrating for benefit claimants as they are wasteful for the Treasury. Also, the promise to move 20,000 civil service jobs out of London is a welcome move, with knock-on benefits for employment in poorer regions.

However, upheavals of this type are rarely without casualties. For example, it is hard to see how the quality of front- line services can remain unaffected by cutting 40,000 jobs from the Department for Work and Pensions. The distinction between back office and front line is rarely clear-cut, especially given that benefits are increasingly delivered electronically rather than in cash over the counter. It matters little whether a shortage of back-office computer engineers or of front-office counter staff causes your housing benefit payment to be late.

Finding substantial savings from people working on policy in Whitehall rather than on delivery will be even tougher - not least for a government that has such a voracious appetite for policy initiatives. Might the pruning of civil servants finally curb some of Labour's controlling tendencies?

Strange things have started to happen in Whitehall. Last month, for example, came the scrapping of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Skills. This was the flagship of the DfES project to keep schools on track to fulfil central government targets.

Set up by David Blunkett in 1997, the unit put 150 civil servants under the command of an adviser brought in from outside. Now it is being merged into the department as part of DfES cuts. Could this be a first sign that the government is becoming more willing to put resources in the hands of those who deliver our public services, without trying to monitor or control their every move with endless targets and "guidance"? Tony Blair has been disinclined to put that much trust in public servants. Prime Minister Gordon Brown may think differently.

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