Comment Blog 10 January, 2024

I believe in the Reform Fairy

Joe Hill
Policy Director

Happy New Year! For our first blog of 2024, we wanted to write about the year ahead and what we’ll be working on.

I joined Reform last week as Policy Director and lead for the Reimagining Whitehall programme, and since then events in Westminster have already underscored the challenge ahead for both parties. Whoever wins the General Election won’t be arriving to the break of a new dawn, but inheriting a system on its last legs.

  • Thousands of junior doctors walked out in the longest strike in NHS history, compounding historically high backlogs and the annual winter crisis.
  • Nearly 100,000 asylum seekers are still awaiting a decision, despite the Home Secretary’s claim that the backlog is cleared.
  • Both parties have set out their stalls on education, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan promising a drive to cut the number of children regularly absent from school.
  • Public pressure continues to build for the Government to right the wrongs of the Post Office scandal, which has captured headlines since the ITV Christmas drama brought it to millions of screens across Britain.

For a decade, successive governments have bounced from crisis to crisis. Without change, the future will hold more of the same, as these routine emergencies are more than the sum of their parts — they are evidence that Westminster’s current model is running out of road. Somewhere amid Brexit negotiations, Covid-19 containment, and a significant fiscal loosening, although many have come to accept that Britain’s institutions need reform very few have acted on it.

Reform believes that the State is too centralised, too bureaucratic, and too dependent on systems designed in the post-war period that won’t survive in the 21st Century.

The tough talk of reform is back on both parties' scripts, even if the hard work of reforming remains to be seen. Duncan Robinson’s column from last year gives a strong critique to the magic thinking that underpins politicians' invocation of the ‘Reform Fairy’ to resolve all their problems, instead of hard choices like funding.

We should reject magical thinking of all kinds, and embrace some very real trade-offs in government. But despite that, we may be able to bring a bit of magic back to government if we believe in it enough. Plenty of ideas for improving the state of our State remain undiscovered or under-delivered, and with the right application it could become a State worth having faith in.

It is magical thinking to believe either party will be able to reform the State if it just accepts its inheritance of a Whitehall ill-equipped for the modern day. Our Reimagining Whitehall research programme for 2024 aims to build the ideas which an election-winning government can put into place from day one to do the hard work of reform.

  • Mindsets — we will be publishing research on how governments can deliver the missions they commit to in an election, using all the levers of the state. And so they can hire the right people for the job, we’re going to write about the practical incentives for performance in Whitehall — who gets hired, fired and promoted, and how to change it.
  • Rewiring the centre — the Covid-19 Inquiry shows the dysfunction at the heart of Whitehall, and Lord Francis Maude’s review provides some suggestions for how to fix it. We want to build on those to outline the power structures of a modern state, unconstrained by how many desks can fit in a terraced house in SW1. And after decades of debate about HM Treasury’s role as a joint finance and economics ministry, we will publish our own analysis of how a new government should manage public money.
  • Decentralising power — following our Devolve by Default report, we will be relaunching this as a workstream within its own right, Reimagining the Local State, to explore devolution policy and the future of communities, places, and local government. Watch this space!

Many of these ideas aren’t new but are still incredibly important, and so the policy community needs to reflect on why reform is rarely practically delivered. Last year’s report on breaking down the barriers to reform lays the groundwork, and our research will focus on the practicalities and incentives of making change a reality.

Joining Reform and leading this programme follows an interest I’ve had in public service reform since joining the civil service in 2015. I’ve learned the hard way about the challenges of reform, balancing trade-offs at the Treasury, and trying to integrate new technology into government. So I know first-hand why it’s tempting to dismiss the Reform Fairy as magical thinking and not a theory of public services. But perhaps reform, like Steven Pinker’s contingent optimism, is worth believing in if we each plan to play our part and make it happen. I believe in the Reform Fairy.

If you have ideas and want to discuss our work then please reach out!