Modernising Government Mk II: ‘Working Together’


Back in 1999 ‘Modernising Government’ was finally published. After nearly two years gestation the general verdict was that it was indeed an elephant – huge, sprawling and ungainly. Everything including the kitchen-sink had been thrown into the lengthy, turgid and mind-numbingly boring document. Well, now we have Modernising Government II – or ‘Working Together: Public Services on Your Side’ (published on Tuesday 10 March 2009).

I say ‘published’ but actually it is only accessible on an unwieldy website which is clearly in the running for the ‘most-user-unfriendly-site-of-the-year’ award.

[PS – After complaining to the Cabinet Office about the lack of a PDF version of the document I have just been told that this is now on their site.]

Despite claiming to be a statement of ‘new’ principles for coping with the new, post-credit-crunch world – about empowerment of front-line staff and users, more strategic government, etc. – all of these have been heard before over the past 3-4 years from Government ministers. There is nothing really new here.

As usual the wordy document is littered with unresolved problems and contradictions. For example Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, writes in the introduction:

“We will put people first by placing power in the hands of those who use our public services. This will mean personalised services and greater choice – with personal budgets helping people choose the specific care they most need, education and training tailored to the needs of individuals, police services that respond to local priorities set in monthly neighbourhood beat meetings rather than national targets.”

And he goes on to say:

“Moving from good to great public services can only be achieved by Whitehall letting go and empowering staff to shape local provision to meet local needs and priorities.”

Nowhere is there any explanation of how the tensions between ‘empowered’ users and local staff are supposed to be managed or how to resolve the inevitable conflicts of interests between them. For example, freed from central constraints most local doctors (GPs) restricted their hours of opening (against the interests of patients) and it has taken central dicktat to push back in the direction of meeting patients needs for more flexible services.

This is lack of explanation of how these things are supposed to work in practice is perhaps not surprising as the section on ‘Empowering Local Communities’ continues New Labour’s policies of marginalising and by-passing local government wherever possible. Local democracy doesn’t seem to figure in the New Labour lexicon.

But the most striking thing about the whole document is complete the air of unreality. We all know that the relative growth in public spending on services is halting and is going to go into reverse. Some areas of public services are going to face savage cuts in 2-3 years time, if not earlier, as the effects of massively increased public debts, increased spending on the effects of recession and falls in tax revenue bite. Not surprisingly, there is no honest appraisal of any that reality in this document of. Still, we have the Budget to look forward to on 22nd April – maybe that will tell us honestly what is going to happen to public services ‘apres le deluge’. But don’t hold your breath.

see also Public Finance

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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3 Responses to Modernising Government Mk II: ‘Working Together’

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-03-10 « Policy and Performance

  2. Sandra Beach says:

    I’ve had a quick look through the report and I noticed that the concept of stakeholders which was so apparent in the Blair government does not feature. In fact it’s mentioned only once.

    What has happened to the “stakeholder society” and what is it relevance to public service in the UK now? No longer fashionable?

  3. Colin Talbot says:

    Sandra
    You are quite right – “stakeholders” does seem to have gone out of fashion in New Labour circles. The dominant language is now of ‘choice’, ‘personalisation’, and plural provision (i.e. wherever possible anything but public). The new White Paper (Working Together) tries to pretend there is no debate about public versus market provision, which in the current situation is laughable.

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