The Week

The Week 8 September 2023

Charlotte Pickles

Parliament is back and so is ‘The Week’.

Aside from the mini Government and midi Opposition reshuffles, this week has been all about concrete. First it was schools, then it was hospitals, now it's theatres and housing. This is, of course, the RAAC problem. Which is in turn a short-termism problem.

At Reform we’re often banging on about this pathology, which leads to poor decision-making and a less effective State. RAAC is the perfect example: ignore the problem to avoid short-term expenditure, only to, entirely predictably, have to pick up the bill in emergency spending while simultaneously disrupting children’s schooling. See also social care, prevention, infrastructure…

In fact, RAAC is just a small part of the mind-bogglingly large maintenance backlogs across the public sector estate. When former PM Boris Johnson announced his 40 ‘new’ hospitals, we at Reform suggested the Government might want instead to focus on tackling the more than £10 billion NHS maintenance backlog.

The failure to invest in this physical infrastructure has a direct impact on public service productivity, with large swathes of the estate not fit for purpose, or even unusable.

It’s no different to public sector digital infrastructure – resistance to (short-term) upfront investment in new tech has left services reliant on clunky and expensive legacy systems. These systems are also often hard to draw data from, not interoperable with other systems, and require manual interventions. Bonkers.

At Reform we’re excited for the new term, with a big programme of research to publish in the run up to Winter (it’s too early to mention Chr*stmas, right?). We have four events in just the next two weeks and then a fantastic party conference programme. And, we’re recruiting, so look out for some new faces.

It’s good to be back!

Have a great weekend, and come on England!


This week's recommended read courtesy of Patrick King...

Our read this week is courtesy of Geoff Mulgan (a Member of Reform's Reimagining Whitehall steering group) on when governments should be “creative, innovative and entrepreneurial”, and when they shouldn’t be.

Crucially, he argues that while the public sector itself could be more innovative, the State has a key role to play in supporting innovation in other sectors (as an “enabler”) — helping to catalyse the development of new technologies, identify opportunities for economic growth, and convert innovation into public benefit.

Investing in R&D is part of the picture (though, as the blog points out, the OECD countries collectively already spend over $158 billion a year on this), but even more important is having the “complementary skills and capabilities” to know whether investments are achieving their intended impact. Too often, the State doesn’t manage innovation well, and as a result, expensive programmes — from graphene to nuclear fusion — deliver “meagre results”.

In particular, government could be much more intentional about the teams, budgets and processes it has in place to support innovation; in the UK government, Mulgan writes, “no one has responsibility for public sector innovation”.

We know what getting this right looks like. Development models based on government support for innovation, “in countries like South Korea”, have helped underpin annualised growth rates of well over 5%.

A great read on what it would mean for government to be a better partner to innovation and entrepreneurialism.