TWO stories in the newspaper this week demonstrate the potential pitfalls of the government’s public services reforms, in the run up to the coalition’s ambitious White Paper on the subject, about to be unleashed on Whitehall. They might be summarized under the old Jewish joke about an unsatisfactory dining experience: "Such bad food—and such small portions."
The first is the parental Golgotha of National Offers Day, when pupils find out which secondary school they have been allocated a place at from September. In the most competitive parts of the capital (which also contain some of the most competitive parents), the number of pupils getting their first choice is as low as 60%. That makes for a lot of dissatisfied educational customers—of precisely the sort the Conservatives targeted to gain support for their Free School reforms.
But the number of such schools planned to open in September is currently predicted to be around 12. Only 8 have formal go-ahead so far. It’s true, this is early days and local planning hurdles and lack of readily available school sites are constraining the pace of the Free School scheme's advance. But the government will soon come under pressure to show that its ideological attachment to the project can deliver a sizeable number of places in the kind of rigorous school many parents want and cannot find in the state sector. If it can’t, Free Schools will seem to many like a nice idea: just not one relevant to their needs.
Now take the other full-frontal attack on Leviathan: NHS reform and specifically the pledge to let GPs commission care directly. It is intended to cut down bureaucracy but the British Medical Association complained this week that an outfit entitled the NHS Commissioning Board, which will oversee spending, would end up back in control of what consortia can and cannot do under their own steam.
Simon Burns, the health minister, argues with this interpretation, but it would not be the first time an advance in freeing services from political control ended up back under the control of officialdom. Still, it’s an irony that the BMA, which has never shown a robust appetite for reform, should now appear worried about the changes not being radical enough. Perhaps they're concerned about the portions.
THE BBC is in some uproar over plans to move "Question Time", its discussion programme, to Glasgow. It has already lost its present editor, who doesn’t fancy a relocation. The programme’s presenter, David Dimbleby, is also unkeen, saying that it is "like trying to report on Holyrood from London. You have to be around swirl of Westminster life." It’s the tip of an argument about the corporation's commitment to boost regional representation by moving programmes to the regions. Whatever the intention, the result has often been to add cost and cumbersome logistics to programme-making.
Now it emerges that staff will have to be flown from Scotland to London to brief Mr Dimbleby. Has the BBC stopped to analyse the growth in its carbon footprint from farming out programmes which have no intrinsic reason to be made outside the capital? Here is a pressing matter for the BBC Trust's new chairman (due to be appointed in the next two weeks) to address. Of course the BBC has a duty to reflect and comment on life in the regions and nations and to ensure its programme diversity covers the whole country, not just London. Also, having invested in vastly expensive buildings in Salford and Glasgow, it clearly feels the need to do something with them (though there may be other commercial answers to that problem).
But existing requirements and programme diversity do not mean that the present policy is the right one—or that it should be continued without further scrutiny. The stumbling block, according to BBC executives, is existing guidelines from Ofcom, agreed under the last government, which specify quotas of output to be made outside London. The media regulator in effect required the BBC to behave like a government quango, dispersing jobs and production, and the BBC duly obliged. Now, with severe cuts to make and a Tory culture secretary saying that he expects Ofcom to play less of a part in policy decisions and stick to regulation, the arrangement needs to be looked at again—both by Ofcom and the BBC, when it gets its new arbiter.
WHETHER they're believers in the Big Society or just dedicated deficit-slashers, members of the British government are sounding rather more worried this week about the backlash their plans to cut public spending has provoked. From Liberal Democrat councillors declaring their anomosity to the reforms (inconveniently for Nick Clegg as he defends his volte-face on tuition fees), to Dame Elizabeth Hoodless's warning of the dangers to the charitable and voluntary sectors, a policy intended to galvanise localities and push decision-making away from the centre is instead causing problems to pile up on the government's doorstep.
It needs a clearer strategy and a better approach to dealing the backlash. David Cameron is not the only leader to find public-sector reform to be one of the most labour-intensive and emotive activities to manage. Germany's former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder admitted in his memoirs that the backlash to the Hartz reforms wore him down. Tony Blair spoke of "scars on my back" from his own attempts to reform the state. Mr Cameron cannnot for ever remain above the fray.
As a student of recent Tory political history, he is well aware of the mismanagement of the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher. A measure intended to make local councils more accountable ended up triggering a powerful counterattack on central government, resulting in the shredding of her authority. That is why tensions over the Big Society (which we discussin detail in this week's issue) are so potent. Too much emphasis on Big Society localism, instigated alongside the cuts, could result in Mr Cameron being seen as the Number 10 slasher. Too little, and his vision of a less mighty state, supplemented by more individual and voluntary associations, will falter. So far the tone of this argument has been polite. That won't last.
Should the government step in, for instance, if council chiefs cut services for disabled children, while hanging onto highly paid officials? Some proponents of the Big Society, such as the social entrepreneur Danny Kruger, think it should insist that front-line cuts are matched by personnel reductions. So far though, Mr Cameron's team is loth to put Whitehall's boot into councils whose cuts may be motivated more by politics, and a desire to make the government look bad, than a sincere effort to cut costs. But how long can they hold out without stepping up the fight?
A NEW blog on public policy, reform and the fate of the Big Society might as well start with a presumption, and there is none greater than taking its title from Thomas Hobbes's "Leviathan", described by the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott as "the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of philosophy written in the English language".
Granted, Thomas Hobbes’s classic 17th-century introduction to the social contract did not delve into public-private partnerships or local service delivery in the era of deficit reduction. Nor can we say how Hobbes's attachment to authoritarian monarchy would have survived the diluted might of modern royal families. But in its magnificent scope (its subtitle is "Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil"), Hobbes's epic work considered some of the same questions that attend Britain's coalition government today, in its quest to bind Leviathan. How does the state relate to individual instincts and competing drives? Which powers should we cede upwards to Government; and which should we keep for ourselves as individuals?
The prospect of "bellum omnium contra omnes" (a war of all against all) is not a threat as present or chilling in a 21st-century democracy as it was in Hobbes's time, the era of the English civil war. But the battle of interests and how to reconcile them prosperously (for the Common Wealth) and peaceably are as relevant as ever.
Today’s Leviathan is changing before our eyes. The considerations of how public goods are distributed, and the role of government and its limits, have come under fresh scrutiny as the coalition seeks to reshape public policy by redefining the role of the state and seeking new ways of promoting collective endeavour, without the hand (or the money) of central government as the motivating force. The fate of that undertaking will be a journey this blog will have the pleasure of charting, while soliciting your views, recommendations and objections along the way. The daring nature of changes being undertaken by the British government in reshaping the state and what it does (and does not do) make Britain a template that other governments are watching with interest—whether or not they choose the same path.
Hobbes is a philosopher who does not invite adoption by modern politicians, perhaps because he is so uncompromising and is taken, out of the context of his time, as a ruthless authoritarian. Yet at a time when so many of the big arguments concern the application and limits of law, his voice echoes though the debates we conduct about individual freedoms versus the remit of legality. The "greatest liberty" of civil subjects, he tells us, derives from the "silences in the law". In a week when multiculturalism is once again heating the debate in Britain, a thinker who demanded that allegiance to the state supersede loyalty to a religious faith might well have reflected that his Leviathan has proved to be a long-lived creature indeed.
In this blog, our public policy editor reports on how governments in Britain and beyond are rethinking and reforming the state's role in public services, the arts and life in general. The blog takes its name from Thomas Hobbes's book of 1651, which remains one of the most influential examinations of the relationship between government and society.