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Labour needs to challenge the British tradition of government

A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service for the challenges of the contemporary age.

Ed Miliband speaks to an audience on the living standards crisis at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Civil service reform and the machinery of government may not be as immediately enticing as the progressive challenge of transforming Britain’s broken political economy, or revitalising the post-war welfare state. But the question of how to use governmental power effectively will be a vital issue for the next Labour government. Competent statecraft is about the capacity to generate sound policy and crucially, to implement and execute reforms in an ever more diverse and complex society. In his seminal treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli famously argued that well governed states, "are full of good institutions…conducive to the security of kind and the realm".

Good statecraft entails constructive relations between civil servants and politicians in which decisions are, wherever possible, informed by knowledge and evidence; it requires a modern notion of accountability where officials take operational responsibility where appropriate, but also contribute to greater openness in the policy-making process; efficiency and value for money are achieved through effective implementation based on decentralisation and an understanding that those who implement policy should have a voice in its formulation; and there is proper democratic oversight of government and policy-making, principally through the scrutiny function of parliament.  

More than ever, solving the major strategic challenges confronting the UK requires effective governance. Policy is increasingly about resolving trade-offs accentuated by financial constraints and fiscal austerity. These are likely to grow in future years given demographic pressures, new demands on state-funded services, and rising public expectations. What, for example, is the right balance between direct income redistribution and investment in early year’s provision to tackle child poverty? How should the state encourage employers to contribute more towards the costs of retraining and lifelong education? How should the National Health Service become more preventative and user-focused? These are all questions about the appropriate distribution and targeting of resources: how to harness all of the policy levers available to achieve strong outcomes strengthening economic efficiency and social justice.   

Throughout history, reform of the state has legitimately been a priority for progressives in British politics. Towards the end of the First World War, a coalition of liberals and Fabians established the Haldane Committee which developed the modern departmental system of government that still predominates today, driving the major social reform achievements of the inter-war years. After 1940, Labour’s contribution to the war effort was in part to open up Whitehall, bringing a legion of experts into the civil service to improve economic policy and industrial planning. This was the seed-bed for the 1942 Beveridge report which established a comprehensive welfare state and NHS. 

Post-1945, the Attlee administration sought to further update and modernise the central civil service. By the 1960s, in the face of relative economic decline and industrial stagnation, it was clear that the system of government needed further reform, a challenge seized by the Wilson government which established the Fulton Committee in 1968. Fulton’s proposed reforms sought to improve civil service training and capacity, strengthening departmental co-ordination and sharpening policy-making expertise. And after Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, Labour set about improving the capacity of Whitehall to carry out a new generation of social reforms – from the New Deal and Academy schools to Sure Start and a plethora of early years’ interventions to equalise life-chances.   

Despite these successes, however, there are practical lessons from the post-1997 governments which ought to be heeded. This is precisely what my new book on Governing Britain (IB Tauris, 2014) seeks to do. I argue that there are five key, stand-out governance reform messages that should be understood.

The first is that successful policies more often build on, but also adapt, what went before: don't rip up policies or institutions for the sake of it. Incremental reforms are often those most likely to succeed in the long-term. Labour chose to scrap Grant Maintained Schools after 1997, insisting they were divisive in promoting a two-tier education system. However, by the early 2000s, the government was developing its own model of "independent state schools". It would have been better from day one to place GM schools within a new framework of public accountability, local democratic oversight, and equity guarantees.    

A further lesson of the New Labour years is that Number Ten cannot circumvent departments and "front-line" public agencies. At times, the centre sought to directly control the levers of implementation, bypassing Whitehall departments altogether. Invariably, this led to less effective policy-making and execution. It is in departments where expertise, knowledge, policy memory, resources, and experience of front-line implementation are often greatest. Central government needs to work with agencies and people throughout the policy chain if it wants sustainable, long-term improvements in performance. Labour’s experience demonstrates that a "top-down" delivery regime will help to shift a public service from "incompetent" to "acceptable", but rarely "from good to great". 

The third lesson of the post-1997 period is that governments need to boost their strategy and delivery capacity. Governments should have the ability to foresee problems and understand policy challenges more forensically than is the case at present. They should learn from policy experiments tried and tested elsewhere, being open to ideas from around the world. There is no harm is absorbing lessons gleaned from other sectors in understanding how to address modern delivery challenges. The Internet is transforming the manner in which the retail sector operates in the UK, alongside customer experience: public services cannot be immune from such trends, even if they are also concerned with equity and accountability.

At the same time, the civil service badly needs more people and capabilities. Alistair Darling has referred in his memoir Beyond the Brink to how few officials there were in the Treasury after 2008 that had experience either of financial services or handling major economic crises. The slimming-down and "hollowing-out" of the British state to cut costs and promote efficiency may result in worse outcomes over time.

Fourthly, the New Labour years demonstrate conclusively that "joined-up government" is still a long way from reality in the British machinery of governance. Departments and agencies are still too inclined to engage in turf wars, passing the buck of resolving "wicked" policy problems onto one another. Much greater emphasis on genuine departmental co-ordination and inter-agency collaboration will be required.

The final lesson of the post-1997 era is that governance reforms are harder as the UK has remained a highly centralised state with few checks and balances on central executive power, stemming from the nature of the British political tradition. Devolution has redistributed some power from central government, but Whitehall remains firmly in control. The default governing code is one of hierarchy, centralisation, command and control – an ethos of "central government knows best". This too needs to be urgently reformed – part of a long-term process of political decentralisation. 

Britain has to learn from the experience of other countries in reforming its governance arrangements, as well as reflecting on previous historical experience. "Power is harder to use and easier to lose," argues the political scientist Moses Naim, as every government is discovering across the developed world. A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service and our machinery of government for the challenges of the contemporary age. 

Patrick Diamond is vice-chair of Policy Network and lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Governing Britain: Power, Politics and the Prime Minister, published today by IB. Tauris  

Tags:Labour
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