Monday, April 30, 2007

A Dim Light In The Darkness

History will be brutal with Tony Blair. Just like the reviled Harold Wilson, he wins a string of elections, hugely increases the size of the state, and fails to grip fundamental problems. Just like Wilson he spends every last penny and leaves a disastrous legacy that takes a painful decade or two to address. And even worse than Wilson, he doesn't keep us out of Vietnam.

At root, both hugely overestimated the ability of the state to deliver public services. Both believed that that if you pump in enough fiscal steroids, the grumpy old self-absorbed elephant can somehow be made to dance.

Wilson never did understand his mistake, preferring to believe he'd been blown off course by gnomes, politically motivated union men, and Gerd Muller. But after a decade of painful scar treatment, Blair does seem to be vaguely aware: a dim light may have clicked on.

This morning, Croney Falconer says:

"One of Tony's big regrets, I think, would be that we didn't realise quick enough that if you genuinely wanted to change the way the public service delivered for the public you needed to embark upon a process of cultural change. I think it is 99-2000 that he begins to realise that something more profound is required.

The cultural change, which seems obvious now, is you transform from it being a set process in which the public service deliverer is in the dominant position to it being much more driven by the particular needs of the person to whom you're providing the public service, which then leads you into giving to all the public the choices which currently only the middle classes have in relation to the provision of vital services like health or education. I don't think we even really clocked that agenda until four or five years on."

It's not a very bright light admittedly, but it is surely a light. The language of choice is not the same as the language of equality.

But the vital step is the next one.

Because while we can all agree that "cultural change" is a key condition for improving public services, in terms of practicalities, it's not really much help. Indeed, as the fatman observed, whenever you hear the word culture, best management practice is to reach for your revolver.

What Falconer is saying here is that if we could somehow achieve "cultural change", we could transform the way the public services work, and everything would be tickety. Which is of course like saying we could cure depression by making everyone happy.

In the real world, there is no known way of achieving cultural change inside Big Government. It's the nature of the beast to be top-down, producer-driven, and wildly inefficient.

And while Falconer wants consumer choice so that ordinary punters can have the same choice on schools as rich people like him already exercise, he's putting the cart before the horse. Consumer choice is not an output of cultural change: it's a vital pre-condition.

As we constantly remind ourselves on BOM, the fundamental reason private sector businesses work so much better than our public services, is that they are driven by customers - ie the people who pay. Businesses therefore have to serve their punters well, or they lose their incomes. They have the strongest possible incentive to develop a customer focussed culture.

But the paying customers for public services are not consumers. They are the people who dish out the dosh- ie Big Government. It is a fundamental and generally crippling problem with any system that arranges itself as free-at-the-point-of-use.

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