Rob Wilson: There are big failings with government

EXCLUSIVE: It is too fragmented to deliver genuine social reform and needs a senior Cabinet minister to be tasked with bringing about change, writes the former Minister for Civil Society

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The Prime Minister recently reaffirmed her commitment to a bold programme of social reform, making Britain a better place for everyone, not just the privileged few. She personally chairs the Social Reform Cabinet Committee and has taken responsibility for delivering a new housing plan, which will provide more affordable homes for families.

And therein also lies the problem for the third sector. Unless a social problem has the Prime Minister’s and Number 10’s direct and personal attention, very little progress can be made across Whitehall departments. Under the existing system, the contribution the third sector could make to social change will never get the attention it deserves. My personal experience, particularly when in the Cabinet Office, is that government is too big and fragmented to get much done that involves any level of cooperation or consideration from other departments. There is mind-boggling departmental territorialism to overcome, a civil service that is ultra-cautious and resistant to change and ministerial colleagues with either a lack of entrepreneurial spirit or a torpor induced by multiple failures to make progress.

The system works as a roadblock to change and is a master at setting traps against radical reform. This isn’t to say that a determined minister who knows what they really want within a department can’t be successful. One only has to look at Michael Gove, although he had to fight a long and protracted battle internally.

The big society vision that David Cameron was initially so passionate about should have been a big step forward for government, changing power structures across the UK by giving citizens, communities and local government the power and information they needed to come together and solve their problems. The big society was about disrupting the existing cosy system. It wanted society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. The government’s big society document said: "Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all."

Cameron was absolutely right, but there was one big strategic mistake, as identified in the original document: "Building this big society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of government…"

Unfortunately, central government is almost entirely incapable of this type of coordinated action. Joint ministerial committees were generally regarded as tiresome and passed down from senior ministers to junior ministers as quickly as possible. There was never any decision-making at meetings and no accountability for progress. It would have taken huge personal will from the Prime Minister, little or no political resistance, big encouragement from the third sector and entrepreneurial ministers with cross-departmental powers. None of these were forthcoming and government moves on quickly to the next shiny object if something absorbs too much political capital.

We still have a newish Prime Minister who wants to deliver fairness and justice for all, but if she is to succeed a big change in government structure will be needed, because radical social reform will not be delivered by the existing model.

Three things need to happen; first, a new Department for Social Change needs to be set up under a Deputy Prime Minister – it should have overall responsibility for health, education, universities, communities, housing and civil society, and be closely linked to the Department for Work and Pensions. This way the Prime Minister can set out her vision for social change and have it delivered by an integrated ministry and a trusted and experienced deputy such as Jeremy Hunt. He would act more like a chairman of a board, with secretaries of state accountable on a daily basis for delivery of the plan for social reform, as would their civil servants.

Within the structure, there would be a Secretary of State for Communities and the Third Sector, bringing together local and national government closely with charitable and social endeavour. If delivered properly, it would lead to more streamlined government and decision-making.

If the structural obstacles to social reform across government can be fixed, it means that delivery becomes possible. This is where the second change needs to take place – how things are delivered. Most big government programmes are still delivered without much success. They are large, bulky, fail to be customer-focused and have little or no local knowledge, hence they are largely inefficient at best and monumental failures at worst. Many billions of taxpayers’ pounds are routinely wasted across multiple programmes.

My second change would respond to this by introducing new blood to the civil service system to challenge it constructively. The Department for Social Change would have to be allowed to make more political appointments of people who are not civil servants and have a combined commercial and political understanding. Currently there are enormous skills gaps in all departments on the commercial and contracts side, a complete lack of grip on how much things should cost, getting the best value and understanding the quality of products and services being delivered. There is a huge gap between ministers and the commercial coalface that needs to be bridged, where they have no line of sight or control on value and costs. Incredibly, most secretaries of state do not have a grip on this, which is why they need to appoint their own people to ensure there is always a pressure everywhere within the system on value for money.

Third, the relationship between government and the third sector needs to be fixed once and for all. The new Department for Social Change needs to bring the third sector into its centre to complete the reorientation of government. Through the big society, Cameron wanted power devolved and responsibility for action owned within communities. Working alongside local government and other partners, it’s the third sector that can deliver this micro and local level of social change. The social value act should be at its heart, the acid test of the new department’s huge spending power – each pound of the billions of pounds it spends annually would now have the added impact of social good attached to its mission.

The new appointees will be tasked to find ways to implement social change through social value in contracts, spread best practice within government, encourage the growth of charities, social enterprises and mutuals that deliver high-quality local services, and look for positive ways for the private sector and the third sector to collaborate. This will involve some reprioritisation of spending so that the third sector is assisted with the delivery of the change government wishes to achieve. For example, the budget to support mutuals is woeful, yet should be a key part of the change in delivery taking place.

I have previously written about how the third sector needs to change, but I have always argued it is not a one-way street: there are big failings with government.

These three measures would provide the necessary level of disruption to begin to change the way social policy is delivered by government. Undoubtedly, more action will be required because it will be a significant challenge to convince both ministers and the civil service – the resistance to change is a very powerful force within the system. But although the EU referendum has split the country, it has demonstrated that people are desperate for real social change and something new. It is our duty to respond or we will all face the consequences of failure.

Rob Wilson was the Minister for Civil Society between 2014 and 2017

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