Comment Blog 21 November, 2017

Barber-ism and #TheStateoftheState

In a brilliant paper for the Treasury published last week, Sir Michael Barber set out the right agenda for the department ahead of the Budget.  He echoed a number of the themes in the recent Deloitte / Reform research The State of the State.

Sir Michael showed how some of government’s working practices make it harder to achieve productivity in the public sector (which is the right overarching goal because it means that resources can go further). Ministers and officials gain more kudos if they control bigger budgets. Whitehall rarely stops projects that aren’t working. The Treasury has historically placed more emphasis on inputs rather than outcomes.

The fact that the Treasury has commissioned this review, and welcomed it, is a great sign of a wish to change the underlying culture of public spending.  Sir Michael calls for a new culture that defines success as progress towards the outcomes that matter for citizens, accompanied by a superb use of data. He suggests that disruptive innovation (“radically new ways of doing things that deliver much better outcomes for reduced costs”) become business as usual for departments and public services.

The State of the State shows that public sector leaders are already in line with this new agenda. In particular, they are focused on radical reshaping of services to prevent social problems in the first place. As one leader said, “If we fail in our intervention, the cost of the public purse is enormous. You need to think about that across the system. I might not save money by helping a family but it means the police might in a few years if they don’t have to intervene with them.” This is a great Barber-ism.

The State of the State also reported that the partnerships between public and private sectors continue to deepen.  As another leader said, “We need to pause and think about how we want to transform the public sector with the private sector. If not, we will have an Hiever decreasing circle.”

The involvement of the private sector is one of the best ways to deliver the innovation and clarity on outcomes for which Michael Barber called. The creation of an NHS service to hold GP consultations on video, over a smartphone, is exactly the kind of new thinking that partnership can deliver.

What is rarely said in the national debate is that public services from defence to mental health to social care would collapse entirely without private sector delivery. They have a key role in the innovative, Barber-ian future too.