Since Labour lost power in 2010, the left has turned away from the key precepts of public service reform as practised by the Blair/Brown governments in England. The twin axioms of the New Labour period – top-down control and the marketisation of public services – are widely seen to have reached their limits. Labour is over its love affair with what is known as ‘New Public Management’.
Instead, over the last five years the Labour party has opposed the market excesses of the coalition’s ‘open public services’ agenda; a programme which has led to ‘any qualified provider’ in the NHS, free schools and academy chains in education and the whole-system outsourcing of probation and welfare to work.
And all the political parties have criticised the excesses of centralism practiced by New Labour – the hundreds of targets, performance indicators, plans and ringfenced budgets – although in practice this has done little to stop heavy-handed intervention by coalition ministers.
But the left has been better at saying what it is against than what it is for. So what is the alternative to centralism and market mania?
Our report ‘Going Public‘ shows that it is for public services to ‘go public’ – by involving the public in everything they do; by delivering better value for the public; and by embodying a special public character and spirit. This is a positive agenda for reform, centred on empowerment and the public character of services. We show how this break from New Public Management is possible even in the context of today’s financial pressures and continuing demand for the highest possible standards.
In place of New Labour’s twin dogmas of markets and top-down control, the left today must embrace three interlocking principles for reform: strong public character; trust and empowerment; and performance and value.
Each of these three principles should inform public services from top to bottom – from the policymaking of national government right down to the individual encounters between citizens and public service employees. They should steer the reform of users’ interactions with services; the professional development of employees; the priorities of individual institutions; the relationships between local providers; and the role of national and sub-national government. The remit of this report is public services in England – although our proposals would also directly affect the future of services in Wales and Scotland for which Westminster is still responsible, such as Jobcentre Plus. Beyond that, we hope the three principles we argue for will be of interest in all quarters of the United Kingdom and beyond.