A key principle behind the New Labour ‘project’, with roots going back to Antony Crosland’s seminal The Future of Socialismwas that ends mattered, not means. It’s about what works. The triumph of managerialism over ideology. Pragmatism over principle.
In this respect at least, the Coalition Government is following in New Labour’s footsteps. Francis Maude, for example, has said he’s pretty relaxed about the ownership models of organisations running our public services. Impact not form matters. Outcomes not structures.
But, and particularly in the long term, how can we be confident about the ends and the outcomes? When is the end?
Let’s take a few examples of lobbying led by the social enterprise sector and try to look at the ends and the impact.
Social enterprise and third sector advocates argued for a Right to Challenge for community groups to take over public services. Subsequently, a Right to Challenge is being enshrined in the Localism Bill going through Parliament. The end. Right?
Well, the latest noises emerging from the Cabinet Office are that plans to open up vast swathes of public services to contestability and market forces are being ripped up. The Government will not dare to go this far. Services can stay in-house.
Except the Localism Bill retains this innovative new Right to Challenge which, as it stands, provokes an open tender for a contract to deliver services. Those of us who argued for this Right are now arguing that it should be amended – so a challenge does not automatically lead to a procurement exercise but instead considers the alternatives of an uncontested contract or grant. So in effect, as well as potentially adding to the burdens and risks for community groups and social enterprises who go through a tender process, have we have we also unwittingly created the one lever that could let market forces in to open up public services? And created what some would see as a monster, a Pandora’s box or a Trojan horse. Was that the intended end?
Let’s look at another big sector ask – more money for the Big Society Bank. In the Government’s most recent negotiations with the big banks, the Treasury must have pushed for the deal to include an extra financial commitment to the Big Society Bank. What emerged? What was the end? An extra £200m commitment from the big banks. Result!?
Except, the extra money seems to come with some strings attached – that this is an investment by the banks “on commercial terms”. Some have interpreted this to mean that the whole direction of the Big Society Bank is being warped from market maker and provider of patient capital to more commercial, profit seeking, hard-nosed investor. Was that what we wanted?
The truth is surely that these aren’t ends at all? Perhaps the Right to Challenge could lead to a backlash against contestability in public services. Or it may lead to some fantastic outsourcing and public services that prove we didn’t have so much to be scared about after all. And the Big Society Bank may operate commercially and, in doing so, prove that social enterprises can be viable investment propositions. Or the Bank may struggle to identify suitable investments and so prove after all, that the sector does need more support and encouragement, leading to a new wave of more appropriate investment. Who knows?
We don’t know. That’s the point. How can we be sure that ends trump means if the horizon from where we stand is really just a staging post on a longer, more evolutionary journey?
So what’s the point here? That we need to be careful what we wish for. Very careful about what we ask for. That we should be humble about how much we know. And who knows, that maybe principles do matter after all.