Magazine article Public Finance

Open Services, Closed Political Minds

Magazine article Public Finance

Open Services, Closed Political Minds

Article excerpt

The long-delayed Open public services white paper finally arrived, although few noticed as it was drowned out by the noise over Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Launching the white paper on the day care home provider Southern Cross collapsed was also devastatingly unfortunate for Prime Minister David Cameron. Here was an example of the 'mixed' provision of publicly funded services, and it had undoubtedly been innovative', engaging in all sorts of weird and wonderful property deals that made its owners rich and ultimately spelt its doom.

The first, and probably only, surprising thing about the white paper is that it appeared at all. Why two parties - Tories and Liberal Democrats - should think it necessary or desirable to have a common statement of principle is somewhat baffling, especially as we are constantly told (by at least some) that the coalition is a matter of necessity, not desire.

Still, here it is - a 'comprehensive policy framework' (which is littered throughout with liberal use of get-out clauses such as 'wherever possible', 'no one-size-fits-all policy', etc). It contains only one really new idea - that of public service 'mutuals' - which deserves an article all of its own.

The coalition keeps claiming lots of 'new' policies that have been around for years. For example, it announced in the March Budget the publication of Whitehall departmental plans, claimed as a 'first'. Departmental plans have been published since the early 1990s, and with a lot more detail than appeared in March.

The white paper sets out five principles: choice, decentralisation, diversity' of provision, fairness and accountability'. What is striking is that there is absolutely nothing new in most of this. Indeed, some of the ideas have been tried, tested and in some cases dropped, years ago.

What is new is that some ideas are being pushed way beyond anything that has been done before and others are being propelled forward with no evidence to support them at all.

Let's start with 'choice'. This is supposedly giving 'people direct control over the services they use' (it goes without saying 'wherever possible'). This is clearly not really choice but a form of 'users' control'. Putting users totally in control of something they do not pay for, directly or wholly, but which is funded out of general taxation, is a recipe for disaster. …

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