In defence of Blairite public sector targets

If Labour is to build truly excellent public services, it must re-embrace managerialism and performance data.

The bland lexicon of public service reform – targets, choice, contestability – certainly doesn’t feel like the territory over which the 2015 general election will be slugged out. Health and education are relatively safe territory for Labour in the polls. It might be tempting to think all the opposition need do is mount a defence of schools and hospitals in the face of cuts in the next two years. Perhaps little wonder, then, that these issues are getting less opposition airtime than the economy.

Of course, a detailed public service reform plan will not win Labour the next election. Yet there is a more important reason it must be developed. What happens if Labour wins? Nobody is predicting a 1997-style majority with the longevity that implies. That means that a Labour government may have no more than five years to make a difference, and barely any cash to do it. Redistribution on any scale will be out of the question, and while it’s all very well to talk about 'predistribution', the truth is it is a long term project that not even economists really know how to achieve.

Which leaves public services. Radically improving our public services within five years could be transformative: imagine if four in five schools and childcare services were outstanding, instead of the current figures of one in five and one in ten. The multibillion-pound public service reform question that looms over this, though, is: how? This has to be one of the most important questions facing the centre-left. But current debates are still too stuck in the what: trying to describe the magic ingredient that makes a particular service great. The most popular narrative is that the Labour government was too stuck in top-down, centralised reform and we should focus on more 'relational', personalised public services. 

This hand-wringing risks becoming an unhelpful diversion. If you look at any outstanding school, GP surgery, or childcare setting, of course they have excellent relationships between skilled practitioners and service users at their heart. Any public service reform agenda worth its salt recognises that what makes a great public service is great people, trained, supported and developed in the right way. The simple truth is if you take a school and fill it with the top 10 per cent of teachers it doesn’t matter what initiatives are coming out of Whitehall, or how the curriculum is tweaked, or how much paperwork teachers have to do: it will be a fantastic school.

Moreover, condemning top-downism isn’t necessarily an electoral win. How many parents or patients who’ve had bad experiences share the analysis that it’s down to government interference with professional autonomy? They rightly blame the government for badly managed, unresponsive services. But does that really extend into a critique of New Public Management, even if this is what is dominating our current political discourse?

Politicians love to point to examples of great schools and hospitals, and there’s a lot to learn from them about what excellent public services look like. But it’s less useful for the how: looking at the brilliant outliers doesn’t tell us a great deal about what type of system will lead to those outliers becoming the norm. That’s partly because of the truism that the best professionals tend to be found in the best services. But also because turning a service around in a system where there is a lot of variance in quality is a different enterprise to turning it around in a system where there are lots more very good performers. For example, one of the quickest ways for new leadership to turn around a failing school is to push the poorest performing teachers out to other schools. That works in a system where almost one in three schools are not providing an adequate standard of education. It doesn’t work in a system where those types of schools are all but eliminated.

Improving standards across the board requires two things. First, improving average standards in the profession and cutting out the very poor-performing tail. One strategy for this would be what might be called the #McKinsey approach#: focusing on recruiting the crème de la crème into teaching, nursing, or childcare. This is effectively what the top international school systems do: Finland recruits its teachers from its top 10 per cent of graduates. But it would take a very long time to work its way through the system, and it has its limitations.

We therefore need to focus on improving the quality of existing professionals in the system. There are interesting insights from specific interventions proven to work in improving outcomes across education, family and health service, like Family Functional Therapy and Nurse Family Partnership. These interventions don’t make much difference to the outcomes achieved by the highest- and lowest-performing professionals. Where they do make a big difference is in the middle to lower end of the spectrum, through initial high-quality training; continuing professional development; sticking to a specified, evidenced delivery model that acts as a framework for practitioners whilst still allowing them to use professional autonomy to individually tailor services; monitoring performance using real-time data linked to continuous quality improvement; and proper management and reflective supervision. When this combination works, the result is a fantastic, relational service like Family Nurse Partnership, proven to work in improving long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children through intensive parenting support.

Second, where adjustments to systems are found to produce better results, providers should be incentivised to replicate them across the board. For example, moving to telephone-first GP consultations, where all patients initially get a call from their own GP to determine if they need to go in, results in more surgery capacity, improved patient satisfaction and up to 20 per cent fewer A&E attendances. Yet only a tiny minority of practices have adopted this practice.

All of this starts to sound like the unfashionable managerialism most politicians are eager to condemn. But smart managerialism has long been recognised in the private sector as vital to achieving results, for example the 'Kaizen' philosophy pioneered by Toyota, which empowers employees to achieve continuous improvement in production and customer service through a system of employee alerts to management and collective problem-solving.

Whitehall obviously cannot nor should not impose this sort of managerialism top down. It is not the job of central or local government to insist on one way of doing things. But ministers have a duty to foster a 'Kaizen' culture by ensuring there is muscular accountability for service providers, whether they hail from the private, public or voluntary sectors. Depending on the circumstance, this might be centrally-set targets or outcomes-based payments written into central or local government contracts, to ensure service providers from local authorities to academy chains manage those services so we get more outstanding schools. Or it might be ensuring there is enough user power so that patients and parents can quickly raise the red flag when things are going wrong, for example via patient user forums or school governing bodies. These are very simple insights that were at the heart of the much-maligned New Public Management. Yet there remains a long way to go, for example in ensuring there are simple performance data available on schools and GP surgeries (why don’t schools have to publish annually which quintile they fall in on contextual value-added data, for example?)

The most common critique of targets is they impose a top-down, centralist view of what a better world looks like. Of course, bad targets can be set, and of course it’s sometimes more appropriate for targets to be about user satisfaction. But surely it’s not beyond our wits to come up with collective and measurable objectives for our public services – ensuring young people leave school with the skills they need, or reducing the amount of Type II diabetes through public health prevention, for example – and have a robust system of accountability that blends top-down with bottom-up. If we don’t, we risk having expensive public services that are ineffective at achieving what we want.

There are lessons for Labour from both Blairite and Cameroon public service reform. Blair’s reforms were too easily distracted with trying to impose a top down model on public services. No matter how robust the evidence that something works on a small scale, trying to impose it system-wide is unlikely to be productive.

The coalition’s health and education reforms suffer from two devastating flaws: conflicts of interest abound (for example, academies are directly accountable to education ministers; yet one chain is being run by a minister) and a lack of clarity about what happens when a service is failing, regardless of who runs it. On the other hand, there is a positive lesson to draw about the benefits of getting ready in opposition: compare the smooth passage of the academies act (written before the 2010 election) with that of the health and social care act (which certainly wasn’t).

Ed Miliband is not in the game for the sake of winning, but to change the country for the better. That means Labour’s task over the next two years has to be about more than coming up with a winning manifesto formula. Public service reform is not election-winning territory, which is why this is the stuff of a quietly-developed programme for government rather than flashy manifesto pledges. But if it is to make a difference in government, Labour somehow has to re-learn to love Blairite statecraft.

Sonia Sodha is a former policy adviser to Ed Miliband and writes in a personal capacity

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit and a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She tweets @soniasodha.

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.