Comment Blog 24 January, 2024

The State of the State 2024: the launch

Sean Eke

Reform was delighted to launch our ‘State of the State’ report today in partnership with Deloitte. Based on interviews with more than 100 public sector leaders and an exclusive Ipsos poll of almost 6,000 people, the report explores the key issues currently facing the UK government and public services.

The report is particularly timely considering the context. Stagnant economic growth, struggling public services, big commitments on Net Zero… and an upcoming general election. There could not be a more pertinent time to understand the views of the State from the people who use it and the people who run it.

For our launch event we discussed the findings from the report with Chris Smyth, Whitehall editor at The Times; Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education; and Ed Roddis, director of government and public services at Deloitte.

Three key takeaways emerged from the launch event.

Firstly, the incentives around reform are misaligned. Jonathan Slater commented on the tension between the importance of reform on one hand and the general lack of interest in reform from the public on the other. Chris Smyth noted that the media have a tendency to focus on failures ahead of successes. Thus, governments are currently unlikely to prioritise reform if it is unlikely to win them any votes or attract any media attention.

Secondly, reform does not need to be overcomplicated. As noted by Jonathan Slater, there exists a “strange balance” whereby some major changes may lead to limited improvement in performance while some minor changes may lead to more extensive improvements. Furthermore, Chris Smyth noted the growing aversion to magic bullets. An example of one such magic bullet was provided by Ed Roddis, who detailed how attitudes towards AI are becoming increasingly more realistic, with a growing awareness about the need for the core data architecture to be in place before the more advanced applications are used. Government should be open to all reform ideas.

Thirdly, reform requires optimism. As noted by Jonathan Slater, reform is not easy. Our paper last year ‘Breaking down the barriers’  highlighted the features of the civil service which make reform challenging, for example a lack of accountability, the siloed nature of departments and a propensity towards short termism. However numerous opportunities for reform exist. Chris Smyth detailed the consensus which exists around the need for a shift towards prevention in healthcare and Ed Roddis laid out the multiple areas in which the private sector is “already engaged in reform programmes”. Furthermore, as noted by Jonathan Slater, the opportunity for serious reform will be at its zenith in the months after an election because of the receptiveness of the civil service and the ability to present such reform as part of a new start.

This point on optimism reinforces the findings in the report. When those public sector leaders interviewed were asked to summarise the state of the State in three words, “challenging” was the most used. However, the second and third most used words were “hopeful” and “opportunity”.

Read the full report here.