Not enough holistic government here

August 7, 1998

Now we know which ministers have earned the order of the boot, and whose "old-fashioned sycophancy", as the prime minister so delicately puts it, has appealed to him most. The nation's views on reshuffles divide into two. There are gossips who really want to know what Peter Mandelson gets, and policy geeks who want to know whether it makes any difference to the way the country is misruled. Here is the case for the geeks.

What Mr Blair really ought to be rearranging is not "the" government, but government itself. He has promised us "joined-up government" - overcoming the departmental chimneys and holding government to account for outcomes rather than for administration of functions and professions. But, so far, we have not seen nearly enough of it. To be fair, the Social Exclusion Unit has put forward some good ideas on how to develop holistic solutions. And the much maligned David Clark, sacked from his Cabinet post as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last week, has championed the case for a powerful "better government" white paper with more vigour than was expected of him.

But the big disappointment was the comprehensive spending review. If joined-up government were on the menu we might have hoped for some big mainstream holistic budgets. A holistic budget would be allocated not to a department at all, but to a purchasing team charged with achieving certain outcomes with the powers to purchase packages across Whitehall, local government, quangos, the private and voluntary sectors. Only when we budget holistically for most of government will we be able to break the stranglehold of the professions and special interests within Whitehall and the local state. Imagine what could be done with a budget to buy learning from across the public and private sectors.

But Mr Brown gave us only a few small-scale experiments with holism, and effectively locked in most of government spending on the old functional model for the next three years.

Worse than that, by allowing the robber barons to audit themselves, he has left intact some of the worst offenders, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Embassies are supposed to be lobbyists for Britain. A radical spending review would have contracted out all the work of British embassies to local lobby firms, who would do the job much better.

Or take the NHS (please). It is still one of the worst and most wasteful managers of capital in the public sector. There is a variety of proposals around for reform. One of my favourites is from that former NHS Thatcherite, Roy Lilley. He argues for vesting all the assets in a professional privatised asset management company with powers to sell off, lease, redesign as necessary. He suggests it should be called Offsick plc. But, sadly, we got too little of this "what works" thinking from the not-so-Iron Chancellor.

Most of the holistic thinking in Mr Blair's government has been of the centralising kind. So, mega-departments have been created from mergers, and there is to be some strengthening of the Cabinet Office. But centralisation is at best only a small part of the holistic story. Often the most effective holistic work is being developed locally between the most imaginative local councils, health authorities, police forces, TECs, and others. The best of local government could teach Mr Blair something about how to do joined-up government, but Westminster and Whitehall are too proud to learn from the town hall.

"Enforcer" Jack Cunningham is beholden to the prime minster and is a political survivor who knows the Whitehall jungle well. If he can do it, Dr Cunningham will play a key role in defining what Blairism and the "third way" are for Perri 6 is director of policy and research at the independent think tank, Demos. His recent book "Holistic government" is available from Demos at Pounds 9.95 plus Pounds 1 p & p. Tel: 0171 353 4479.

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