A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Improvement doesn't always need reform

I read John Woodcock's piece on Labour Uncut saying Labour must be the party of “radical public service reform” and gave a little bit of an inner groan.

One of the greatest consumers of political time and energy during our time in government was the brightest and best in the party dreaming up whizzy new ways of reforming public services in pursuit of a chimerical middle class appetite for choice, and then ending up not satisfying the intended, rather narrow, political market, whilst having had a punch-up with some of our own affiliates representing the people who actually deliver the services.

The pursuit of “public service reform” was from my perspective a massive waste of political capital that consumed Tony Blair’s and several key cabinet ministers’ time from 2001 onwards with very little noticeable impact on the frontline or on Labour’s political fortunes when they could have been zeroing in on a host of other more important issues.

I’m not against some of the actual reforms. I just don’t believe that the public sector reform agenda should be the central defining agenda of a Labour government, or consume so much intellectual effort or ministerial time.

My instincts are these:

· By the time of the next election the public services will be 40% smaller thanks to Coalition cuts, so personalisation and reform are going to be irrelevant. You’ll be lucky if there are books in any of the local schools, let alone a choice of which one to go to.
· Choice about important stuff like schools or hospitals is actually incredibly stressful and requires a high level of knowledge on the part of the parent or patient to make an informed choice. I didn’t want to have to choose a primary school for my son this year and learn a load of nonsense about the relative placings of each one in the league table. I wanted them all to be good so it didn’t matter which one he went to. Particularly as he had no chance whatsoever of getting into the one we most liked, where he had already been at nursery, as we weren’t prepared to jump through the hoop of moving house to achieve this. Similarly when I was ill last year the last thing I wanted was the additional stress of making choices about where and how I was treated. I just wanted to lie back and feel ill and let the doctors do the choosing.
· When it comes to education choice is an illusion. Every parent who has the inclination to engage in this ‘choice’ wants the best for their child – what is being offered most of the time is not a choice between different pedagogical methods but a choice between institutions providing the same service with varying levels of success. The result is the best performing institutions are taken over by the strata of the middle class who possess the resources and mobility to get the best, e.g. by moving house to within the 192 metre catchment area of the most popular school in our area, which polarises schools to an even greater extent and consigns working class kids to under performing schools.
· Most of our reforms tended to focus on structure e.g. “liberating” academies from LEA control and “liberating” Foundation Hospitals from various central NHS controls. The Tories have taken this several leaps further. I happen to believe academies have been a great success where I live in Hackney, with stunning exam results and loads of other benefits for their pupils compared to the failing schools we (Hackney Council) took the tough decisions to shut. But I don’t think the status was what made the difference. Mossbourne Academy is not one of the best performing schools in the country because it has a token £1m of private funding, or a differently composed governing body to an LEA school, or more independence from the LEA. It’s a brilliant school because it has a specially recruited and highly paid head teacher, smart uniforms, strict discipline, fantastic new buildings and an ethos that’s all about success. None of these things required the creation of a new genre of schools to achieve. In the case of my equally brilliant local Foundation Hospital, the Homerton, it got the “reformed” status with extra freedoms and a different governance model because it was already one of the best performing hospitals, it didn’t start performing well because of a change of status.
· My personal experience as a Hackney councillor watching the turn round of our borough council from a national laughing-stock and basket case to one of the most improved authorities in the country was that it was all about leadership by our Mayor and successive Chief Executives and a clear political vision. We achieved a massive turnaround by changing key senior staff, investing in the workforce, bringing in expertise from other local authorities and tightening financial and legal procedures. We certainly didn’t too it by structural tinkering with a tried-and-tested model of municipal service delivery – in fact we brought services back in-house that private sector contractors had comprehensively screwed up.
· I’m tempted to look at the one public service which commands respect from across the political spectrum: the Armed Forces. They don’t mess about with their structures all the time. The regimental system in the Army carries forward traditions that are up to 400 years old. When the Chiefs of Staff want different or better effects from the Armed Forces they don’t get it by antagonising all the producers – in their case officers and men. They get it by investing in more modern equipment, by recruiting and promoting the best people, by modernising their doctrine, and by brilliant training and retraining at every level from basic training to Staff College, but particularly at leadership level. When a crisis – a war - happens they have the organisational agility to improvise solutions to unexpected scenarios and threats. Leadership, equipment and esprit de corps are central to the success of the Armed Forces as the ultimate public service. Really successful state schools like Mossbourne Academy have the same characteristics: great leadership, great facilities and esprit de corps. The hospital I was in last year, the National on Queen Square, was successful for similar reasons. None of this requires constant reform of structures – it’s all about recruiting the right senior and middle leadership, creating the right organisational culture, and giving staff the best equipment and the best, constantly updated, training.
· Unfortunately much public service reform was about importing values of individualism and the market into the public sector, and involving the private sector nearer and nearer to the frontline. I think this was ideologically a mistake because it weakened the character of institutions that should be important incubators of social democratic values. We should be as aggressive in promoting collectivist and egalitarian models of delivering services as the Tories are at dismantling them. We ought to have a situation where private sector companies are copying the brilliant management and quality of the public sector, and public sector leaders are seconded to help turn round industry, not vice versa.
· Beware politicians saying they know the micro-answers to the way public services should be run. Unless they have actually been front-line public servants like Lord Darzi they usually don’t and would be better off setting objectives and letting the professionals work out how to get there.

I hope the next Labour government will focus on the standards of public services, and on developing the leaders, doctrine, equipment and highly trained and motivated workforce to make all of them world-beaters, rather than on “reforming” them. If we get back in we will inherit a depleted band of public servants who will be bruised and battered from Tory “reforms” and won’t thank us for another round however well intentioned.

I hope we won’t waste any more terms focused on sterile debates about “reform” that tend to have negligible benefits in terms of the quality of services.

As someone who was proud to be a Blairite I wish Tony had dedicated the second half of his premiership to the more immediate and politically resonant issues of greater equality and social justice, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, and re-balancing our economy towards manufacturing so that the financial services crash would have had less impact.

32 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Luke!

Disappointing to see Woodcock (who I rate) coming out with this stuck in a 1990s timewarp nonsense.

12:23 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous tim f said...

Who are you and what have you done with Luke Akehurst?

Didn't think I would read this here but am absolutely delighted to. Excellent common sense stuff.

12:44 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, you did intend to write: "My personal experience as a Hackney councillor watching the turn round of our borough council from a national laughing-stock and basket case to one of the most improved authorities in the country was that it was all about leadership by our Mayor and successive Chief Executives ... "

You did mean successive Chief Executives and not successful Chief Executives, didn't you?

1:00 am, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

I see what you mean ... not all the successive chief execs made the same contribution.

Tim,

if you read back through my posts you will see I've been pretty consistent on this but not dedicated a long post to it before. I was publicly against foundation hospitals at the time back in 2003.

9:01 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One your best-ever posts.

9:20 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous trot said...

Welcome, Luke. We're still waiting for your membership form.

10:43 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Luke - if only you and people like you had been writing this stuff and openly saying it in all your various little forums that you're a member of - then we would be in a very different place now.

It is because the senior leadership of the party didn't move the centre ground back to the left (on the issue of public services and the public sector) from Thatcher that the Con-Dem government can simply wreak the sort of havoc that they are about to do.

If only "New" Labour hadn't always and consistently undermined the public sector by forcing in private operators and claiming that the private sector knew how to do things better all the time and if they had spent more time championing our public services and comparing them to the excesses of the City, then we'd be a in very different political landscape.

I think it is a shame that so many of those responsible will continue to remain in positions of influence in the Party.

Speak up Luke - speak up a lot more and next time, far sooner!

I too don't know what has happened to the Luke Akehurst of the past...all I know is that you can't re-write the past and your ardent and die-hard support for the project that brought us to where we are now.

Dare I say it that if others had posted such things on websites you dislike, you'd have accused them of treachery and disloyalty. Isn't it funny how many things bend in different directions when the winds change!!!

11:00 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A really, really good and important post.

Spot on.

11:00 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel in this that there is a whiff of the idea that the plan for Labour should be to throw money at services and not reform them? Meanwhile tell public sector employees how great they are and reduce customer influence. We have tested this theory to destruction and found it wanting.

I totally agree that workforce matters, and reforms often confuse structural changes with sensible workforce management, but Blair had to bring some services kicking and screaming into an age where the service they gave was a first order consideration, not how good the people working there felt.

That he only got part way was due to mistakes he recognises and, frankly, the drag of the Brownite 'money not reform' team.

I recognise the strength of your own personal experience with the Health Service but mostly it isn't great, is often a shambles and the user experience is a mile away from what it could be. To deny the need for reform is to avoid the very difficult issues of how you govern a country. It is not a political platform that has any connect with people's experience.

That said, this post means I can at last understand why you are supporting Ed Miliband.

11:08 am, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Joe Mc said...

Completely agree, I have never understood why 'Blairites' have made 'public sector reform' such a totem to dance around. I have never ever ever heard an ordinary person or a voter say that what they really want is 'public sector reform', they say they want better standards, quicker availability etc but not a change in the srtucture. It is an entirely Westminster centric fetish that is a complete waste of political time.
As you say, the big battles will be reversing the massive vandalism to public service we are witnessing by the present lot.

11:23 am, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Patrick said...

Outstanding post.

11:39 am, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

Anonymous,

It's wrong to even apply that Luke wanted a 'move to the left'. The opinions he expresses here are pretty close to those of the party centre, and are also subject to context. One day Labour will be in power, and we will have to do our first term all over again (i.e. upping revenue, spending to pick up from the devastation left behind).

This is the problem of Tory short termism. Every time they cut, and every time the public get sick of it and reverse it. It's an immensely wasteful process - we should just sustain enough investment to maintain excellent services and stick with it. The long term cost is less.

12:17 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

Also top post Luke.

12:17 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Red72 said...

Agree with the post

Would it be true to say many of those who are supporting Ed Miliband would agree while many of those supporting his brother would disagree?

2:03 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Complete balls.

You missed the scars on Blair's back.

Labour wouldn't do anything about service delivery because unions have had their hands tightly around your balls.

If it thought otherwise your would have reversed Conservative union reforms.

So too public sector reform.

The Tories are again going to do the dirty work that you would want to do but can't.

So you can relax in a nice warm bath of nonsense shouting abuse.

2:14 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell me, my Tory friend, why do you have such ideological hate for
the public sector??

It is something I have long wondered about.......

2:25 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger E10 Rifle said...

"I feel in this that there is a whiff of the idea that the plan for Labour should be to throw money at services and not reform them?"

I feel in this comment a whiff of a strawman being thrown up by a dogmatic 'reform'-obsessed ideologue. 'Reform' invariably meaning more bureacracy and more confusing fragmentation and private sector involvement.

We had quite a lot of this in the Blair/Brown years, and as for the idea that Blair and Brown did what the unions wanted, it's laughable. Those unions were deeply dissatisfied with much of what went on under NewLab. But then that suits the ridiculously untrue strawman argument of Labour being 'in hoc' to the unions. No one who knows anything about the Labour party and the unions believes that to be true.

Luke's post is a sensible riposte to those who are living in the past. Look at your calendar. Sorry to break it to you. It's not 1997 any more. Deal with it.

2:49 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hackney Council has made huge cuts and many people have lost their jobs there over the last 8 years. You chose to freeze the council tax for successive years, which has meant cuts in real terms. Exactly what the new govt is having to do to deal with the deficit. Are you suggesting that the govt shoul keep spending more than it earns? Or keep borrowing? You didn't so why should the govt?
Just be honest.

9:57 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hackney Council has made huge cuts and many people have lost their jobs there over the last 8 years. You chose to freeze the council tax for successive years, which has meant cuts in real terms. Exactly what the new govt is having to do to deal with the deficit. Are you suggesting that the govt shoul keep spending more than it earns? Or keep borrowing? You didn't so why should the govt?
Just be honest.

9:57 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Blogger Merseymike said...

Luke, I agree but why the hell weren't you saying this sort of thing louder?

The right of the party - which I still regard myself as being from, but the Hattersley-Croslandite social democratic view that supports and believes in state action and intervention - needed to hear some of this stuff rather than being fixated on 'reform'

I understand that you were a loyalist but the party leadership needed to hear this from someone on their 'wing'

I hope that Ed Miliband will be listening!

11:03 pm, August 10, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whover you vote leader next month it ain't going to make a jot.

You're in the doo-doo.

You need a Cameron, a glib slick git just like Blair who can grin, do sensible, a bit of amdram, certainly hirsute, a wife and kids.

No one cuts it. A system that socialises recruits into years of committees to produce a Luke isn't going to produce an alpha.

Oh, the misery for you guys.

12:22 am, August 11, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mate, you posted the same thing the other day - it doesn't get any better with repetition, you know.

One benefit of the coming bloodbath is that people might start taking actual issues seriously again, despite the best efforts of malignant scum like Murdoch and cynicism-soaked nihilistic Guido-ites like your good self.

Toodle-pip ;-)

12:32 am, August 11, 2010

 
Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Anon 9.57pm

You say: "Hackney Council has made huge cuts and many people have lost their jobs there over the last 8 years. You chose to freeze the council tax for successive years, which has meant cuts in real terms. Exactly what the new govt is having to do to deal with the deficit. Are you suggesting that the govt shoul keep spending more than it earns? Or keep borrowing? You didn't so why should the govt?"

This is not in fact true. Hackney has frozen its council tax for five years but had growth budgets (more spending) thanks to big increases in central govt funding while Labour was in power, and us acheiving massive back office efficiency savings.

Councils have a legal requirement to balance their budgets.

Governments do not, because the national budget has a role as a macro-economic tool. I.e. governments around the world often deliberately decide to borrow and run a deficit for a period of years in order to increase demand in the economy and kickstart economic growth. That's not sustainable in the long term - all parties agree on that - but as a short term measure in a recession it is a very sensible economic approach - otherwise you are just digging/cutting whilst in a hole.

10:00 am, August 11, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'whilst having had a punch-up with some of our own affiliates representing the people who actually deliver the services.'

Yes, these so called affiliates are good at representing the people that deliver the service,but are in the stoneage in terms of the people that consume the service and of course pay for it.

John Zims

12:58 am, August 12, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'One day Labour will be in power, and we will have to do our first term all over again (i.e. upping revenue, spending to pick up from the devastation left behind).'

After the last 13 years of mostly pissing taxpayers money up against the wall,I think it will be a very long time.
After the public has experienced 5 years of austerity to pay for the last Labour government's binge spending,I doubt they will want to have to go through it a second time.
Moreover,they will know that any promises the Labour party makes will result in massive increases in taxation with at best marginal improvements in public services.

Fortunately,with equal sized constituencies,a possible new voting system,a clamp down on postal voting,£50,000 cap on party donations and 50 less MP's Labour's chances of return to government in the next decade are at best remote.

Roger

1:10 am, August 12, 2010

 
Blogger Newmania said...

We ought to have a situation where private sector companies are copying the brilliant management and quality of the public sector, and public sector leaders are seconded to help turn round industry, not vice versa.


Snort...Yes and we ought to have flying ponies to ride through clouds made of candy floss. Tell you what Luke , since you are not up to controlling your own life how about you do as your told and leave me to make descisions for myself , fair ?
Now, on really important reform , explain to me again why it is that the rest of us are obliged to buy houses for people who for most of their lives are perfectly capable of housing themsleves...

Its a lovely situation we are in at the moment . The coalition are looking for inspiration from Sweden and the States while you are seeking guidance from...oo about 1945 , here .

I can only think this paleolithic cobblers is an effort to re-toxify , the Akenhurst brand , come on Luke you just aren`t this stupid

2:46 am, August 12, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a wider view, Luke's pragmatic managerialist approach does contrast with the ideologically (individualist) driven reform minded agenda approach expressed in the Labour Uncut post. The Woodcock reform agenda has a lot to do with tackling attitudes and expectations of the workforce as well as looking at different and 'better' ways of delivering services.

Nonetheless, for successful politics you do need some sort of vision to inspire the party and voters alike and that vision is generally expressed as some sort of reform. Is the effective management of services with a bit of equality thrown in anything that stands out from any other mainstream party's agenda?

In Hackney the gradual improvement in services and their management has been an effective means to consolidate the Labour vote at the local level. But Hackney is not a typical borough and Labour success also has a lot to do with the Borough's political dynamics and culture of diversity that also serve to shore up the Labour vote.

In essence, it may be worthy to contrast the difficulties and waste created by the upheavals of half-baked reforms with a managerial / leadership approach to service delivery and improvement.

In reality, all improvement is based on solid leadership and also good ideas about meeting the challenges posed by limited resources and a changing demographic. So to abandon any 'big ideas' for public service reform in favour of management driven reform may simply be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

After the Tories have cut services to the bone, we will need some good ideas to bring about a public appetite for investment in services. Public opinion nationally, particularly in the many critical areas including the South East, will only be won by the party with the best ideas about how to run services efficiently and effectively and not simply an aspiration to provide the best management.

3:01 am, August 12, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke

Are you a candidate for the NEC?

10:10 am, August 12, 2010

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

can anyone give me an exampleof public sector social enterprise

that isnot effectively just a manangement buy out

The big area of growth for social enterprise co-ops is nursing and residential care

11:10 pm, August 12, 2010

 
Anonymous Denise said...

I have often not agreed with much of your posts Luke, but do agree with your view expressed in this post. Compulsive calls for reform come most often from those lacking experience of public service. The endless tinkering has wasted money, caused excellent staff to leave and resulted in would-be service users not always understanding the changes, resulting in loss of benefit from them, hence the charges of less than optimum cost-effectiveness.

7:00 pm, August 14, 2010

 
OpenID ravcasleygera said...

Your last point is actually the most interesting one Luke - that regardless of the merits of public sector reform, the conversation stayed stuck on that way too late into the second term.

2:23 pm, August 18, 2010

 
Blogger TeonGordon said...

Interesting piece.

To be honest I'm all for choice in public services, and as little stifling from the centre as possible. For example, less dictating on what the curriculum should be by the State. After all, business chiefs are often complaining about students not being worth much, and lacking the right skills, and you automatically assume that there must be something wrong.

But you hit the nail on the head. I think that the people at the lower end of the scale may not be informed enough on many matters to actually make use of any choice, like the free schools agenda which the Tories are pursuing at the minute.

12:58 am, August 26, 2010

 

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