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Reinventing Blairism

John Rentoul

mulgan 300x196 Reinventing BlairismThe launch of the What Works Network on Monday was promising. Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander announced the setting up of four new centres to assess evidence for “what works” in policy on crime, old people, pre-school children and local economies.

The models for these independent centres are Nice, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which looks at what works – at what cost – in medicine, and the Educational Endowment Foundation, which looks at schools policy.

I say this is a good idea, for which it is worth enduring the obvious jibe: What was the Government doing before, what didn’t work?

The phrase itself can be traced to the early Tony Blair. He said, “What matters is what works,” in a speech at the Corn Exchange, City of London, expounding the “third way” between a presumption in favour of either privatisation or nationalisation, 7 April 1997. In government, it became a catchphrase for reforms that were difficult either for the Labour Party or for public opinion. The What Works Programme at the Home Office, for example, sought to outflank public support for harsher sentences with evidence for policies that reduced reoffending.

Which is why it was fitting that the launch should have been hosted by Geoff Mulgan (pictured), one of Blair’s early advisers, who set up the Strategy Unit and who is now head of Nesta, the innovation-promotion charity.

So I can now add the What Works Network to my list of things that this Government is doing to pursue Blairite public service reform, many of which David Cameron and Nick Clegg deprecated in opposition:

1. Blair’s “stocktakes” or progress-chasing meetings, so central to “deliverology” as devised by Sir Michael Barber. These have become Cameron’s “meetings where I just go through the programmes we’ve set out”.

2. Sir Michael was head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit until 2005 (the Unit was absorbed by the Treasury when Gordon Brown took over in 2007), which was one of the administrative success stories of the Blair Government. That function is now being performed by the Implementation Unit: “although it is different it is sort of the same”, said one mandarin. The Implementation Unit was responsible for the What Works Network.

3. Those “top-down targets” that the Conservative derided in opposition: many of them, and many new ones, are now called benchmarks. You cannot sensibly run modern government without them.

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  • JohnJustice

    Couldn’t agree more. This is an essential tool of government of any complexion although I suspect that it will tend to support left of centre policies since they are more likely to focus on the roots of social problems rather than on the symptoms as right wing policies do.


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