Better government needs people, not politicians, at the centre

 In Speeches

Government isn’t working. This isn’t a party-political point: the way that our government is structured wastes money and stands in the way of effective, citizen-centred public services.
Ministers know that government doesn’t deliver what they want but rather than looking at the fundamental reasons behind this their frustration is expressed in an attack on the Civil Service. Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, has recently declared the Civil Service to be lacking in capability, accountability and delivery discipline, repeating a complaint made by many previous ministers but which none of them has yet resolved.

Politicians are right to identify that Whitehall stands in the way of effective government but they miss the crucial point that they themselves form a key part of that Whitehall machine. Politicians are part of the problem, but they are also central to putting things right. Doing that requires a recognition that the flaws in the machinery of government relate to the system’s culture, structure and leadership and a commitment to changing them.

Across the country many councils are showing the way by radically reforming how they deliver public services by devolving power directly to citizens. If we want to make real change in people’s lives we have to change the structure and culture of government so that people have more power over the decisions that affect them. The problem that ministers like Francis Maude identify cannot simply be blamed on Civil Service resistance to ministerial demands. We need whole-system change.

Britain suffers from too much central government, expressed in part by an over-supply of ministers. Every minister wants to do things that demonstrate their individual impact, and with so many ministers this can create a confusion of competing priorities and agendas that can overwhelm the Civil Service and distract them from government’s overarching priorities. Britain currently has more Government ministers than France and Germany combined, with little evidence that this is beneficial. Britain needs fewer ministers doing fewer things in fewer central government departments so that power can be released into communities.

There’s little in the life of an MP that equips them for the kind of organisational leadership that many ministerial roles involve. Although MPs bring a range of useful skills and experience to their political roles, few have experienced senior organisational leadership. They would benefit from a programme of training, support, review and professional development that would enable them to be more effective. It happens at the top of every other comparable organisation, so why not in government?

Improving ministers’ leadership skills is not, on its own, anywhere near enough. Government becomes more effective when it focuses on understanding then delivering the outcomes that citizens and communities really want. Making that happen requires a revolution in the way government works, shifting power away from politicians in Whitehall and placing it in the hands of the people most affected by it. By involving people directly in the decisions that affect their lives we can harness their insights and resources to make sure that every penny of public spending is used as efficiently and effectively as possible in meeting people’s real needs.

Lambeth Council moved in a relatively short period of time from being one of the worst performing councils in the country to one of the best as measured by Government inspectors, and the very best in significant areas such as children’s services. Giving citizens a bigger voice in decision-making was a critical part of this transformation. My time there as leader taught me that clear and strong leadership is important but that structural change is also necessary to achieve the kind of cultural change that empowering citizens requires.

Give people more control over decisions and they will often try to prevent problems from occurring rather than try to manage failure in the way that our current public services tend to do. For instance, most crime is opportunistic and we know that the best way to prevent crime is to remove the opportunities for crime to take place and focus on rehabilitating offenders. However, our current policing and criminal justice system focuses overwhelmingly on dealing with the consequences of crime and the management of criminals rather than preventing crime from happening. A victim-focused system would try, above all else, to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place.

The existing system is based on the notion that centralised control is best at predicting and meeting people’s needs. There is ample evidence that hoarding power at the centre stifles local leadership, innovation and creativity, promotes dependency on centralised decision-makers rather than promoting self-reliance, and over time allows organisations to prioritise their own interests as producers rather than the interests of their service users. As examples of this, consider the many GP surgeries that open only during the hours many of their potential patients are at work, or social housing services where tenants find it impossible get through by phone to report problems with repairs, maintenance or cleaning.

Making services directly accountable to the people who use them helps to fix this problem. There’s a critical role for elected politicians in holding the ring to make sure that wider social objectives are met, expected standards of performance and behaviour are maintained, and access remains open to everyone with a right to use the service. Over twenty councils in the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network are piloting new ways of running local services that hand more power to citizens, and many other councils can point to similar examples. But to go further and create whole-system change based on empowerment we need to remake the structure of government so that citizens are its subject rather than its object.

Two broad principles would underpin such a transformation. We need a principle of subsidiarity that requires decisions to be taken as close as is strategically sensible to the people who are affected by them; and we need to foster stronger local partnerships by pooling budgets at the local or regional level then deploy them to deliver outcomes determined by citizens and communities.

As an example of the current centralising madness take the Government’s policy of removing schools from local authority control then trying to run all of them from Whitehall. It’s impossible for a single centralised government department to oversee 24,000 schools and make sure they are all meeting minimum standards, let alone the specific needs of the different communities they serve. There needs to be involvement by the locality in holding public services to account and making sure they are meeting local needs.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has launched a significant campaign called Rewiring Public Services that demands this kind of change, and the IPPR’s recent report on the Condition of Britain moves in the same direction. Flesh is starting to appear on the bones of the new politics of empowerment. If we want to empower local citizens and local communities we need to change the structure of national government. The LGA questions whether we need a national Department for Communities and Local Government if we are devolving more decisions to localities. If more decisions about tackling unemployment, health services and transport are taken locally, then we don’t need the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport or the Department for Education in their existing highly centralised forms.

Breaking down the silos

Many citizens are frustrated by the silo mentality of public services. They don’t join up in ways that make sense to the people trying to deal with problems in their lives; instead they are demarcated in ways that suit the organisations that run individual services. If a disabled person wants to be assessed for a walk-in bath and rehousing if they live in a block without a lift, they often find two different people come to assess them at different times, one from social services, the other from housing services. To the disabled person the problem is the same and, in financial terms, it makes more sense to consider the two issues together rather than separately. But different service departments see things from their narrow perspective rather than from their users’ broader view. The same problem happens in health services where the NHS and social care services don’t join up properly, meaning some older and disabled people are left to develop more severe conditions requiring high-cost NHS treatment when lower cost care services at home could have prevented their health from deteriorating. We might address this by giving ministers portfolios focused on desired outcomes that cut across departmental silos, rather than locating them inside a particular silo which over time they come to identify with, further entrenching a silo mentality.

Lambeth is piloting a new way of pivoting decisions on the needs of service users rather than the preferences of service providers. It’s called co-operative commissioning, which in effect is a system of decision-making that allows citizens to define their own outcomes as a whole then seeks services that can meet them. The council found that moving towards a citizen-led model of this kind was difficult while the old structures, designed for top-down silo-based decision making remained in place. So they abolished their service directorates and put in place new models of accountability with a much bigger voice for service users. It’s still work in progress, but it offers lessons for a reshaping of government and frontline public services more generally.


There are many reasons why government and public services are less effective than they could be. Ministers are too numerous and don’t have the right skills; decision-making is a top-down process that excludes citizens; and power is hoarded at the centre rather than shared with people who can exercise it more effectively. The structures and culture of government exist to perpetuate this flawed model; correcting it requires a change in the whole system to allow government to let go.

The benefits of greater citizen involvement are enormous: better value for money, stronger civil society, more innovation and enterprise, an emphasis on helping people develop the self-reliance they need to aspire to a better life. All of this is dependent on sharing power more widely. Trying to make our existing machinery of government do this is like trying to make water flow backwards up a tap. The politics of empowerment requires a complete overhaul of government so that power can flow down to where it is best able to respond to people’s real needs and aspirations.

This article was written for reform and published in September 2014.