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.

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. 

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

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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Brexit, betrayal and English football

Plus: what Nietzsche knew, Douglas Carswell's curious tweets and why David Cameron is like an essay crisis.

A couple of years ago I met the then Tory MP Douglas Carswell at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in London. He had not yet defected to Ukip and, with his eyes blazing, he began talking at me about sovereignty and direct democracy as well as comparing the campaign to liberate the British from the EU to the struggles of the Levellers and Chartists. It was hard not to stifle a yawn. Still, I listened politely and in the spirit of pluralism invited him to submit a guest column. The column never arrived, and in the intervening years I turned off the television or radio whenever it was announced he would be on. He struck me as a pious, moralising, single-issue crank, without any of the breezy wit or charisma of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader whom Carswell loathes and longs to unseat.

Essay crisis PM

Whatever you think of Farage’s politics (and all NS readers will no doubt despise them), you cannot doubt his conviction, radicalism or political brilliance – no one did more to take Britain out of the EU than he. His triumph is total and contrasts markedly with David Cameron’s failure. For such a pragmatist, the Prime Minister gambled everything on the referendum. Perhaps a series of narrow victories, notably in the 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election, had beguiled him into believing in the myth of his own good luck. But he never prepared the electorate for the referendum or made the positive case for the EU, until it was much too late. He is one of the guilty men who has led Britain to its present impasse, perhaps the guiltiest of all, because of his insouciance and carelessness. John Wheeler-Bennett, the conservative historian, described Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich as “a case study in the disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars”. Cameron, the essay crisis prime minister, has turned out to be similarly myopic. Now we all have to live with the consequences of his wretched defeat. 

Brexit and betrayal

Carswell sent an especially mendacious tweet during the campaign: “I am with @Vote_leave because we should stop sending £350 million per week to Brussels, and spend our money on our NHS instead.” As a monomaniacal Eurosceptic he would have known that he was lying about Britain’s EU contribution. He would have known, too, that the juxtaposition of this figure with NHS spending was wilfully misleading.

Yet when I called him out on his lies he suggested that I had not come to terms with my grief. I am not grieving (being no ardent lover of the EU) but I am angry – angry about the mendacity and cant of the Brexiteers, who are already retreating on promises and pledges made. The leaders of Leave are, in effect, free-market Randians who will be leading a coalition of social conservatives that cannot hold. Soon there will be plaintive cries of betrayal and, from the streets, shouts of, “This is not what we meant at all!”

Hodgson’s choice

In an interview in November 2015, the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said that there was no “‘English’ football any more  . . . no authentic English style”. How true. Roy Hodgson, who resigned after the abject defeat to Iceland (population: 330,000), was the highest-paid coach at the Euros, on £3.5m a year. He earned significantly more than Joachim Löw of Germany, a World Cup winner. For context, Chris Coleman, who led Wales to the quarter-finals, has an annual salary of £200,000. There were eight coaches who earned less than Coleman at the Euros.

Why is Hodgson paid so much? Because English football is bloated, greedy, arrogant and deluded about its standing in the world (does this sound familiar?). At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England were knocked out of the tournament within six days of the start, yet Hodgson stayed on to lead his hapless squad to another international humiliation. In manner, he is amiable but garrulous, speaking in looping circumlocutions: he sounds more like a prison officer in the 1970s sitcom Porridge than a contemporary continental football coach whose working methods are enlightened by data analysis, sports science and management theory.

After four years under his auspices, England had no method or signature style, as Del Bosque recognised. They had no structure or shape, which is why they fragmented at moments of stress. A well-coached side, with positional discipline and an unbreakable structure, can withstand pressure when it plays poorly – think of George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 1980s. Hodgson did not seem to know who his best players were or in which formation to use them. He had no leader on the pitch. Wayne Rooney was his captain but, for all his bull-necked pugnacity, he is introverted. Hodgson kept picking Raheem Sterling (for whom Manchester City paid a laughable £50m) and Adam Lallana. Together they have 52 caps for England but only two goals. Should Hodgson have been surprised that his forwards did not score when he needed them most? Evidently he was, otherwise why keep picking them? Yet coaches can be transformative, as Eddie Jones has been so rapidly for English rugby, or Trevor Bayliss for English cricket. But here’s the thing: both men are Australians.

Laughed off stage

“Fuck off, we’re voting out” chanted the drunken English yobs at the start of the tournament in Marseilles (they were less exuberant once the Russian Ultras marched into town). England will not be missed at the Euros. Worse than this, they exited to the sound of derisive laughter, as they retreated to their island stronghold. The laughter has not ceased. You could say that, after Brexit, the English are becoming something of a laughing stock, alas. “Laughter I have pronounced holy,” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “You higher men, learn – to laugh!” Laughter captures the essence of a truth that cannot be communicated. The alternative is tears.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies