THE BLOG
17/07/2011 10:52 BST | Updated 14/09/2011 06:12 BST

Open Public Services, or Naked Ideology?

The long delayed government White Paper "Open Public Services" finally arrived, although few noticed as it was drowned out by the sound of Rupert Murdoch's empire collapsing.

The long delayed government White Paper "Open Public Services" finally arrived, although few noticed as it was drowned out by the sound of Rupert Murdoch's empire collapsing.

Launching the White Paper on the day Southern Cross collapsed was devastatingly unfortunate for the Government. It 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 the 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 WP sets out five principles: choice, decentralization, 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 clearly to push some ideas way beyond anything that has been done before, and where there are a few new ideas - such as public service mutuals - to push ideas that have no evidence to support them at all.

Let's choice first: 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 is funded out of general taxation is a recipe for disaster. Only where services are used "by a community collectively" does "control over a service need to be exercised by a representative body". Really? The truth is that 'free at the point of delivery and paid for by taxpayers' services all have to balance the interests of payers, users and workers.

Decentralisation, in the White Paper is about decentralisation both of the control mechanisms of and within public services. External control of services is to go down to 'neighborhood' or 'community' organizations. Internal decentralization means passing power to those who run services, who are magically transformed from 'bureaucrats' (bad) to 'professionals' (good). How you empower both 'users' and 'professionals' at the same time it fails to explain.

It's not as if we haven't been here before. 

Back in the early 1980s this sort of neighborhood decentralization was all the rage and Councils like Tower Hamlets and Islington attempted radical decentralization to local committees and decentralised combined services operations. 

Where are they now? Gone, largely because they proved unfeasible - they cost more than centralized services, in some cases laxer controls led to corruption and other malpractices, and ultimately the Local Authority was still the legally accountable body that couldn't really let go.

Opening up services to diverse providers - public, non-profit and profit-making, is also nothing new. It has been tried across a range of services for years, in some cases with success and others with major failures (Southern Cross). The WP contains no analysis of what has worked and what hasn't (and there are plenty to draw on) whilst asserting that it has no "ideological presumption" for any one sector, but it rubbishes the public sector at every opportunity.

I could go on, but I think you get the message. Not much new, some extension to the point of absurdity of previous policies and a lot of frankly ideological tosh in places. In other words, a fairly standard statement of Government policy.