Magazine article Public Finance

Reporting for Duty

Magazine article Public Finance

Reporting for Duty

Article excerpt

Rarely can a year have ended with as many major official reviews and reports as 2006. One after another, major analyses of policies, institutions and finance disgorged from the centre of government. Many of the more important ones were initiated by the chancellor, and there can be little doubt that this fondness for analysis and discussion is a hallmark of Gordon Brown's approach to government.

Thus, over a relatively short period before Christmas, we saw the publication of the local government white paper, Strong and prosperous communities, the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, the Eddington Transport Study, the Barker Review of Land Use Planning, the Leitch Review of Skills and the 2006 Pre-Budget Report. The latter explained that the Lyons Inquiry's report on local government would have its remit extended to embrace the output of Eddington, Barker and Leitch and that it would report around the time of this spring's Budget.

Public Finance has previously reported the detail of these publications. Eddington suggested the country needed to upgrade its transport infrastructure and charge more for it. Barker wanted to speed up the planning system and make it more permissive. Leitch painted a bleak picture of how Britain might get left behind if it didn't improve its skills levels. It is hard to argue with the need for any of these reports. What is less clear is whether they are a pathway to action or a way of avoiding decision-making. Some have also questioned the independence of the reviews.

Ruth Lea of the Centre for Policy Studies has said she believes the various reviews are a way of putting off decisions'. Dermot Finch from the Centre for Cities was quoted in the Guardian saying: 'The Eddington and Barker reports both had the support and advice of government civil servants, so to what extent were these views independent?' The same will be true of many of the other official reviews.

Lea and Finch have raised serious points about the purpose and freedom to act of government-commissioned inquiries. Indeed, their points are stronger because of the sheer volume of advice and documentation building up on Whitehall desks and hard drives. A quick trawl through the 'research' parts of departmental websites will often reveal a cornucopia of commissioned reports.

The Home Office, for all its annus horribilis in 2006, has long produced high-quality research - often undertaken by its own officials. The Treasury publishes dozens of documents to accompany each Budget and Pre-Budget Report The Department of Health has long been a huge consumer and publisher of research. Communities and Local Government recently published no fewer than six further research reports as part of the State of the English Cities programme - running to more than 1,000 pages of analysis and tables.

As we look forward into 2007, the governments fondness for evidence-based policy will finally be tested. The arrival of a new prime minister, widely expected to be Brown, will provide a short, sharp opportunity to see what the government has learned from the recent battery of research and reviews. Will action finally follow the millions of words of evidence?

Other issues will also surround the passing of the political baton from one PM to another. Tony Blair has struggled with public service reform. But, as he made clear in his tenth and last New Year message, he is determined that there will be no let-up under his successor. For all the talk of 'legacy', Blair will leave the NHS and schools in the middle of complex, controversial and messy reforms. Britain continues to move from a previously evolved version of Welfare State provision to a new one. But it is not possible to be sure what the new model will be once completed. There seems to be a move towards a 'mixed market' of providers, embracing the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. There is also an expectation that the public will be offered a choice' of publicly funded provision while enjoying 'personalised' services. …

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