PUTTING THE FRONTLINE FIRST: Review

8 12 2009

The government’s PUTTING THE FRONTLINE FIRST paper was picked up in the press because it included £3 billion of savings identified since Budget 2009, and a proposal to cut senior civil service pay by £100 million per year.

However, for this blog, its comments on the post-bureaucratic age were far more interesting, and indeed encouraging. Gordon Brown’s introduction included four aspects in particular that caught my attention.

The Encouraging

“Investing £30 million over three years to get a further one million people online; and increasing the number of services available via the internet, including some benefits claims.”

While £30 million will almost certainly not be enough to achieve this goal, it is a step in the right direction. The more services on the internet, the better.

“Rolling out nationally Tell Us Once, so citizens need only notify government once for any birth or death.”

It is staggering that you cannot do this already (ditto with change of address), but an obvious way to cut paperwork and the cost of civil service administration. Perhaps service providers (everything from your magazine subscriptions to electricity suppliers) should be required to check their own databases against the deaths database to prevent charging the deceased.

“Radically opening up data and public information, releasing thousands of public data sets – including Ordnance Survey mapping data, real-time railway timetables, data underpinning NHS choices, and more detailed departmental spending data – and making them free for re-use.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt have been working on this for some time, and the opening of some OS data last month suggests that things are really happening. Data.gov.uk  is due to go live in beta form later this month also.

“Harnessing the power of comparative data to improve standards, publishing public services performance data online by 2011, starting in 2010 with more detailed data on crime patterns, costs of hospital procedures and parts of the National Pupil Database.”

Again, excellent news for government transparency and accountability. The public will be allowed to view and audit the services they pay for and use. The essence of what the post-bureaucratic age (at first instance) means to public services.

The Less-Good

There was also a lot of overly-general, ‘let’s cut waste and streamline’ parts to the report, which suggests that the government may not have taken up the spirit of the post-bureaucratic age as far as their more innovative announcements might suggest. For example,  the phrase “Reducing red tape on frontline services and improving flexibility“, meaningless though it may be, carries all the worst assumptions of bureaucratic government: the state controls it, knows about it, reforms it, and performs it.

The other big problem for the Labour government, is that many of these ideas are Conservative in origin or association. Localism, reduced bureaucracy, open data, and the smaller state were Conservative ideas before the government published its report. Gordon Brown has tried to recast Cameron’s ‘smaller state’ as the ‘smarter’ state, although the policies Brown puts forward in support of this end will make the state smaller in the manner Cameron has suggested.

Conclusion

This will probably not be a big vote-winner for either party. It will, however, be hugely significant when it comes to the business of governing. These are easy commitments to make, but much more difficult to keep (for example when comparative data shows a government initiative has failed).

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)

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