Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Perestroika Britain

The worst and most depressing thing about two decades of our public sector 'reforms' in the UK is that many of them have made Britain feel like a country enveloped in Perestroika - for younger readers, that was a Soviet reform programme of the 1980s launched by First Secretary and then President Mikhail Gorbachev (above).

It failed. Lack of political reform, and (to be honest) sheer lack of will and ability to truly break away from quasi-markets and fake 'voucher' payments doomed it to failure. In the meantime, the peoples of the USSR and its successor states endured a decade of catastrophically falling living standards as the old planned economy fell apart - but nothing evolved to stand in its place.

The UK today, of course, faces nothing like such a disaster. Growth will resume - eventually. The worse one could say is that a decade of stagnant living standards and high unemployment lies ahead, while the public sector faces a severe spending squeeze. Big deal. Want a real crisis? Move to Greece.

But anyway. The reason British services feel a bit like late Soviet industries is that politicians (especially politicians in a Coalition) want to have it all. They want to have the cake of equality, 'order', direction and control from the centre - and then they want to eat it with 'local initiative', 'innovation from below', 'a market of public sector consumers', blah blah blah blah blah.

Witness the National Health Service 'reforms'. The present Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to 'set the doctors free', making General Practitioners the main commissioning group, mobilising most of the cash. But to do so, he's had to create six new layers of bureaucracy - and lots more bureaucrats. There'll be local coalitions. A central Commissioning Board for 'specialist' services. They'll be Monitor, a 'consumer' representation body. There'll be local senates. Strategic Health Boards. No-one everybody except the Secretary of State himself wants to rip it up and start again. Conclusion? A right old mess. The Health Secretary will eventually be moved, and the whole system will be exploded and put back together in the next Parliament.

Look over at universities - my patch, admittedly, but a total car crash that continues to this day. There's now going to be no White Paper. No Bill. No Act. One gains the impression that this is because Ministers have created such a spider's web of chaos that they can't or daren't face rearranging it again. So we're left a little in the dark as to where we're going to go. But here again, we have a new quasi-market that 'allows' universities to set fees up to £9,000 - an arbitrary limit, of course, but there you go. Then Ministers decided that they wanted more places at 'elite' institutions and cheaper ones, so they took the numbers cap off of those Higher Education Institutions. Now, of course, that means that some of the best teaching institutions in the country will now form a 'squeezed middle', and will run for cover or have their numbers reduced while research-heavy universities will have every incentive to flood themselves with undergraduates they don't really want. What a triumph. And there's now to be a beefed-up 'Access Tsar', with suitably Russian overtoners of course, who'll toughen up access agreements with universities as to how many students from poorer backgrounds and state schools they take. It's already causing squeals of pain on the Right, and it's by no means clear how this will work and what consequences it will have. Summary? Keystone Cops-style confusion. Liable to start again soon.

Command and control can often work - look at the previous administration's huge success with cancer treatement and waiting lists in the National Health Service. The 'market' (whatever that means) can work - witness the efficiency gains running up to privatisations in the 1980s, whether they were of British Airways or British Telecom. No-one would, I wager, want to go back to the terrible telephones and connection times of the 1970s.

But these approaches? They have all the hallmarks of 'have your cake and eat it' wishful thinking. And they combine some of the worst functions of bureacuracy - game playing, long lead times, confusion, 'soft' decision-making, breakpoints and threshold effects - with some of the inequality, unfairness, remorseless speed and destructiveness of the 'market', a make-believe concept at the best of times.

One part planned; one part marketed; all parts confused. It's Perestroika Britain.

What, then, explains all the enthusiasm within Whitehall? Well, that's for another day...