The Week

The Week 24 March 2023

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

It’s been a big week for the Westminster bubble, with a former prime minister being quizzed on pandemic parties and a mini rebellion over the Windsor Framework. Meanwhile, in the policy world, the two big debates this week were both, in different ways, about scale and accountability.

In almost any other week, the biggest news would have been the publication of Baroness Casey’s review into the culture and standards of London’s Metropolitan Police force. Its headline conclusion "a finding of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia" has been covered almost everywhere: it's both a direct repetition and a broadening (institutional sexism and homophobia) of the 1999 Macpherson report's verdict.

On the leadership front, there's "inadequate management" of an organisation that "runs on a series of uncoordinated and short-lived initiatives, long on activity but short on action." Culturally, there's "too much hubris", "defensiveness and denial", and "a bullying culture... [where] speaking up is not welcome." Even the basic crime-fighting functions are failing, as the "imbalance... between well-resourced specialist units and a denuded frontline" means that London "no longer has a functioning neighbourhood policing service." This report suggests a serial, organisation-wide catastrophic failure: one that will take years to properly address.

In response, some critics are now returning to the question of whether the sheer size of the Met is part of the problem. This is tricky policy territory. The usual call among police leaders is not to break forces down into smaller organisations, but to consolidate them as a way to generate economies of scale and join-up efforts to tackle the kinds of crime that have no respect for jurisdictional boundaries.

But simply being big has clearly not worked for the Met; neither does it seem to have worked for policing in Scotland, where a major nationwide consolidation programme has yielded only mixed results so far in terms of efficiencies or improved outcomes. Meanwhile, a significant US policy literature suggests a similarly complex picture: police consolidation leads to the deterioration of community relationships, while the establishment of community policing can also backfire in an environment that is geared toward larger-scale systems.

Finding the scale at which institutions and public services can be properly accountable to, and connected with, the communities they serve is also an important one for the ongoing debates around devolution and levelling up in England. The ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals for Greater Manchester and West Midlands Combined Authority which we praised as something of a milestone in our recent analysis of the Budget, and which guarantee local retention of Business Rates and longer-term and more autonomous funding settlements have reignited a debate about England’s striking lack of fiscal devolution.

A new report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week joined the the growing clamour for more localised tax-raising powers, but this too is a murky policy debate. The devolution of tax-raising powers is conflated both with the idea that councils might increase the overall tax burden and with the idea that councils will engage in a ‘race to the bottom’ to encourage local businesses to move in. But this is to miss the point: by definition, devolution means local variation, yes — but our usual default of centralised control from Whitehall hasn’t exactly created a perfect uniformity of desirable outcomes, has it? The best evidence suggests that the real mistake here would be the creation of ‘unfunded mandates’, where local government is tasked with important responsibilities, but neither allocated sufficient resources to do the job nor given the means to generate more.

And now some weekend reading recommendations…

The recent surge of advancements in artificial intelligence has been impossible to ignore, and the overlapping worlds of technology and policy have been spilling much (digital) ink to explore the implications of new systems like ‘GPT-4’ and ‘Bard’ for public services, government, ethics, jobs, and, well, everything else. If you’re going to read just one piece about what’s happening and what’s coming next, we recommend this week’s thoughtful essay from Bill Gates. The man behind Microsoft shares his view that we are indeed on the cusp of a major technological revolution, similar in scale to the development of the internet. He argues that we will have to deliberately take steps to ensure that the transformative and productive potential of AI reaches impoverished places and communities rather than just reinforcing the advantages of the already-privileged. The essay is full of plausible new responsibilities for governments: to contain risks, to share the opportunities, and to help transition employees to the skills they will need for what will be a markedly different economy. But the gains could be extraordinary for public services: Gates develops the example of enhanced productivity in healthcare.

Second, based on a new book, The Economist discusses common issues that arise when delivering big public sector construction projects. Analysing more than 16,000 projects, the authors found that only 8.5% were delivered on time and within budget, and only 0.5% were delivered on time, within budget and delivering all the benefits that had been promised. The authors diagnose that problems consistently arise from time-scales and budgets being underestimated, both purposely by politicians seeking to gain the go-ahead for ambitious projects, and because data is not used well enough during the planning stage. They ultimately argue that more rigorous planning and increased standardisation could ameliorate these issues. With the announcement that HS2 has been delayed again, understanding these recurring problems will be crucial for government to grip big projects and deliver on their potential.