ResPublica Fellow Danny Kruger writes for the Financial Times
The proper meaning of “revolution” is a return to a previous order. David Cameron’s campaign to transfer power and responsibility from state to society is revolutionary. Schools are being forcibly naturalised, like colonials after decolonisation, who served a distant king but now belong to the country they inhabit. This is progress, but it is also a throwback to the 19th century.
The same goes for criminal justice: it was announced last week that probation, an ancient service with roots in Victorian Christian civic action, is to be returned to the social sector whence it came.
But there is little sentimental or romantic about the reformers. The new schools minister, John Nash, is a tough venture capitalist with a zeal for change and no patience for obstacles. His boss, Michael Gove, is the politest of politicians but a Maoist manqué, with the fervid glint of the future in his eye. Chris Grayling, the new justice secretary, comes from the Department of Work and Pensions where, with Iain Duncan Smith, he cut benefits and reformed welfare.
Two questions arise, therefore. First, will this strange conservative-modernist reform agenda work? And second, why are they doing it, and is their heart in the right place?
The practical challenges are immense. Social organisations are valuable because they are small, flexible, able to develop relationships with their clients and work over the long term. These are not easy qualities to distil in a contract to deliver a public service.
Small social organisations (and I speak as the boss of one) are also often poor at management, finance, accountability and evaluation. We can suffer from constant staff changes, weak balance sheets and the lack of codified practice. Being tiny, how can we work on the scale needed by government?
One answer is the “prime” model, by which a lead provider, often a big company, does the deal with government and subcontracts the frontline work to smaller specialists. This model gives leadership and accountability to the contract; it also, as we have seen with Mr Duncan Smith’s Work Programme, pushes risk down the supply chain and keeps the margins at the top.
The alternative is the consortium, which tries to bring small organisations together in a joint venture. The result is a weak centre, endless infighting and multiple rigid contracts in which the weakest member pulls down the rest.
“How do you get new blood into an inbred system?” asks Patrick Shine of Shaftesbury Partnership, leading experts in this field. Their answer is capital: government must invest in the strategic capability, the management and negotiating power of small organisations so they can combine effectively and hold their own in deals with the primes and with the public sector.
The critical challenge, though, is not for social bodies but for the public commissioners who buy our services. As Chris Wright, chief executive of the national youth charity Catch22, puts it, the government hires charities to do its work in its way. Instead, it should be paying us to do our work in our own way because this will deliver the outcomes we all want. Forcing social organisations into the statutory straitjacket is dangerous. It is unclear from Mr Grayling’s plans for probation how charities can exercise a coercive function for the government without damaging the relationship with the offender which makes them effective.
It might be possible. Because what matters is not the system itself – the structure of ownership, incentives and rules – but the values and attitudes of those who inhabit it. The criminologist Fergus McNeill’s study of the Scottish probation service in the 20th century showed that the most effective officers were those who showed a positive human interest in the offenders they managed.
A more liberalised, “privatised” structure could engender this, if done right. If done wrong, the stress on saving money will damage the spirit of the service. As Professor McNeill argues, our focus needs to shift from what he calls “second order” questions around systems, to “first order” questions around purpose and values.
And this is the other, more important, question for the public as they review the coalition at the halfway point. Do the Tories actually like, or empathise with the people whose services they are busy altering? Are the reforms designed to help students in failing schools, or offenders, or welfare recipients – or simply to satisfy the hard-pressed taxpayer that as little as possible is being spent on society’s undesirables?
We revert to the habits we are used to. Offenders relapse into drugs, break-ins and petty scams. Tories return to a mechanistic focus on finance, and to poor-bashing.
The public is unsure of the need for reform and dubious about the motivation of the people doing it. What will convince them is seeing it done right, for the right reasons.