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Why evolution, not revolution, is the key to public service reform

As Andrew Adonis argues, successful reforms are incremental and build on existing best-practice, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

The coalition government, and in particular its Conservative wing, has been described as "Maoist" on public service reform. They have taken inspiration from Tony Blair’s lament that the only thing he regrets is not moving further and faster on the reform of the public sector. To remind himself of this, Michael Gove even has a picture of Lenin on his office wall.  Across government, there has been a premium on radical structural change undertaken at great speed.

Public services need reform: taken as a whole they are still not meeting the expectations of the modern public and they are poorly configured in particular to tackle complex problems that cut across different social domains. The state has got pretty good at things like reducing hospital waits and strengthening basic levels of education. It is pretty ineffective at tackling problems like anti-social behaviour, mental illness and long-term unemployment. So the need for reform is not in doubt - the question is what kind of reform and how it is to be carried out.

And it is here that the government’s record looks pretty poor. If we look across departments we find big structural changes undertaken at great speed, which have ended in predictable trouble. The NHS has spent three years undergoing a vast and expensive reorganisation, which has wasted time and distracted professional and managerial energy that should have been focused on improving services.

This is not the only car crash: the implementation of Universal Credit has got into the familiar trouble that bedevils big IT projects, the Work Programme is failing to help those who are sick or disabled into work, and the rush to get as many new free schools as possible has come at a price in terms of quality. The Ministry of Justice itself now says that Chris Grayling’s high speed probation privatisation will put the public at risk. These problems are not just embarrassing for ministers, they affect millions of people.

Instead of taking inspiration from Mao, ministers would have done better to listen to one of Labour’s most successful public service reformers, Andrew Adonis. In a little noticed speech three years ago, he set out six lessons for successful reform. Good reforms, he argued, build on failed ones and learn from their mistakes. They are incremental and do not try to achieve 'whole-system' transformation all at once. They are based on existing best-practice, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. They require huge political drive, considerable support from stakeholders and create a new consensus in the general public.

Adonis's argument is backed by research across disciplines including economics and the behavioural sciences that social systems improve most if they are allowed to evolve incrementally. In this way, actors and institutions can try things out, learn from their mistakes and improve their practice continuously over time. Look at the recent public service reforms that have really lasted: Teach First (now the largest graduate recruiter in Britain) and academy schools. Both started small, both built on previous reforms and both grew gradually over time. Compare that legacy to what has happened in health: over the last 20 years, the whole structure of the NHS has been reorganised four times - often in an attempt to reverse the mistakes made in the previous reform. Very few people would claim that any of those structural reforms were the main reason for improved clinical outcomes.

If this is true, why are politicians so addicted to top-down structural reform? Because there are big political incentives to introduce 'look at me' reforms, to show through speed and scale that one is being radical, and to focus on structure as something muscular that politicians can directly get their hands on. The content and the timetable of Chris Grayling’s misconceived reforms to the probation service are a classic example of this pathology in our political system.

The first order challenge is clearly to decide what type of reforms are required for our public services. As Rafael Behr points out, Labour has yet to settle on a public service reform agenda.  In the new year IPPR will be publishing a paper that sets out our prospectus. But politicians also have to address themselves to the question of pace and scale, revolution or evolution.  Labour would do well to eschew Mao and listen to Adonis: start small at first and then grow out across the system, allow for trial and error, do not change all of a system’s 'tectonic plates' at once but be clearly focused on driving through reform in those areas that need to change, and build coalitions to sustain reform over time.  If Labour does that, the changes it will introduce will last and ultimately have greater effect.

Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR. His new paper Many to Many: How the relational state will transform public services will be published in the new year.