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May 10, 2006

Jonathan Freedland

Something of a surprise today, an interesting article by one J. Freedland:

That is not because Labour ministers were useless or that a different group of people would have done the job fine. It is rather a structural problem with the British state. Its machinery was designed for a 20th-century world that no longer exists. Today's citizens are used to fast, efficient, wireless services that give them a high degree of personal choice; the lumbering bureaucracy of the state cannot catch up. Nor will aping the private sector, pretending government can be run like Domino's Pizza or DHL, work - because health, education and public safety are not like garlic bread or packages. They are much more complex to deliver.

That stands as an indictment of the specific Blairist approach to the state. This week I took part in a Radio 4 discussion, to be broadcast at 8pm tonight, asking what the left stands for today. The former Downing Street adviser Charles Leadbeater made a striking point. He said we were witnessing the failure of the "McKinsey state", the Blair experiment in trying to run government like a big company, complete with management consultants and their expensive advice. "They wanted to make the sausage machine deliver a better product," Leadbeater explains. "But that approach, of target-driven public-service reform, that Blair and [John] Birt bought into in a big way, is just exhausted."

This truth has not just dawned on people in government in the last few weeks. Before his appointment, Matthew Taylor, head of policy at Downing Street, used to say that the government risked becoming a parent that told his child when to go to bed - but could not cook him lunch or dinner. Labour was all too ready to meddle, intrude and boss about, with one eye-catching initiative after another, but it fell down on basic competence.

Blairism's great contribution was its assertion that it was not just private value that mattered, but public value too. It tried to make that work, but failed by too often imagining that public goods could be delivered by quasi-private means. On this logic, the next stage in the journey will be nothing less than a refashioning of the state - replacing the top-down, centralised behemoth of today with a looser, more diffuse, even "organic" (Taylor's word) network of services that fit the people who use them. Citizens won't be passive recipients, but direct participants.

Well, yes, entirely correct. The centralized, bureaucratic state has indeed failed. All the McKinsey consultants in the world cannot make it work efficiently because the incentives aren’t there to guide people’s behaviour.  What we do need is a system which provides the correct incentives.

Now obviously, here I’m going to recommend markets and indeed I do. But this is rather different from simply saying "the free market" and all will be well.  Markets are constructed, they don’t simply exist ab initio. Markets can also be powered by inventives other than money.

We have, for example, an extremely good lifeboat system in the UK. There’s no government or State involvement at all. Purely private charity finances the whole thing. What motivates those who actually climb into the boats to do so? Not money (as far as I’m aware it’s only the Coxswain who actually gets paid), but a sense of community perhaps? The respect one gets in a seaside town from being willing to risk your life for others? Whatever that driving force is it doesn’t seem to scale up very well. It’s very much a product of small groups...we see it all over the place, in troops in battle ("well, I can’t let the lads down can I"?) and so on.

Send the power right down the system, clear out the utopian idea that the centre knows best. See what the people themselves do when they’re actually allowed to do so.

Rather what Margaret Thatcher called the small battalions. The things which do make up society.

Good God! You don’t think Freedland has become a Thatcherite do you?

May 10, 2006 | Permalink

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[What motivates those who actually climb into the boats to do so?]

Having grown up by the sea and done this a bit (not proper RNLI stuff but a little bit of rescue boating with the local club), my assessment is that the motivation is that it is actually a hell of a lot of fun to climb into a boat and head of into a ludicrously dangerous sea and most of the people who do it are youngish men. I don't think that this model is something that can be extended to getting the bins emptied or kids babysat, or anything else that doesn't have an associated adrenalin rush.

I think Freedland is very, very short on specifics as to what and which services have actually "failed" and in what way. Few public services have been less mauled about by the McKinseyfied model of public service delivery than education, and that is actually doing very well. I think that the lesson here is that it is all in the detail of implementation, and that what you need is a clear outcome-related target which is (these days, and grudgingly) accepted by the workforce as a legitimate measure of the outcome. I don't think anyone can say that this version of service provision has "failed"; the wider conclusion that "the bureaucratic state has failed" looks more like a statement of faith than anything else (the Home Office has lost track of a few prisoners, due to a failure of policy rather than operations, but look at the mess Group 4 have made of more or less everything they've touched).

Posted by: dsquared | May 10, 2006 9:24:14 AM

...my assessment is that the motivation is....

A person does not have to have just one motivation for doing a given thing; and different people can have different motivations for doing the same thing.

education...is actually doing very well.

I suspect you do not employ the products of our education system - most of whom are sub-literate and sub-numerate. I interview hundreds of people every year. Where possible, I employ people aged 55+. Even if they left school at 15/16, they generally have superior literacy, numeracy and analytical skills to one of today's graduates!

Posted by: paul | May 10, 2006 10:07:04 AM

education, and that is actually doing very well

The NHS is having their best year ever, too! Apparently.

Posted by: Tim Newman | May 10, 2006 10:47:43 AM

Ever since reading in a mainstream history book years ago - even before going to uni - of a quote from a medieval manuscript by a monk deploring the declining respect of the young for their elders I've been cautious about the familiar complaints concerning the "younger generation". However, there is mounting credible evidence in recent news reports that the younger generation in Britain are not only different from their elders but also from their peers elsewhere. Considered together the evidence is compelling. I put it down to the Blair effect.

"THE death rate among young drivers has doubled in the past five years, prompting demands for greater restrictions on those who have recently passed their tests. The steady improvement in road safety across the general population is masking a sharp increase in the number of drivers aged under 20 having fatal crashes, despite a tougher driving test."
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3223-2116254,00.html

"London, England (AHN) – New research has revealed that the art of conversation is slowly dying because families do not spend enough time talking to their children. More and more children in school are barely able to communicate and instead speak in monosyllabic ‘grunts’, according to researchers."
http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7003049482

"The British are Western Europe's biggest binge drinkers, a new study has revealed. According to market analysts Datamonitor, drinkers in Britain consume 6.3 units of alcohol - equivalent of 2.2 pints of lager - each time they visit the pub."
http://www.999today.com/health/news/story/3014.html

"Ministers today appealed to pupils who are getting their GCSE results tomorrow not to drop out of education.

"The schools minister Jacqui Smith admitted that the number of 16 year olds who stay on in education in the UK is lower than in other countries and asked them to consider studying A-levels or taking an apprenticeship."
http://education.guardian.co.uk/gcses/story/0,16086,1555547,00.html

As David Miliband put it a few years back when he was minister for schools standards:

"It must be one of the most stunning statistics that we are 20th out of 24 OECD countries for staying-on rates [in education] at 17"
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/2238424.stm

For several years now, during and since Blunders Blunkett's stint as education secretary, there have been reports of the huge difficulty that local education authorities have had in filling headteacher appointments because of the stress of the job, so much so that many posts have remained vacant for long periods.

Successive reports on the scale of adult literacy estimate that c. 20% of recent school leavers are illiterate. Only c. 50% of 16 year-olds are able to achieve the basic 5 passes at GCSE A*-C grades, including maths and English.

On the hard evidence, it really doesn't add up to much achievement on the part of central government after nine years of Blair's premiership. The controversial schools bill currently in progress through Parliament will enable schools to become more independent of control by local education authorities (LEAs) - or democratic accountability as some would have it. Whether so or not, the implications are clear enough. Blair obviously doesn't trust LEAs to deliver the better education standards that he (correctly IMO) diagnoses as necessary for meeting the challenges of globalisation:

"India is pumping out about 400,000 technically trained graduates each year, employers are snapping them all up before they even leave campus."
http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2006/05/indias_wage_inf.html

Posted by: Bob B | May 10, 2006 11:08:56 AM

@dsquared, who wrote: "Few public services have been less mauled about by the McKinseyfied model of public service delivery than education, and that is actually doing very well."

Please come back on this with why you think it.

Best regards

Posted by: Nigel Sedgwick | May 10, 2006 11:40:05 AM

"the Home Office has lost track of a few prisoners, due to a failure of policy rather than operations"

Put your fingers in your ears and repeat the above until the criticsm stops. Ah that's much better - and remember we know what's good for you, so stop complaining.

Posted by: Umbongo | May 10, 2006 11:43:52 AM

That's the "doing very well" bit, just in case someone was planning a sarky rejoinder about my education. The other bit, I think we can take as read.

Posted by: Nigel Sedgwick | May 10, 2006 11:45:55 AM

Markets can also be powered by inventives

Typo leads to neologism! What is an incentive devised by a politician?

An inventive.

Posted by: yellerKat | May 10, 2006 12:04:48 PM

"the Home Office has lost track of a few prisoners, due to a failure of policy rather than operations"

As best I can tell that is not true.

"THE Home Secretary is to be asked by MPs to explain why his officials failed to act on new instructions on the deportation of foreign offenders that were issued more than a year ago to prison governors.

"A 90-page document outlining the process and timetable for deporting foreign inmates was circulated to prison chiefs in March last year."
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,17129-2162669,00.html

For years, it seems that judges in sentencing convicted foreign citizens often attached recommendations about consideration for deportation on completion of sentence. The lapses appears to have been that - for one reason or another - such recommendations were lost in administration by either the prison or immigration services or the home office. That foreign prisoners convicted of serious crimes should be considered for deportation according to judges' recommendations is hardly a controversial policy.

"When the prisoners were approaching their release date, the Prison Service should have informed the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) so that it could begin to assess the cases and consider what action should be taken. For some years, that did not always happen."
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2150952,00.html

Posted by: Bob B | May 10, 2006 12:16:40 PM

As for the achievements of the Blair government with modernising the health services, in today's news about the King's Fund, the leading think-tank on healthcare services:

"Some key government health reforms have been criticised for costing millions of pounds but bringing few benefits.

"A new contract for top hospital doctors cost £90 million more than expected and has contributed to NHS deficits, says a report by think tank the King's Fund. . . "
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4754355.stm

There was and is a much stronger case for sacking Patricia Hewittless than Charles Clarke in the latest Cabinet reshuffle. Whereas Hewittless is plainly in denial about the scale of health service problems due to policy failings - she said it was the "best year" for the NHS - the Home Office was certainly aware of unresolved problems with deporting foreign prisoners which is why it sent out a 90-page memo about that to prison governors more than a year ago. Presumably, prison governors lacked sufficient incentive to comply.

Posted by: Bob B | May 10, 2006 12:38:41 PM

Well Birtism in the BBC stood for... countless fancy initiatives, remote leadership, top-down, stifling local initiative...

So - the UK is starting to look like the BBC under his tenure. Why is this guy involved in redesigning the British state!?

My own perspective is that the Govt just simply tries to do too much - to many pies, not enough fingers. Why don't they stop doing some things and let others get on with them?

Otherwise they are giving themselves an impossible portfolio of services and obligations to deliver - and resort to bland sloganising of targets and achievements.

My other experience of the public sector - te vast majority of people doing the work and delivering want to do a good job, and want to do their best - they need the freedom to do this, but also the focus. Why try and do 100 things you can't deliver properly when you could do 3 things well?

Posted by: angry economist (Glenn) | May 10, 2006 12:51:42 PM

Freedland's article is an apology for the incompetence of Blair.

The reason everything Blair touches is a complete mess is that he has no strategic plan and is only concerned with 'eyecatching initiatives'.


James

Posted by: james c | May 10, 2006 1:13:12 PM

C'mon. Britain's engagement in Iraq is the (tragic) outcome of a personal agreement Blair came to with GW Bush regardless of the legality of invading Iraq without UN sanction and which he made before Cabinet approved the invasion and certainly without the support of Parliament.

Preparations for the war prior to the debate in Parliament on 18/19 March 2003 were made with the authority of the royal prerogatives. If that wasn't a strategic decision by Blair personally, I really don't know what is.

"AT least 1091 people were killed in Baghdad alone last month in ongoing sectarian violence, President Jalal Talabani said in a statement today.

"'We received a report from the morgue about the deaths in Baghdad that 1091 people were killed between April 1 and 30,' Mr Talabani was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office."
http://dailytelegraph.news.com.au/print/0,20285,19094564-1702,00.html

Posted by: Bob B | May 10, 2006 1:42:33 PM

The problem with Tim's analysis is that the voluntary sector is much like any other system that's ever operated: it works well under some conditions, less well under others. What is certain about such sectors is that they have far less resources to call upon than any government. A health or education service can never be voluntary as it can never hope to have the resources to cover the whole population.

Markets are just as inefficient providers of the kind of services traditionally thought of as public goods. That is why they lie within the realm of the public. I wouldn't want to see a government manufacture cars, or drugs, or sell burgers, but I do believe it is the only mechanism capable of reaching everyone in the population for services like Health and Education.

Indeed that was why education fell under the State's remit in the first place. The risk of life-long ignorance apparent pre universal schooling hasn't faded away. Nor has the risk of destitution following the contracting of a horrible disease or having an accident. And these risks apply to rich and poor alike.

Better management of existing systems is key. The imposition of markets will make many vulnerable people immensley worse off.

Posted by: Ben | May 10, 2006 1:48:32 PM

"Markets are just as inefficient providers of the kind of services traditionally thought of as public goods. That is why they lie within the realm of the public. I wouldn't want to see a government manufacture cars, or drugs, or sell burgers, but I do believe it is the only mechanism capable of reaching everyone in the population for services like Health and Education. Indeed that was why education fell under the State's remit in the first place."

Prior to state intervention in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the market *did* provide a decent education for most of the English population. That's a matter of historical fact. Whilst it's true that provision was not universal by the time of the first major intervention (Forster's Act of 1870), who's to say that a market which was then expanding rapidly could not have filled the gaps? Furthermore, even if there were instances of market failure, that is an argument for state subsidy, not a state monopoly. This was understood at the time - the Forster Act, which subsidised local boards, was never intended to undercut the flourishing private sector (this occurred later, when fees were abolished at Board Schools).

Furtherfurthermore, universal provision is something of a red herring anyway. If you live in a remote area of the UK, there may be no schools within twenty miles or more. Similarly, if you live in the inner city, you may struggle to find a school worthy of the name. To cap it all, a proportion of the nation's kids wouldn't go to school even if you built it on their doorstep.

"The risk of life-long ignorance apparent pre universal schooling hasn't faded away."

No, it hasn't, which is to say that the introduction of state education has not diminished the number of ignorant people. Arguably, the number has risen.

Posted by: Jon | May 10, 2006 3:38:26 PM

'The centralized, bureaucratic state has indeed failed.'

Not entirely. State employees are doing very well, with healthy pay packets and pension arrangements that most of us cannot afford. The state has failed us, not itself.

Posted by: Pete | May 10, 2006 5:00:37 PM

'The centralized, bureaucratic state has indeed failed.'

Not entirely. State employees are doing very well, with healthy pay packets and pension arrangements that most of us cannot afford. The state has failed us, not itself.

Posted by: Pete | May 10, 2006 5:01:51 PM

Thanks for the history lesson, Jon. I think we can take it that supporters of the Welfare State so often reconut its history falsely because... well, why exactly?

Posted by: dearieme | May 10, 2006 5:15:14 PM

In most cases, a distorted view of the Victorian era is instilled by an uncritical reading of Dickens and the statist bias of the national curriculum (yet another good reason to oppose state schools, as Mill once pointed out). Academics like Hobsbawm, however, have no excuses.

For anyone who would like to learn more about these issues, I highly recommend E.G. West's classic, "Education and the State".

Posted by: Jon | May 10, 2006 6:48:04 PM

"Prior to state intervention in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the market *did* provide a decent education for most of the English population. That's a matter of historical fact. "

I always thought that pre-1870 women could read but not write, because they were taught to read by their mothers, but would be taught to write at school. Just a myth?

Posted by: dave heasman | May 11, 2006 12:55:42 PM

Yes, in short. One of the most useful measures of literacy in the population as a whole is the percentage of people able to sign their names in the marriage register. From these records, we know that the national female literacy rate was about 40% in 1795 and rose steadily thereafter. As one might expect, female literacy lagged behind male literacy, but we're still looking at >50% of women able to read and write by 1851.

Posted by: Jon | May 11, 2006 10:22:59 PM