Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Standards Not Structures

How to rid the world of underperforming public services

Over the last few days, we've been treated to a number of debates on "standards not structures". Well, "debates" is putting it a bit high: Newsnight's "political panel" got little further than a series of misunderstandings.

In case you missed it, this "debate" has supposedly been rumbling away for more than a decade and is at the heart of NuLabour's flip-flopping approach to public services.

At issue is whether government can ordain better standards by central directive, targets, and "best practice protocols" - all backed by a sea of money - or whether better standards can only be delivered if the structure of public services is got right first. And by "right structure" what's meant is the break-up of nationalised services, and a wholesale move towards choice and competition, with central government confined to the role of last resort funder and light touch regulator.

In his twilight months, Scarback Bliar claimed that, while he'd started out backing standards over structures, he'd changed his mind. He'd come to understand that public services cannot be made excellent by top-down directive, no matter how much money is pumped into them. Hence his enthusiasm for many more academy schools and foundation hospitals, which were to be granted much more independence from government. Hence his enthusiasm, too, for customer choice and money "following" pupils and patients.

After a decade of wheelspin and waste, Bliar had finally lurched onto the right track.

Ah, but wouldn't you know it, just at that very moment, Bliar was ejected from the driver's seat and replaced by Comrade Brown. Who immediately crunched the gears into reverse.

Here's what Commissar Balls told us last summer about his schools policy:

"A child who cannot read, cannot write or cannot master basic maths will never succeed in education. Our priority must be standards, not structures. So we will renew our focus on the things that really matter to parents and meet their rising aspirations, and that means getting the basics right."

So education expert Balls has set about reordering our schools according to the Commissars' Book of Stalinist Order.

We've blogged all this many times, but a few key points:

  • Commissars don't know what to do - not only have most of them never worked on the relevant shopfloor (cf Sirs Terry and Stuart), there is no way they can access and process all the information required to run huge complex organisations like the NHS

  • Top down is very inefficient - the history of targeting highlights how top-down direction very often sets up perverse incentives for those below decks; top-down can even drive things in the opposite direction to that intended (eg the dumbing down of exams)

  • Customers come last - organisations run from the top give priority to satisfying bosses not customers: that might work in heavy production industries, but in customer service industries it's death

Judging from the Newsnight debate, and recent comments from Labour mouthpiece Michael White, the issue of customer choice is still hugely misunderstood. As we blogged here:

"Far too much of this debate suggests choice is a consumer benefit. Parents can choose which school their kids should go to, just like they're able to choose which family car they'll drive. Whoopee!

But according to the polls, most parents don't want choice per se: hardly surprising, given how time consuming and stressful the whole nasty business can be (even when you're armed with a private school cheque book). What parents actually say they want is "good local schools". And that's the key point.

Choice is not something people necessarily enjoy exercising. But choice is a vital condition for driving progress. Unless people can actively choose between the good and the not so good, there's generally no way for society to work out which is which."

Do Brown and Balls not understand this? They're both supposed to be bright guys, so you'd think they would. Or... no, surely it can't be... maybe they really do believe they can work out what's good and what's not so good. And maybe they do think they can manage that across all 25,000 state schools.

"Standards" for all: a Commissariat delusion that has returned to ensure our public services remain mired in underperformance and distress.

PS Going back to Dave on the R5 phone-in, we can't help thinking he would have found it much easier to deal with the policy void issue if he could be more explicit about the need for choice and competition in public services. It's all very well saying the Tories will make things better by not doing crazy stuff like the NHS supercomputer, and by returning power to teachers and doctors, but does that resonate with voters? Do voters any longer have confidence that teachers and doctors will do the right things? Why would a sink hospital or school improve if people have to use it whatever? Michael Gove is starting to sketch out a much more compelling approach to school choice, but Dave is oddly unwilling to join up the dots for people. It's presumably because he fears for the votes of the one-in-four workers now employed by the public sector. But the funny thing is, judging by correspondence we get on BOM, many public employees actually agree with the Structures agenda. Clearly, if you're 16 points ahead, you reckon you don't need to be bold. But what then happens when you're in power and you're faced with exactly the same public service problems?

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