The Tories should drop their obsession with small government
More government or less government? This is the dominant question in politics, the big dividing line between left and right. But it’s time Conservatives resist engaging in and fuelling this simplistic debate. Instead, Tories should stand for a more human government, where stronger relationships are at the heart of the interaction between state and citizen.
Arguing about the size of the state, debasing policymaking into a sixth form politics class, will lead the Conservative Party to an electoral dead-end.
A recent national poll found that only 5 per cent of people want a society where individuals are almost completely free of government. Likewise, less than a quarter want a society where government has a big role to play in managing the economy and people’s lives. Most want a mixed economy, where the state provides some services but families, education and job creators are principally relied upon to create a good society. The Thatcherite caricature of Conservatives as small state crusaders only alienates the majority of the electorate.
Instead of talking about the size of the state, Tories should talk about its nature. Not only for political reasons, but because reforming the state is a big and necessary challenge that is crucial for the UK’s long-term prosperity. With an ageing population, growing inequality and an increasingly knowledge-based economy, high-quality health, welfare and education services will be even more vital in the future. But in a competitive, globalised economy, relying on higher tax receipts to spend lavishly on public services is fanciful. For those who care about public services, a strategy must be sought that delivers high-quality services much more efficiently.
There has been a tendency among those on the political right to reach only for market-based mechanisms, extending choice and competition, to drive up standards. Expanding the number of service providers and devolving financial power to users through personal budgets. Likewise, on the political left, there has been a fixation on investment – pumping cash through provider’s doors and into people’s pockets. Both of these approaches have merits, and evidence shows they have improved outcomes. But alone they are still insufficient to meet the mammoth challenge of better public services with the continuing need for fiscal restraint.
This is because, really, they leave individuals alone to fend for themselves. The robotic state gives the cash transfer or the personal budget, it funds or expands service provision, but it does not help citizens navigate through the system to get the best service. The better informed get the best help, merely entrenching inequality, and leading to inefficient spending. The story of Sure Start is a telling example: the Labour Government invested billions, and now there are 3,500 nationwide, with articulate campaigners fighting for their survival as government squeezes funding. But both the National Audit Office and OFSTED have criticised Sure Start for failing to attract the most deprived families – workless and hidden – who could benefit most from the service.
Tories tend to believe individuals flourish when rooted in strong relationships: for emotional and educational reasons. This thinking ought to be applied to public service reform. They key to better public services is stronger relationships between citizens and actors of the state – GPs, health visitors, teachers, Job Centre advisers. They can provide citizens with better information and signpost to relevant support, ensuring they get the best support possible at the right time. Doctors, for instance, are critical in prescribing the right medicine before problems deepen. Health Visitors can give parents the best neonatal advice. These professionals can shift the focus on public services towards early intervention, reaping considerable benefits for individuals and government.
The problems people face are complex and unique. The state needs people at the forefront of its services, using their discretion to assess how to support those who are struggling. Standardised support – like tax credits – is vital, but inadequate to pick out the distinctive causes of disadvantage for that family. Research demonstrates that benefit claimants, for example, complain of being treated insensitively and indiscriminately by staff in benefits offices, unable or unwilling to listen to the distinctive problems they are facing. An inhuman, unresponsive state causes disillusionment and apathy, reducing motivation to use government services and ultimately undermining support for the state.
It is empathetic, trained people who hold the key to better public services. We need more of them. More volunteers can help, such as the government’s recently announced scheme to train one million “dementia friends” who will increase awareness and support for those with dementia. In addition, focus should turn on good training and pay to ensure all our public services are populated by high-quality professionals, with good understanding and communication skills. Allowing front-line professionals the freedom to cultivate relationships and be responsive to the unique circumstances of citizens is also crucial: paying public service providers by outcomes, rather than shackling them with targets, is essential.
Often policymakers fall into the trap of thinking of only money or services as improving people’s lives: but stronger relationships –between different people first and foremost, but also between citizen and state – can have significant impact. Forget big or small government: Tories should stand for human government.
Ryan Shorthouse is Director of Bright BlueTagged in: big government, conservatives, small government
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