CAN IT be done? Will it be done? Although the headlines in last week's papers were all about the 100,000 civil service jobs scheduled to go in the government's latest spending round, whether it can achieve its goals will depend not on downsizing but on the biggest shakeup of the way government does business in 100 years.
As acknowledged in Sir Peter Gershon's efficiency review, which was published last week, taking more than 16 per cent out of central government running costs, removing pounds 21.5 billion from administration and converting it into hospitals, schools and policemen requires nothing less than the transformation of the relationship between central government and the front line.
This is why, when 40 top central and local government officials were interviewed for a report on what the 'reforms' looked like to those who would have to carry them out (www.kablenet.com/ kablereport), the research team, of which I was a part, found a paradox: while everyone agrees that the scope for improvement in efficiency is huge, actually getting there would be a heroic achievement. Cuts, yes. But not many insiders believe they will benefit ordinary citizens.
Why is it so difficult to do the bleeding obvious? After all, it is stupid and unacceptable that every government department has its own non-communicating payroll, human resources, finance and property management arrangements; that the public sector has 30,000 back offices collecting and processing information, only 2 per cent of which are big enough to stand alone; or that, as Soham horribly underlined, there is no national criminal intelligence system, partly because the 52 separate police authorities' computers (and sometimes officers as well) won't talk to each other.
The barriers are formidable. 'There is no culture of sharing across Whitehall', noted one report respondent - rather the reverse. Civil service incentives favour empire-building, not sharing for the common good, and distrust between departments is pervasive. Each Yes, Minister rerun scores a palpable hit: Sir Humphrey is alive and well in every department.
Local service providers, which handle 80 per cent of official interactions with the public, bitterly resent one-size-fits-all policies and methods handed down from on high without regard to local circumstances.
'Central government takes a central-government-centric view of public services. Elsewhere people are quietly - and sometimes quite efficiently - getting on with it,' says a commentator. If the reforms are seen as just another top-down cost-reduction target - 'bend over, here it comes again,' as one cynic described them - they will fail.
Likewise for technology. So far the government has committed pounds 8bn to obliging the public sector to e-enable service delivery, with no evidence of payback or customer appeal. If - as seems likely from Gordon Brown's statement - it does the same with back-office services, mandating investment without regard for the citizen/customer, the results will similarly fall short.
The reality is that the government, let alone the rest of the public sector, is not a unified whole but a vast and untidy agglomeration, with thousands of decision-making locations bristling with different agendas.
Like a pile of random iron filings, the interests of the myriad actors point every which way - downwards to customers, upwards to ministers, inwards to themselves, switching unpredictably with political currents. These randomised interests can't be managed on traditional lines. They can't be aligned by fiat, appeals to efficiency, nor, as the government seems desperately to hope, by IT. There are no levers to pull.
In his review, Gershon noted that success of the programme depended on political will, incentives for managers to take tough efficiency decisions, and the creation of 'change agents' to get things done. But this is the wrong way round. The spending round has lost sight of the reason and purpose for the activity in the first place: the customer/citizen.
The only force strong enough to magnetise the filings to face in the same direction is focus on the citizen: improving service at the point of delivery.
It's not enough just to command more infantry into the front line. There needs to be a method. How many doctors, teachers and policemen? What kind of support services? It's only by going back to the customer - establishing real demand, measuring current capacity against that purpose and then reorganising the work to do it better - that method can be established and competing interests pulled into line.
As hundreds of initiatives across the wider public sector have demonstrated, starting from customer needs pulls everything into place after it. It tells you how many people you need and where. It tells you what services can be shared, and what kind of automation you need to do it. In short, it tells you what can be cut and what needs to be spent.
And that is invariably less than the centre supposes. For the best news is that this dynamic dispatches the assumption (perversely as strong in government as anywhere else) that better service costs more. On the contrary, bad service always costs more to deliver than good. The better the service, the less need for regulation, inspection and audit (cost: pounds 7 billion a year), the less need for targets, corrections and rework, and management interference. It goes beyond management by compliance and gives public servants back their vocation. As our report concludes, it is possible to achieve public-sector efficiency by improving service to the customer - but not the other way round.
The Observer, 18 July 2004