Features: December 4th, 2002

Delivery: A Clear Choice?

By David Walker.

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Criticism of the Blair government’s delivery agenda flowed thick and fast at this year’s PMPA annual conference. Too many conflicting targets imposed by the centre, said Surrey’s chief constable Denis O’Connor, which failed to mesh with local priorities. An unwillingness to separate out “situational” services from those which genuinely needed a national framework or programme, argued Sue Richards professor of public policy at Birmingham University, who also made a spirited case for the centre of Whitehall to be subject to the same kind of comprehensive assessment of performance as local authorities. Over-centralisation, charged Tony Wright chair of the Commons’ public administration committee. They assume the centre is the only place the impetus to change can come from.

Where is the centre-local balance?

But once the critique of hypertrophic targeting had been made, it proved hard to move to a convincing sense of where the equilibrium point might be set between central resource and direction and local management and outcome. The centre, it turned out, should back off ? but not too far. The conference heard no resounding cries in favour of letting a thousand flowers bloom. Perhaps that was because some speakers knew all too well areas where the flowers had not come out for many seasons and needed attentive watering from outside if they were to stand any chance.

Graham Maunder of the East Brighton New Deal for Communities Partnership asked who – except for the Department of health at the centre – would help him ensure those autonomous, self-regulating GPs were persuaded to set up surgeries in his needy area. In other words, it is to the centre we tend always to look when it is a question of delivering equity.

And it is not as if the centre offers no space for local innovation. It still allows freedom. David Panter, chief executive of Brighton and Hove, described his arrival in local government from the health service as a “liberation” (though he noted colleagues saying the same thing whose trajectories had gone in the opposite direction). As local authority chief executive he had the flexibility to pursue improvements in the service conditions of the authority’s work force. This was critical in securing better performance and hence delivery. Bringing Brighton and Hove’s street cleaning back in house had produced tremendous changes in staff attitudes and turnover, and in public appreciation of the service.

After five years of delivery rhetoric a conference such as ours found it easy to unite around the proposition that central targets were necessary, up to the point where they crimp the capacity of local service managers to think for themselves, experiment and respond to local conditions. Leaving service providers themselves to decide how outcomes are attained ( Tony Wright’s phrase) commanded general assent as a proposition, begging the question of who it is that decides the outcomes. Lady Marie Stubbs, the former head of St George’s School in Westminster, seemed to embody this consensus. Herself an exemplary and inspiring leader, she none the less seemed to want the external framework of assessment imposed by Ofsted and the examining boards, provided it did not thwart her capacity to respond to the specific conditions of school and students.

Public steer

But where exactly, to use Sue Richards’ terminology once again, does a service cease to be local and situational in its dynamics and become “programmatic”, freighted with wider concerns and the legitimate attentions of civil servants and ministers. Part of the problem with the delivery debate, ours included, is how little a steer the public gives. Ministers in central government assume their interventionist stance because that seems to be what the public ? still mightily sceptical of local political activity ? wants.

As for services, the public is a fallible guide to provision and organisation. What if, this was a question raised implicitly by Denis O’Connor of the Surrey police and the polling special Brian Gosschalk of MORI, the public has no clear idea of what it wants. What if its attitudes towards crime and disorder are atavistic and its priorities undeliverable. As more than speaker noted, there is a wonderful lack of clarity about what “choice” for consumers of public services really means.

David Walker of the Guardian chaired the PMPA conference.