The Week

The GEek 28 June 2024

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

This time next week, all votes will have been cast and, bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, we’ll be digesting a night of General Election results. That also means this is the final edition of Reform’s election newsletter, The GEek!

If polls are to believed, the next government will have a landslide majority, and with it, the opportunity to enact radical reform. High on their agenda should be a bold vision for how Whitehall can be modernised to support delivery across public services and ensuring government’s top priorities or ‘missions’ have the strongest possible mandate from the Prime Minister to succeed.

An incoming government will have 101 burning issues to address, from prisons reportedly at full capacity to record waiting times in A&E and a crumbling public estate. In this context, the high-effort but low-visibility task of shaking up Whitehall risks being kicked into the long grass.

Yet the truth is that failure to boost state capacity – and adequately grip delivery in Whitehall – increases the risk of failure across all of these areas. And as an article by Munira Mirza this week argued, civil service capability and talent has far-reaching consequences for government’s ability to generate new ideas and halt decline.

Meanwhile, Whitehall watchers are likely to smile wryly at former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s tips to civil servants involved in the transition between governments, published this week. Which suggests that changes of administration represent an unusual opportunity to “think of innovative ways to deliver”.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of advice on where a new government should direct its attention if it decides to buck the trend. As we’ve highlighted in previous GEeks:

  • Prioritising performance management and attracting the best and brightest to Whitehall (courtesy of our publication ‘Making the grade’);
  • Putting in place the right infrastructure to achieve ultra-ambitious goals, focused on innovation and public sector performance (see ‘Mission Control’, containing ideas, like the creation of cross-government ‘Mission Boards’ reported on in the Financial Times);
  • Instilling a culture of efficiency across Whitehall, so that spending well becomes a continuous priority (from our paper ‘An efficiency mindset’);
  • Joining up the dots on delivery, by creating incentives for Whitehall to learn and innovate, and build a highly skilled and cognitively diverse workforce (from ‘A manifesto for delivery’, published earlier this month);
  • And if you want to support our next project, we’ll soon be hosting research roundtables on practical applications for AI in government! Apply to attend through this Google form.

At the heart of our argument, and evidenced across these projects, is the idea that for Whitehall to succeed, it must focus on what its best at: in turn, unleashing capacity for frontline services to deliver better and more cost-effective outcomes for citizens.

One way it can do this is through a deep and sustained programme of devolution. Getting this going will be difficult, as Jen Williams’ compelling FT long read this week makes clear. Through the Big Society, the Northern Powerhouse, and Levelling Up, many communities are still waiting to see a tangible difference in local outcomes.

Policy spotlight...

For our final spotlight of the election, we wanted to focus on an area that’s had shamefully sparse attention from the main political parties: social care.

The Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat manifestos offered little hope for reform of the social care system after years of shelved reviews and interrupted plans.

The latter party have commendably raised the profile of the issue during their campaign. And this week their ‘care manifesto’ gave us more detail to work with, including a promise to “stop DWP pursuing carers for old overpayments” of the Carer’s Allowance. But on the question of funding, they’ve opted for hiding behind the non-decision of having a “cross-party commission” identify a sustainable source of funding.

The Conservatives promise to create longer-term funding settlements in local government (good!) to promote social care, but there’s no additional detail aside from a long-standing promise to cap costs and a pledge to act on a 2022 White Paper that we concluded was strong on vision, but weaker on the practicalities of delivery.

Labour’s plans revolve around establishing a ‘National Care Service’, yet there isn’t much sense of what that would mean in practice. And this week Starmer said it will take “five or more years” for his party’s plans to come into effect.

The need for action on social care is more urgent than ever. As we set out in 2022, unmet care needs are behind a great deal of pressure on the NHS, and low capacity in the social care system contributes to delayed discharge from hospitals. Meanwhile, the sheer scale of demand in this area is a major cause of the ongoing financial crisis in local government.

One option that could put social care on a more sustainable trajectory would be to radically alter its funding model. This could take the form of a system where working-age people pay into a dedicated fund, as Reform proposed way back in 2017. But whatever the preferred solution, we will first need a government with the courage, and political elbow room, to tackle the challenge head-on.