Public services reform showing mixed results, says report

The Ministry of Defence under its former secretary of state Liam Fox, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are the three government departments where real reform is taking place, according to a new report.

In its second annual rating of central government reform, centre-right thinktank Reform says it has applied "dispassionate" analysis to assess the impact of the government's programme to cut the public sector deficit and reform public services – and has come up with some surprises.

Neither of the two departments at the heart of the government's reform drive, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, are judged to be carrying out "real reform". The Cabinet Office's open public services white paper and transparency agency have not succeeded in changing the culture of public service delivery, so the thinktank believes the department is "coasting" on reform, while the Treasury is judged to be going backwards, because its ringfencing of health and schools budgets has put a "handbrake" on reform and efficiency in those sectors.

The report says central government's top reformers in 2011 were Fox, Kenneth Clarke and Theresa May, while the losers are Andrew Lansley and George Osborne. Fox gains praise for his support for radical civil service reform and his policy that the private sector should jointly manage the entire defence estate, while May is "driving better performance within tighter budgets".

However, the thinktank's praisethe Ministry of Defence contrasts sharply with yesterday's National Audit Office report which criticises the department for making drastic cuts in its headcount without making planning in detail how it will operate in the future.

The report concludes that the government can deliver successful public service reform, but calls into doubt the prime minister's commitment to public service reform, and criticises his "micromanagement" of NHS waiting times, nursing standards, adoption and troubled families. The thinktank also says the government's U-turn on the NHS has overshadowed the whole public service reform agenda.

"Management of reform matters," says the report. "This is a moment of truth. It is practically impossible for governments to recover the momentum of reform once it has been lost." The report says the government should implement a full-scale review of health and education workforces, to make them more flexible, adding that the proposal to introduce regional public sector pay is a mere "baby step" towards the kind of change that is required, on the model of the Winsor review of policing. It also says the government should reform "fast and at scale".

Writing for the Public Leaders Network, Tara Majumbar, a researcher at the Reform thinktank, says public service leaders across the country are using the cuts as a real catalyst for improving services. She cites West Midlands police as an example where financial pressure resulted in a programme that has "entirely changed the culture and processes of the force".

Majumbar says the prime minister David Cameron needs to recognise that there has been real change in departments that mave made the case for competition, value for money and greater accountability to users. "These departments have let public leaders make the decisions that are best for their services," she argues.

DEPARTMENTAL PROGRESS REPORT

Real reform

Defence The Levene review is the shining example of civil service reform across government.

Home Office The policing reforms show what can be done and how to do it.

Justice The Ministry of Justice has made the best arguments for competition of any department, and translated them into action.
 


Coasting

Cabinet Office The open public services white paper and the transparency agenda have not yet changed the culture of public service delivery.

Education The department is split between deregulation (of 1,500 academies) and regulation (of the 21,000 other state schools in England).

Local government The government's positive drive on localism has been undermined by repeated attempts to exercise power over local issues from Whitehall.

Work and Pensions The work programme and benefit reforms seek to minimise expenditure. The universal credit and the rise in the basic state pension increase it.


Going backwards

Health The government's original reforms were flawed and 2011's retreat from reform has made them worse.

Higher Education Greater freedom to set tuition fees has been overshadowed by market distortions and tighter restrictions on universities.

HM Treasury The "ringfencing" of the health and schools budgets has put a handbrake on reform and efficiency in those sectors.