Cuts plus reform result in better public services10 February 2012
Public leaders are using the cuts as a real and perhaps surprising catalyst for improving services, argues a new report
The 2012 Reform Scorecard, launched today, analyses the government on policy delivery in the big state departments. When all the jigsaw pieces are put together the picture is perhaps surprising.
Probably the most important finding is that "cuts plus reform equal better public services". In services where the budgets are ringfenced quality is declining: the absence of sufficient financial pressure means that reform has stalled. People will call for more money, but pouring more money back into services does little to drive innovation and reform. In stark contrast, public service leaders across the country are using the cuts as a real catalyst for improving services.
At a Reform conference held last year, Dave Thompson, the deputy chief constable of West Midlands police, described the financial pressure on his force as "a burning platform". Instead of panicking, West Midlands looked to implement a genuine revolution in the way the force operated. It was an opportunity to look at the old and bureaucratic ways of working that frustrated staff and offered a less than optimal service to the public. A programme to build better business infrastructure and update technological systems turned into a broader transformation programme that has entirely changed the culture and processes of the force.
West Midlands is not the exception, the leaders of Greater Manchester, Surrey and several other forces have used budget cuts to offer better, more targeted services. What is notable in all these cases is that changes have not been driven by Whitehall bureaucrats but by the forces themselves who are ready and willing to change.
The same is true in local government. In 2005, the government took decisive action to cap an eye-watering 23% increase in council tax proposed by North Dorset district council. This was the source of considerable controversy at the time and the council warned the government in no uncertain terms that capping the tax rise "will have serious consequences for local people". It was not wrong.
Five years later North Dorset (which retains one of the lowest district council tax rates in the country) received the top award for best community partnership in the UK. In written evidence to the Commons communities and local government select committee inquiry into localism the following year, the council reported: "[We] found new ways of working together with services delegated as close to the frontline as possible. Begun as a cost-cutting exercise, it soon became clear that this way of working delivers high quality services and high calibre social involvement and interaction."
When the prime minister launched a white paper on reform in 2011, he criticised an "old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given" approach to public services. Since then, however, he has retreated into micromanaging NHS waiting times, nursing standards, adoption and troubled families.
What the prime minister needs to recognise is that real change has happened where ministers have been able to make the case for competition, value for money and greater accountability to users – such as the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. These departments have let public leaders make the decisions that are best for their services and deliver value for money in the ways they know are best. The prime minister needs to show commitment for public service reform and let them get on with their job.