To implement Labour's modernisation programme the civil service itself requires Euro-modernisationby Tony Blair / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
This is a government that values public service. For too long public servants have been undervalued. What makes people become civil servants is what made me go into politics-a chance to serve, to make a difference. It is not just a job, it is a vocation; and this country relies on that service ethic-in the NHS, in schools and in the civil service.
The civil service is a priceless asset. But it is not perfect. And, because this government believes in public service, we will be more demanding, less tolerant of the average.
The civil service is good at preparing legislation and managing policy. It is less good at focusing on outcomes or ensuring effective implementation. Many parts of the civil service culture are still too hierarchical and inward-looking. Like British business, it is too short-term. We need a longer-term approach to decision-making-and that applies to ministers, too. Above all, the civil service is too risk-averse. We need to encourage innovation. Reinventing government to remedy these failures is a key part of our constitutional reform agenda.
Our third way is not the dogma of the old left, concentrating on means rather than ends. Nor is it the laissez-faire of the new right. Unlike the old left, we want a market economy. Unlike the new right, we do not want a market society. We want renewed social democracy.
Big government is dead. The days of tax and spend are gone. Much of the deregulation and privatisation that took place in the 1980s was necessary. But not everything can be left to the market. There is a role for a modern, active government. The main challenges for the civil service as I see them are these.
First, constitutional reform. A great achievement of our first 18 months has been the raft of constitutional legislation. Even so, we are only at the beginning. Less than a year from now, devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will be a reality. We will all-ministers and officials, in central government and in the devolved administrations-be working in a new framework. I attach great importance to preserving a unified civil service working for all three administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Westminster. We do not want anybody who works in the Welsh Office or the Scottish Office to feel that they are being cut adrift from the civil service. I also attach great importance to establishing efficient machinery for close working between the UK government and the devolved administrations.
Further constitutional changes lie ahead: implementation of the Human Rights Bill, freedom of information, local government reform. These will require changes in culture and in the way the civil service works.
Second, Europe. The EU is a living community. It does not create its policies merely by taking papers from the commission and discussing them at meetings. Ideas are born, discussed, take shape in endless negotiations across the EU, bilaterally as well as in Brussels. Anyone who thinks that it is enough to turn up with their briefcase and argue a rational case against a directive is in for a shock.
We are positive about Europe. I want every department to be close to our partners in Europe. I want senior staff to know their opposite numbers in other EU states and to stay in touch with them in the formulation of policy.
Third, improving services. Across the world, governments are trying to focus on outcomes: cutting crime, cutting unemployment, improving health, improving education. We are part of this change. Few people noticed the radicalism of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in this area-three-year deals, letting departments keep savings and so on. One of the small successes of the CSR was that the three departments involved in criminal justice pledged to work together. We found out that the structures for accounting to parliament had militated against this. I also found out how novel it was to get permanent secretaries to appear together in front of the Public Accounts Committee. Perhaps we will have succeeded once this becomes the norm.
When launching the Social Exclusion Unit I called this “joined-up government.” We owe it to citizens to work across boundaries, not protect our turf. Better health depends on decent housing, clean air, local sports facilities. Reducing crime depends on helping families, giving young people something constructive to do. Joint approaches are mushrooming-the SEU; Sure Start; the Drugs Unit.
For the last 18 months our focus has been on the manifesto. And it will continue to be so. But I do not want to find, a year or two from now, that we are losing momentum as our pledges work through the system. Time in power is precious. We want to use every minute of it well.
We need to ask ourselves searching questions about policy-making. Do we devote enough time to developing new policies? Do we know enough about how other countries are tackling the same problems? Do ministers always act in a way to get the best out of the civil service machine? Do we still too often fall back on primary legislation and state action over partnership and self-regulation? Can we respond to failures by learning from mistakes rather than looking for someone to blame?