Burnham – who provides public services really does matter.

Coverage of Andy Burnham’s recent Guardian interview has concentrated on his exhortation to Labour to shout louder and his view that the window for serious policy making will close sooner rather than later. Less attention has been paid to some interesting policy comments that emerged in the course of the interview.

He is I think the first Labour spokesman to recognise openly that New Labour’s approach to public sector reform got it wrong. He referred specifically to what he describes as a failure to champion comprehensive schools and went as far as anyone is likely to in disassociating himself from the academies programme.

On his own patch, health, he recognised he had himself done things he now regretted. Talking of letting the private sector into NHS provision he said: “It’s like a genie out of the bottle thing, isn’t it? You can let it out so far, but once the market takes a hold on the system it will destroy what’s precious about it.”

It was a fundamental principle of New Labour that it doesn’t matter who provides a service like health, social care or education as long as it remains free at the point of use. There was an assumption that private sector DNA was needed to sort out the inefficiencies of public provision and that competition, either directly or through tendering, is a positive force.

It is though becoming increasingly clear that it does matter for two fundamental reasons. One is that private firms in the end operate in their own self-interest. The bottom line is what can they get away with and still make a profit rather than what is the best service they could provide with the resources they have. So we have an increasing number of examples of failure by the major outsourcing firms – SERCO and Cornwall’s out of hours service, G4S and the Olympics and the fat cats of EAct Academies.

The second reason is that splitting up public services amongst multiple providers is an obstacle to the kind of integration that is increasingly essential to efficient service delivery. The RSA Academies Commission found that collaboration between schools to provide for challenging and vulnerable pupils is vanishing in many areas as each school puts its self- interest first. In health, creating integrated care pathways covering primary, community and hospital care will become increasingly difficult as services are broken up and each part answers to different corporate demands – coming soon no doubt from across the Atlantic as US healthcare companies move in.

Yet somehow every failure is seen not as an example of a systematic problem but as an unfortunate exception to the rule. In the Guardian recently John Harris set out in more detail than is possible here examples of the dreadful behaviour of SERCO in a wide range of contents. (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/29/serco-biggest-company-never-heard-of). In that article Margaret Hodge also began to recognise that New Labour set this hare running. But she also rightly said that “this government should have learned from our mistakes”. She went on to say “What is becoming really clear to me … is that the Sercos, the A4s, the G4Ss, the Capitas – they’re good at winning contracts, but too often, they’re bad at running services.” Some of us might say where have you been for the last 20 years, but late repentance is perhaps better than nothing.

None of this is an argument for monolithic state monopolies which can be just as bound up in their own self-interest as providers rather than putting the needs of service users first. But it is an argument first for not fragmenting services and second for refusing to use organisations that have not an ounce of public sector ethos in their make-up. There should be a space for third sector organisations and for worker or user co-operatives. But only in the context of intelligent commissioning that makes sure that they are really serving the public interest.
When Andy Burnham says “we had been building a policy that said it doesn’t matter who provides healthcare as long as it’s free at the point of delivery. But I’m saying it does matter” it is a significant break with the recent past. And it’s not just about healthcare.

But it’s only a start – we have yet to see any evidence of this point of view being taken up more widely and it could easily disappear as the conventional wisdom re-asserts itself and the lobbyists set to work. There is still a great deal of work to do – if only because we have yet to see the same kind of mea culpa on education.


4 Comments on “Burnham – who provides public services really does matter.”

  1. Well said, John. In my twitter campaign #trustteachers i’ve tried to show that governments of both left and right have made an ongoing hash of education. I find it worrying that the media shows little of the concerns that get expressed for the NHS about education. Michael

  2. David Pavett says:

    I was relieved to hear a bit of sense from the Shadow Cabinet in the form of Andy Burnham’s admission that Labour got it wrong when it worked on the belief/dogma that the provider of public services doesn’t matter and that the government only has to think in terms of outcomes. The implied separation between quality and type of provision and the nature of the provider doesn’t bear examination and it never did. People like Alision Pollock were shouting this as loudly as they could under the Labour governments. Andy Burnham wasn’t listening then but he has now changed his mind. Good.

    The interview John mentions is well worth reading.

    I agree with John when praises Andy B for having the courage to admit that Labour got it wrong with its line of only outcomes matter not providers. John adds that Burnham went outside his own brief and criticised Labour’s Academy programme and its failure to defend comprehensives. Thanks goodness for that. Now we need others in the Shadow Cabinet to do the same but I would not recommend holding one’s breath on that.

    Another of Andy Burnham’s points was about honesty as opposed to opportunist hype in politics. He said

    “I was schooled in this, kind of, ‘How do we make a press release today that embarrasses the opposition?’ That’s the kind of politics that everyone was doing, and the kind of culture developed where you’re scrabbling over a bit of the centre ground with micro-policies that are designed to just create a couple of days’ headlines and create a feeling, but not change much else. And I think a little bit of that culture is degrading our politics at the moment.”

    It seems to me that all these points are very sound and indicate clearly the approach that Labour should be taking.

    Elsewhere on the Labour political spectrum we have Stephen Twigg still arguing that it is outcomes not providers that matter (the mantra is “standards not structures”). Stephen Twigg has also given us a good example of the “How do we make a press release that embarrasses the opposition” approach that Andy Burnham questions. On the day of the A level results he criticised the government for the drop in the number of students taking foreign languages. Would not a little of Burnham’s honesty about past performance have been in order on this given the enormous slump in foreign language learning on Labour’s watch?

    There are those who say that politics is a rough business and we shouldn’t get too prissy about admitting mistakes or tweaking the truth to get a hit at the government. It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of politics that Andy Burnham is calling into question and I think he is right to do so. To approve of tweaking the truth to gain advantage and of ignoring one’s own role in an issue under discussion when it is particularly bad is to practice a form of manipulation that cannot be contained. People who do that to win elections will also do it to gain advantage over others in their own party. They will even use such techniques to take the country into an unjustified war with great loss of life and a vast loss of national resources.

    I wonder hope many people who find truth-tweaking and glossing over past mistakes okay in politics (or anywhere else) would actually recommend that to a class of young people as the way to get on in the world. What kind of education would that be?

    Andy Burnham’s points are well worth reflecting on. Thanks to John for reminding us about the interview.

  3. trevor fisher says:

    john – what waS THE date of the interview? It is helpful to have the date or even better a link so we can read what was said ourselves.

    I am not a guardian reader. thou I will read the guardian if required


  4. David Pavett says:

    Trevor, the link is in my comment above.