The Limits to Government

For the Guardian Public Leader

Here in the twenty-first century, have we discovered the limit of what public services can deliver? Has the law of diminishing returns been applied? Can micro-delivery, Big Society style, take over where traditional means left off?

It appears that Labour policies to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, deprived and marginalised became less effective in their later years, but why? Spending on public services was increasing right up to the end; even the global financial crisis cannot explain why measures that had been working previously ceased to bring about improvements.

Child poverty and fuel poverty are cases in point. You can argue whether relative or absolute measures are fairer or more achievable but after many years of improvement the trend was reversed: a feeling of under-achievement prevailed. Unemployment – despite serious job creation stimuli – rough sleeping and homelessness followed a similar pattern.

After a brief pause in the 1990s the inexorable rise in economic inequality resumed. Insolvencies and anti-depression prescriptions, possible indicators of the ‘state of the nation’, have both quadrupled since 1997.

Why did this anticlimax in social policy happen? Did the government become tired and lose its vision when the global economic storm came along? Were there policy conflicts, despite attempts at joined up government? Or had we reached the limit of what ‘big government’ can achieve?

The Young Foundation’s 2009 report, ‘Sinking and Swimming’, found that a ‘missing million’ people were not getting the support they needed from public services. Evidently the same barriers that defined ‘silo government’ limited access too.

Several holistic initiatives came forward in recent years, with Sure Start the best example. When someone left prison with mental health and alcohol problems (for example) there were plans to assign them a lead care worker rather than one in each service, but this was not rolled out on an industrial scale.

Those who believe small is beautiful (and may therefore support the Big Society) will say that the absence of micro-solutions contributed to the problem. Personalised services generate more effective outcomes than traditional, blanket approaches. One to one mentoring of ex-offenders is the best way to bring them to the straight and narrow. Early action to address the specific needs of children and failing families within their communities helps future generations to engage.

Conventional wisdom is that such interventions on a large scale are high cost, labour-intensive, bureaucratic nightmares. Yet they are exactly what is needed to get to where we need to be. And there is little doubt that third sector providers can bring cost effective, localised and personalised delivery of services in a patient and caring manner. The key is having local authority frameworks on which to build this network and financial security which (as with Social Impact Bonds) does not have to be of public sector origin. Marching over the cliff edge of front loaded spending cuts puts the framework at great risk.

Perhaps the localist approach of the Big Society is not so much an alternative to the traditional delivery of personal services as its natural successor, a future that was not fully grasped in the past.