Examination of Witnesses (Questions 151-200)
Q151 Chair: Welcome
to this session of the Public Administration Select Committee
on the Big Society. We very much want to concentrate on what this
means for the Government, and what Ministers and civil servants
should be doing, rather than dwell too much on the broader philosophical
questions raised by the Big Society. We do not think that as a
committee we will reach a massive amount of agreement on the more
political aspects of it, but will be able to agree on some recommendations
about how the administration should approach the issue. For the
record, may I welcome you and ask each to identify himself?
Adrian Brown: My
name is Adrian Brown and I am an associate at the Institute for
I am Andrew Haldenby, Director of Reform.
I am Gareth Davies, Head of the Office of Civil Society.
I am Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.
Q152 Chair: Thank
you very much indeed. What are the limits to the Government's
role in enabling the Big Society? Who would like to start?
Shall I start in terms of what we are doing both in the Cabinet
Office and around Whitehall more generally?
Chair: That would be very
As to how Ministers see the role of Whitehall in delivering the
Big Society, I would like to make three key points. First, it
is to do with one-off reforms, so effectively it is implementing
the coalition programme for Government. These are the reforms
that you see in the Localism Bill and the Department for Education
with free schools and academies. They are the one-off reforms
that Whitehall needs to make, effectively giving up the power
it used to have. The second thing is the opening up of the supply
of public services and diversity of supply. This is not about
moving necessarily just from the public to the private sector;
it is about moving to a range of providers to see who is best
suited to meet the needs of communities and individuals.
Q153 Chair: So,
that is about how to identify those best providers?
That is a commissioning role of Whitehall. A good example of that
is the work programme. Indeed, we are seeing a range of providers
being brought in300 from the voluntary and community sectors
and a couple of prime contractors. That is the second role. The
third role is a new one that is certainly different from some
of the skills we have seen in Whitehall over the last decade,
if not more. That is the mobilisation and incubation of new ideas.
Rather than taking power and solving problems ourselves in the
centre, it is about how we can help others, be they individuals
or businesses, to solve their own problems; it is about promoting
social action. It comes out of some of the theories of behaviour
change and nudge. We have the behaviour change unit in the Cabinet
Office. A good example of this is the recent work of the Department
of Health on preventative health. We have an agreement with a
number of food manufacturers to reduce salt content in food. For
example, Asda has reduced the advertising of alcohol at the front
of their stores but with a non-regulatory approach. So, it is
a corralling, supporting and helping people to solve their own
problems. Those are the three roles that we see in Whitehall.
Q154 Chair: Who
would like to critique that answer?
In a way, it is a pity that you are not having some conversation
about what the concept is, although I understand why after your
conversations at your last meeting you do not want to go there,
because one of the things Government has to do is define it in
a way that people understand. I think that is a weakness at the
moment. The Big Society brand has become toxic. Therefore, it
is quite difficult for Government to use their power to mobilise
energy both inside and outside Government when there is a lack
of clarity about the core concept. Government have to say what
it is. I say that as someone who has a very clear idea of what
it should be about, and who was and still is enthusiastic about
the concept as I see it.
Q155 Chair: We
have one question on this later on, and I suggest that we move
to that question now and get it out of the way. In a nutshell,
what is it? How should the Prime Minister more usefully describe
I left No. 10 five years ago. The first annual lecture that I
gave at the RSAI do one every year, and it is my fifth
tonightwas on what I called the social aspiration gap.
It is an ugly phrase. What I meant by it was that there is a gap
between the kind of future to which most people aspire and the
future they are likely to create if they carry on thinking and
behaving as they do now. If you like, this is a citizen-centric
idea of change. It understands that the problem for society is
how we encourage people to think and behave in ways they need
to if we want to create the kind of future we want. There is a
whole range of social problems from health to sustainability in
relation to lots of public services, for example, where it is
inconceivable that we can achieve our goals if people themselves
do not choose to behave differently. It was Labour that first
commissioned a report on behaviour change to start to explore
that question, and that work has continued. For me, the heart
of the Big Society is that insight. Government have to think very
hard about how they encourage people to be the individuals they
need to be to create the future they want. That is the starting
You then bring to that an idea that is broadly associated
with the left and the right. From the right it is a kind of critique
of central Government that there are lots of reasons why central
Government find it hard to achieve what they try to achieve. There
are systemic reasons why Government are not very good at engaging
with people and getting things right. From the left it is a recognition
that we are social animals, and that society and community matter
and we need collective capacity. I think all of that is rich and
important. As you heard in your last conversation, there are people
on the left and right who are interested in these ideas. I think
that is what it is about.
Briefly, I think the problem in relation to Government
is that they have lacked clarity as to what the concept is about
and have not told us how we would know it was happening. I think
that is a major problem for Government. I understand the worry
about having too many targetsunder Labour there were too
manybut to specify an objective but have no way to define
whether or not it is being achieved seems to me to be an abrogation
of accountability, and also it does not give public servants a
framework to understand what they are trying to achieve.
The third thing is that you need to make the concept
one that means something across Whitehall, where again I think
there is a real weakness. The contrast I would draw is with Tony
Blair's approach to public service reform, which, whether you
like it or not, had very strong core ideas. The core idea of public
service reform was: public services, because there is no competition
and profit, do not achieve the kinds of improvements in productivity
that are achieved in the private sector. Therefore, you have to
bring to the public sector pressures for improvement. The public
service reform model was a strategic centre, contestability in
provision, and voice and choice for consumers. That model was
applied in various ways to education and health, and there was
a kind of core to it that people understood. No. 10 basically
fought across Whitehall to try to get that model accepted in one
way or another with varying results. The Big Society does not
have that kind of adamantine centre to it that you could take
from department to department and say, "This is what it means
for you." That would enable No. 10, which I think is woefully
under-powered in driving this agenda, to have the kinds of battles
it needs to have across Whitehall to make the Big Society win
out across other views about power.
Q156 Chair: I
am keen to let the conversation flow for a minute and then I will
bring in one or two other colleagues. Mr Haldenby?
I very much agree with Matthew's point about the absence of clarity
about the idea. For example, one part of the Big Society in the
Government's view is opening up public service. It is something
we look at a lot. We have been expecting a White Paper on the
opening up of public services since January. The spending review
last October promised that White Paper in January. Then the Prime
Minister wrote an article in February to say it would be out within
two months, and it is still not out. Many people both within and
without Government are waiting for that, so that is another piece
of evidence that there is not an intellectual definition for the
idea. Particularly on the public services side, we have to observe
that the Government's position is changing. In particular, in
the case of the NHS the Government have gone from a position of
opening it up to competition with contestability within the NHS
to something now very different. We do not quite know what it
is going to be, but there will be much greater limits on that.
The Prime Minister's speech on Monday changed his position on
targets within the NHS. He said he was now willing to reconsider
central targets, for example on waiting times in the NHS, whereas
when in opposition the Conservative Party campaigned against targets
in public services. I think the Government are in retreat on public
service reform, which further confuses the picture on what the
Big Society is.
Adrian Brown: I
would agree with a lot of what has already been said. I will have
a crack at a simple definition and how I think about the Big Society,
which I suppose is from the perspective of someone in Whitehall
who is trying to make sense of it. It is the way that the Institute
for Government tries to think about things. Traditionally, the
state has thought of itself as deploying resources that have been
collected from the public in the best way to deliver public services
and the other things Government need to do. How can they deploy
those resources most efficiently and effectively to deliver the
services that they are asked to perform? I think the Big Society
challenges the notion of the finite resource pool that is available
to the state and says, "Think beyond just the money you have
in your hands to try to deliver these public services and about
the resources outside the state, be they from private individuals,
private companies, charities or whatever, to help with the ends
that the state is trying to achieve." So, it is expanding
the idea of what resources are available. If you take that definition
then the role of the state needs to be quite entrepreneurial.
Harvard Business School defines entrepreneurialism as the pursuit
of opportunity without regard to the resources that you currently
control. That is how the state and commissioners of public services
need to think. They need to think, "What are we trying to
achieve? What resources are available, whether or not they are
in my control, out in society? How can I put together a package
of resources that will enable those services to be delivered?"
Whether or not I control those becomes less important if I am
thinking more broadly and more entrepreneurially. I think that
is what the Big Society means.
Chair: We will come back
to the enabling question.
Q157 Paul Flynn:
Perhaps I may say what a pleasure it is to meet four zealots for
the Big Society. You are an endangered species, and we might not
get the opportunity again. Mr Taylor, you have described the situation
in Government as Cabinet Ministers laughing behind their hands
at the Big Society. If it was toxic, from this morning the toxicity
has probably become terminal, with the Archbishop of Canterbury
saying that Big Society is viewed as an opportunistic cover for
spending cuts. It was launched just under a year ago; it has been
re-launched four times. Francis Maude said that he would be prepared
to launch it 100 times before Christmas. Do you really believe
that you can continue to try to resuscitate a dead parrot?
This is going to be a difficult session if you think the four
of us have demonstrated that we are zealots for the Big Society.
Q158 Paul Flynn:
Well, you have.
That simply is not what we said. The core insight that for society
to flourish we need more capable and responsible citizens seems
to me one that will last beyond the Big Society, because it is
fundamentally true. If you look at a whole set of social challenges
it is impossible to see how they can be met without a more capable
and responsible citizenry. So, that is correct. For example, given
the kind of brutalism of the Conservative model and ideology of
the 1980s, it heartens me when David Cameron stands up in No.
10, as I heard him a few months ago, to say that the reason why
people should give more back to society is not simply that society
needs it, but that it is the path to living a more fulfilled life.
That seems to me to be a big step forward from the kind of homo
economicus view of the Thatcher period. I welcome that and think
it is an issue that any Government would have to address.
In relation to the Big Society project I think some
mistakes have been made. I do not want to go over the same ground,
but here are a couple of examples. I have already said that I
do not think No. 10 has driven the agenda hard enough and is now
beefing itself up. When I worked in No. 10 on public service reform
there was a strong sense of having to battle Whitehall departments,
which for various reasons did not want to be radical and do things
differently, and we were going in to fight. I do not think that
No. 10 has been fighting like that, to be frank. It is starting
to do so a bit more now, but I do not think it has. I am not sure
whether, given its current political difficulties, it will be
I also think that the mistake of the Big Society
was that, on the one hand it implied there was nothing going on
at the moment, which is nonsense and annoyed people, because obviously
there is a huge amount of what the Government term the Big Society
already going on, and then made a classic error. They should have
learned from Labour in this regard. What you need to do in politics
is under-promise and over-deliver. Of course, what happened with
the Big Society was the reverse. Ministers talked about the Big
Society as if it was something that would be created in the twinkling
of an eye. One simply had to withdraw public services and civil
society would flourish. The Big Society is a generational project.
Had I been in charge of No. 10's communication I would have said,
"The Big Society is something we are aiming to achieve over
the next 10 to 20 years. Everybody knows there is a lot we have
to try to do. The next two or three years as we change the state
will be very painful and difficult, and in many ways it will feel
like society is getting smaller but this is a transition we have
to go through." Unfortunatelypoliticians always fall
into thisthey could not avoid the hubris of saying, "We
are creating something amazing now that never existed before we
got into power." That has been disastrous.
Chair: I must ask you
to keep your answers shorter.
Q159 Paul Flynn:
Mr Taylor, I know that the last time you appeared before this
Committee you wrote an article that was very critical of our questions,
so we clearly decided to sharpen up this morning.
I shall do so again.
Q160 Paul Flynn:
Mr Davies, do you agree with that answer? Is it you who have fallen
out? Is it the Government who have made a hash of this in the
way it is communicated?
My responsibilities as head of the Office of Civil Society in
the Cabinet Office are for its policies on the Big Society, specifically
the National Citizen Service, community organisers, the Big Society
bank and mutuals among others. I agree with Matthew that this
is not going to happen over night; these reforms will take time
both in terms of formally putting through the reforms, for example
the Localism Bill is still going through Parliament, but also
in terms of the culture change that is needed in both Whitehall
and in the way policy is made. If you look at what is happening
now in Whitehall and compare it with 12 months ago, it is a very
different environment. Things have changed in terms of the use
of PSA targets, central initiatives and central intervention in
the front line, but the world has changed.
Paul Flynn: But have
you over-promised and under-delivered? The man who introduced
this, Lord Wei, has gone; you are attacked on all sides; you antagonised
84% of charities.
Q161 Chair: Let's
put that question to the other two witnesses.
Perhaps I may answer quickly on the idea that the Big Society
is a cover for cuts, which you mentioned in your first question.
I think that has also made life very difficult for the Government.
David Cameron said just the other day that the Big Society was
totally separate from the cuts. There is the deficit reduction
over here and the Big Society over here. I do not think that is
right, because when you look at what the Big Society is trying
to achieve, which is more open and efficient public services and
more devolved and accountable local Government that is careful
with its money, and more volunteering and social action, all of
those things should lead pretty directly towards lower public
spending. I think that is one reason why some people have become
very distrustful of this idea.
Q162 Paul Flynn:
Is it plausible for the Government to say they will give to charities
the relatively small amount of £100 million while taking
£1.3 billion from them? It is like someone putting a
couple of coppers in the collecting tin and stealing your wallet.
There is no comparison between the two. How can we possibly say
they are separate?
Chair: You have made the
As to charities, I think the trouble the Government have got themselves
into is that on public services they should be saying they are
in favour of competition and they will look for the best value
providers of whatever sector. But they have allowed themselves
to give the impression that really what they want are charitable
providers in preference to the public and private sectors. That
is a wrong position. The trouble is that once the Government are
in that position every contract that is lost to a charity looks
like a blow against the Big Society, but it should not be; the
Big Society should be about the best provision of services, whoever
Q163 Chair: Mr
Brown, do you have anything to add?
Adrian Brown: I
do not think it is a cover for cuts and the two are unrelated,
but unfortunately they are happening at the same time. It is like
organising a garden party and it turns out to be a rainy day.
It is unfortunate, but they will have to make the most of it.
The cuts make the Big Society agenda a lot more difficult. As
to whether they have over-promised and under-delivered, there
is some fairness in that. I would say that they vaguely promised,
in the sense there are a lot of vague statements about the Big
Society, but that makes it very hard to know whether you have
delivered, which I think reflects what Matthew said earlier.
I do not think it is a cover for cuts. However, I think it has
been injudicious of Ministers to acclaim that if you withdraw
the public sector civil society steps into the breach, because
there is absolutely no evidence anywhere in the world that public
services and civil society are, as it were, a zero sum game.
Q164 Chair: We
do accept the reverse, don't we? If the Government take over too
much responsibility, it crowds out that civil society.
I think we can absolutely accept that there are good and bad empowering
and bureaucratic ways of providing public services, but as to
the idea I have heard Ministers sometimes suggest, that simply
withdrawing one means the other will flourish, there is no evidence
from around the world that it has ever taken place in that way.
Chair: I am not sure whether
I have heard Ministers say it in those terms.
Q165 Robert Halfon:
I do not think Ministers have. They may have said things privately
to you but I do not think that has been the public message. To
go back to what you said about the Big Society, you gave a very
academic explanation that the ordinary person in the street would
not necessarily understand. Surely, a simple way of explaining
it is that it is about building social capital, devolving power
to people, that people power is as important as state power, if
not more important, and boosting, encouraging and liberating social
entrepreneurs from regulation and red tape. That is quite a simple
way of explaining it. If you look at a lot of the policies that
are coming through I accept there are many inconsistencies, but
if you consider education and free schools, the thrust of the
NHS about GP commissioning, whether or not you agree with it,
and the question of electing police commissioners, all those are
about social capital, social entrepreneurship and people power.
In that sense I question your view that the Big Society has very
little impact on Government policy. Despite the very many inconsistencies,
there is a general thrust and a lot of stuff is going on that
is very much Big Society.
That is a very interesting question. You suggest I am being too
academic. I have to say that the concept of social capital is
a profoundly academic concept that has been subject to a library
of in-depth analysis. None of these concepts is easy.
Q166 Robert Halfon:
But if I knocked on someone's door and was asked to explain social
capital, it just means building and strengthening community.
But I think what you are doing is reifying means over ends. Why
do we want social enterprises, mutuals and social capital? Do
we want these things as goods in themselves? We do, but that is
not what interests me. What interests me is what I would describe
as a social emergency, which isI am sorry if it is academic
but I will make sure I make it as non-academic as I canthat
unless we have a citizenry that is more engaged, resourceful and
inclined to be pro-social we will not advance as a society. I
can explain why that is if you want me to, but there is a whole
variety of areas. Let's look for example at social care. We are
basically withdrawing support from older, vulnerable people and
now providing support only to those with incredibly severe difficulties.
I do not think any Government will be able to solve that issue
unless they massively increase public spending, and that will
not happen under any Government for many years. The answer to
this problem has to be that somehow society itself provides that
kind of support and steps up to the plate.
Q167 Chair: As
indeed it already does in a vast number of cases, because families
look after their elderly.
Absolutely, but unfortunately not sufficiently and the level of
support varies from place to place. There is a very major problem
of isolation among older people. What drives this for me is the
notion of how you enable people and create a more capable and
responsible citizenry and all the other things, the means. I would
judge the Government's reforms on that criterion.
Q168 Chair: On
Is this reform likely to create more responsible and capable citizens?
When it comes to schools reform, for example, my view is that
the priority is how schools engage parents and communities. How
do schools become hubs for creating and learning communities?
My criticism of the emphasis on free schools and academiesI
am not opposed to them; I worked for a Government that introduced
academiesis that I do not see the particular connection
between free schools and academies, and what seems to me to be
the core, which is how schools can engage much more broadly with
their communities and act as community assets and hubs for community
engagement. I would say exactly the same about the health service
reforms. How are these health service reforms going to encourage
people to look after their health better and to be more fully
engaged in health and social care? I do not see a connection between
the forms and the ultimate objective.
Q169 Robert Halfon:
I would like to hear Mr Haldenby in a minute. The answer is very
simple: the free schools and academies give parents and individuals
the power to set up their own schools, so you are devolving power
away from Government to individuals, which is a core component
of the Big Society.
If you look at academies, do they feel like institutions that
are more accountable and responsive? I am afraid that academies
bring contestability to the system. They are a good thing if a
school is failing to challenge and change, and also tackle local
authorities that have not dealt with under performance, but in
my experience academies are no more in touch with the community
and parents than any other school; in many cases they are less
Robert Halfon: We can
have this argument.
Q170 Chair: I
think you will have to agree to disagree. Move on, please.
May I come back to your thought that there is a coherent Government
policy heading in the direction of decentralisation? I do not
agree with that. Of course, there is evidence of decentralisation,
but also evidence of great centralisation wherever you want to
look. To take schools, let's imagine that at the end of this Parliament
there are 200 free schools and even 2,000 academies that are free
from the national curriculum, which is one of their great freedoms.
There will be 19,000 state schools in this country, which are
subject to the national curriculum. It is a much tougher national
curriculum, which, as far as we can see, is more fiercely imposed.
There will still be the national pay arrangements in place for
the teaching work force. As we learned on Monday, the Government
are now open again to national targets in the NHS. There are still
national pay agreements in the NHS. The only public-sector workforce
that is likely to be opened up or liberalised is the police force
with Tom Winsor's review. It is very difficult to see a convincing
case for the Big Society when the picture is very contradictory.
Q171 Robert Halfon:
There is an incremental shift away from centralisation although
it does not achieve everything you would want ideologically, and
it makes it that much easier for the second wave in years to come.
The policy is very much about incremental reform, and the incremental
shift on some of these things is away from the centre.
I think that is an interesting idea. It has been said to me, for
example, that social enterprises, mutuals, are the thin end of
the wedge, which will allow other kinds of providers, particularly
private sector ones, to come in later. The other side of it is
that there is such a thing as half-way house reform where you
introduce a limited micro-reform. It does not turn out to be the
thin end of the wedge; opposition amasses around it and it is
just squashed. Examples of that would be the assisted places scheme,
which was a valuable scheme to open up access to independent schools
to a few thousand pupils. That was abolished in 1997. Grant-maintained
schools were heavily watered down in 1997. The academies themselves
had a lot of their freedoms removed by the previous Government
in 2007 and 2008. Therefore, the idea that just a bit of incremental
change here is the way to get there in the end is not the history
of these reform initiatives.
Q172 Nick de Bois:
I have often been on the receiving end of interviews to try to
explain or defend the Big Society. I thought I was doing a good
job until I listened to all of you. Before I go any further, just
to be absolutely secure, recently I had a very nice dinner with
Andrew Haldenby and Reform. I would just like that to be on the
record. The Big Society has been criticised for being vague, all
over the place and almost based on anecdotal evidence to which
Mr Taylor himself referred. Does that mean you think it is a failure
of presentation more than failure of the idea? To begin with,
can I be certain of where you are coming from on that point, Mr
For me, it is lack of clarity about the fundamental mechanisms
by which we try to diffuse power in society. That is about the
mechanisms in Government, but also, as Lord Glasman said to you
when he was here, there is a story beyond that about the diffusion
of power, for example in relation to markets and corporations.
When we look at the question of academies, there is an argument
that if you want to diffuse power you need to create alternative
power bases to central Government. The Government's localism agenda
is very ambivalent about this because, instead of creating a strong
local Government that has the power to stand up to central Government,
as happens in many European countries, as an alternative democratic
power base, they are largely bypassing local Government. In certain
areas, to take the Department for Education, they continue to
be deeply hostile to local government. If we go back to the issue
of centralisation, a few years ago in the local authority model,
the local authority, which is democratically accountable, intervened
if a school was failing. When we have 2,000 academies and one
fails who will intervene? Whitehall will intervene. This is an
interesting idea of decentralisation. We now have 2,000 schools,
which, if they fail, will require direct intervention from Whitehall
rather than their local authority. What is our notion of devolving
power? Is it to atomise power and drive it down to neighbourhoods
and have different accountability for police and health, with
lots and lots of different forms of accountability, or is it an
alternative model where we have other strong institutions that
can stand up to central Government, which is the more traditional
notion of pluralism, for example? This is one of a variety of
errorscontracting, which we have heard about, is another
onewhere it is just not clear what the mechanism is.
Chair: We have got your
message: it is not clear. We are going to come to both contracting
and devolution. Do you want to follow up on anything?
Q173 Nick de Bois:
I am trying to get a slightly fuller answer to my question. To
be quite basic about this, is it a failure of idea or presentation?
I will ask this question of another witness, but, to expand on
my point, some talk about it taking 10 or 15 years. You are trying
to achieve almost a cultural change. I would just like to know
whether it is a failure of presentation or idea. Mr Haldenby?
I have to echo something Matthew said earlier. There has been
a lot of failure of presentation so far on a couple of things.
One is the cuts to which I referred earlier. The separation has
not been convincing.
Chair: We have taken that
But the Government have also claimed credit for a lot of things
that have already happened and put a Big Society badge on it.
For example, about a dozen Big Society awards have been given
to organisations, some of which were set up years ago. It is rather
implausible. It is as if the Government are saying that they have
created the idea of a Big Society and have found something that
has nothing to do with it
Q174 Chair: Perhaps
Mr Davies can answer that point.
I think this comes back to the earlier question about whether
the Big Society is a year zero concept or building on a sense
of tradition, culture and history of volunteering and social action?
What the Prime Minister is saying is that this is his vision for
domestic policy. It touches on pushing down power in different
ways, be it to local Government but also individuals in the form
of the personal budget or an individual's choice of public services
and opening it up. I do not think there is a presumption about
one sector being better than another; it is about the appropriateness
in that individual area. On the specific point about Big Society
awards, all we are trying to do here is give more recognition
to the good work that is going on already. It is certainly not
trying to take credit as an official but to give credit to the
good work that is going on in society today.
Nick de Bois: Perhaps
I may move on because I am conscious of the time. Let's talk about
opening up the public services and the commissioning aspect.
Chair: Can we come back
to that later?
Nick de Bois: I thought
that was my next role.
Chair: Perhaps we may
go back to enabling.
Q175 Lindsay Roy:
The Prime Minister described civil servants as enemies of enterprise.
Whether or not you accept that, clearly there is an expectation
of some cultural and behavioural change within the Civil Service.
What is being done to strengthen that role in terms of empowering
and being catalytic within the whole programme? Clearly, if there
is no change in the role of the Civil Service we have a real problem.
I come back to the point I made earlier about how our role has
changed in the last 12 months. If you look back at the differences,
we have now abolished the PSA target regime; we no longer have
the large numbers or extent of central intervention from Whitehall
in frontline public services. For example, DCSF would have had
large numbers of teams directly intervening on a day-to-day basis
in the activities of schools. There is now a much greater presumption
about the competence and abilities of head teachers to run their
own schools, for example. The third thing is that we have abolished
far more ring-fenced grants and direct central initiatives. That
was very much the culture in the last 10 or 20 years.
Q176 Lindsay Roy:
You are focusing on roles. I understand devolution. What about
the skills and attitudinal change, which I would have thought
I wanted to emphasise how the fundamental powers and roles have
shifted. You are entirely right that it is a big cultural change.
Shifting from that mentality of running targets, interventions
and grants is very different from one that is more to do with
one-off reforms, commissioning and having strategic management
of a wide range of providers in different sectors, and an enabling,
corralling and incubating role, which effectively is entrepreneurial.
We are at the foothills of that. In previous evidence sessions
of this Committee you heard from Gus O'Donnell and Ian Watmore
about the needs for a diverse range of skills, one that does not
emphasise, if you like, lifelong civil servants but people with
greater commercial skills from different backgrounds and a more
permeable professional organisation that is smaller but operates
much more horizontally, rather than working through the silos
of the departments across Whitehall.
Chair: I think this goes
to the real crunch of how Whitehall should enable everything that
Q177 Lindsay Roy:
So, is there a professional development programme for civil servants?
Over the last year a number of things have been started. I am
not trying to say this is finished; it is a start.
Q178 Lindsay Roy:
Is it systematic?
Yes. For example, with Robert Devereux, head of policy development
in Whitehall, I have been running a series of sessions with senior
civil servants and policy makers about the new way of approaching
policy. So, rather than defaulting back to an initiative announced
in the Budget, a ring-fenced pot, a target or an NDPB, we are
asking first how we can help society solve its own problems and
help businesses, communities and families to come together and
go with the grain.
Chair: But how much of
Whitehall is actually preoccupied with this? How much of Whitehall
is just keeping its head down and waiting for this idea to blow
over so it can go back to what it was doing before?
Q179 Robert Halfon:
Is there a Big Society impact assessment on all Government policies
coming through individual departments?
I think this comes back to some of the points that Matthew and
other people giving evidence here today have made. To what extent
is this a stand-alone initiative, or is it something that describes
the totality of what the domestic policy reforms are about? We
take the coalition document as our guide and the policies are
set out there. Our role as civil servants is to implement that
coalition document as set out in the business plans. They are
monitored by No. 10 and the Treasury, and that is the test about
whether these policies are being implemented at the start. There
are then further evaluations about their impact on behaviour change,
people's perceptions about power, trust, control and knowledge
of their community, but ultimately that feeds into what the Prime
Minister has talked about on a number of occasions: the idea of
well-being, in the sense that we may be richer as a country.
Q180 Chair: We
are getting back to the conceptual things; we need to talk about
who is doing what. When a civil servant comes into the office
at nine o'clock in the morning, what will he do differently that
will enable the Big Society?
On "the enemies of enterprise", I think the Prime Minister
can only have meant that, after a period of time in power, he
had started a number of things in train that just were not happening.
Paul Flynn: A big number.
He felt that the Civil Service or Whitehall machine, whatever
you want to call it, was not giving him the support. I think the
question then is: what have the Government done to make the Whitehall
machine more directly accountable to Ministers? I think this Committee
has discussed before the initiative, for example, to make departmental
boards accountable to secretaries of state and, in the last resort,
to allow permanent secretaries to be able to be moved by those
boards if Ministers felt they were not getting enough support.
That would be an example of the kind of radical reform that would
give Ministers the chance to shift the enemies of enterprise,
but it would seem to me that that reform has not come to any great
fruition so far.
Q181 Robert Halfon:
Should there be a Big Society impact assessment on all domestic
Government policies coming through Whitehall?
What would you measure?
Q182 Robert Halfon:
You have set the definitions of the Big Society.
The Government have abolished two or three of the obvious things.
They have abolished two or three measures that would be the obvious
thing you would measure if you were trying to work out whether
there was a Big Society growing. They have done that for reasons
of spending cuts, which is fine, but the kind of granular information
about neighbourhoods, for example, that the Government used to
collect is no longer being collected. So, I am not sure how you
would conduct such an impact assessment either in terms of conceptwhat
it is we are measuring hereor in terms of the actual metrics,
which are no longer there.
Q183 Chair: I
want to wrap this up. Mr Taylor, you have noted that this means
a much changed task for civil servants. We are all agreed that
potentially there is a vast untapped resource out there of good
will and energy, which the state on its own tends to ignore. How
does the Whitehall machine engage this in order to deliver what
we all want to see, which is a more motivated citizenry?
I think it means that departments have to have a very clear account
of what the Big Society means to them. In a way they do, but the
problem is that these accounts do not marry with each other. To
take an example, in the police reforms the account seems to be,
"We need to challenge professionals," whereas in the
health service the account seems to be, "We need to give
all the power to professionals." In the schools system it
is, "Let's give the power to the parents," but actually
it will probably be giving power to head teachers. I think that
civil servants are at a loss. They know that the old days have
gone, and in some ways they welcome that; they understand the
madness of too many targets and interventions, but what they do
not understand is the driving logic of what they are trying to
do now. They understand what the Minister wants. Also, departments
at the moment and for the last year have been driven much more
by the Treasury than No. 10. The Treasury does not even bother
to use the words "Big Society"; it is utterly dismissive
of the idea.
Q184 Chair: Is
not the problem that people have become very disillusioned with
the long screwdriver management by the Treasury, understandably,
but will an attempt to create a different blueprint for all public
servicesor a pan-governmental business planso there
is a uniform philosophical approach really work, Mr Haldenby?
Hold on. You are giving the impression that you want to replace
one centralised form of Government with another, but that is not
the point. Surely, it is possible to have a coherent view of the
reform of public services, for example, that is consistent in
its direction. I think the Government's argument has been, as
Mr Halfon said, that there is a consistent direction across the
piece, but actually there are contradictions. Matthew mentioned
a couple of those. I said earlier that I thought the pullback
on the NHS reforms had put a big question mark over the whole
Q185 Chair: Is
not a fundamental problem with the Big Society that it means different
things in different Government departments and policies, which
is inevitable, and it is not about a top-down approach? You cannot
have a business plan for something that ultimately is not meant
to be implemented by Whitehall?
I do not agree with that.
Q186 Chair: It
does need a business plan?
It needs direction and leadership; it needs a set of policies
that are consistent and mutually supportive. If a business plan
means a sense of when those policies will be implemented, what
they are and when they are coming of course that is possible.
The Government have already introduced departmental plans that
lay out those milestones. The problem is that they are not consistent.
That is why I think the whole thing does not hang together.
Perhaps I may make this very concrete. There is an example of
a public service that has gone from one that was simply delivered
to one that is now coproduced, but people never recognise
which one it is: refuse collection. 20 or 30 years ago we would
just stick our rubbish in the bin and the council would deal with
it. Now more and more people sort their rubbish into different
piles. We probably spend more time managing our own refuse than
the council. People are happy with that, basically; they see the
reason for it and do it. Young people in particular nag their
parents to make sure they recycle. For me, the Big Society should
be about how it is that in other public services we reconceptualise
them, not as services where we deliver to people but where the
value is jointly created by the public sector and citizens individually
and collectively. That seems to me to be at the very heart of
this concept, but I do not see that notion being applied across
Whitehall. I see some departments that may be slightly interested
in that but for other departments there does not seem to be an
interest in it at all. For example, it does not seem to me that
the Department for Education is in the slightest bit interested
in parental engagement apart from a handful of free schools, which,
as Andrew said, will be at the very margins of the system. Anyway,
even with the creation of the free schools, it is not clear that
parental involvement continues beyond that. If a school is created,
it is then handed over to the head teacher.
Q187 Chair: I
think we are on to the nub of something. Before we go on to commissioning,
are there any other comments on this particular matter? Mr Brown,
you have not said very much.
Adrian Brown: The
idea that the Big Society does not need a plan, which was in the
air at the beginning of the Big Society last year, and it is just
organic and evolutionarythat in fact a plan is counter
to the essence of the Big Societyis a mistake. Not to have
an idea where you are going and how you will get there with anything
will lead to disappointment.
Q188 Chair: Is
this what we expect the White Paper on the future of public services
Adrian Brown: I
think we all look forward to reading the White Paper when it comes
With baited breath.
Adrian Brown: Maybe
that will provide a more coherent vision across the piece as to
what the Big Society implies. But I think the important point
is that there is an enormous diversity of public services, from
the management of something like Jobcentre Plus, which is a giant
organisation delivering services out there in communities, to
something that is a lot more about citizens engaging directly,
and perhaps handing over powers to non-state actors. It is a mistake
to suggest that everything should be following the same set of
rules and there is a simple blueprint that all policymakers across
Whitehall can follow. But I do not think anyone believes that
that is the case. Where people in Whitehall are struggling, if
you went down the corridor and asked the average policy maker,
is that they are not quite sure how to interpret that high-level
vision that they hear in the speeches into the realities that
they are dealing with as policy makers. If they are looking at
schools or whatever, what should they do?
Q189 Paul Flynn:
This is déjà vu about the last Government. We talked
about leaving one sense of madness. We are picking up another
range of madness, launching something and a year later deciding
to get a plan for it. It sounds awfully like the Third Way. Does
anyone believe that that was a great success? Is the Big Society
to be buried, forgotten and friendless?
The Third Way was very different from the Big Society.
Q190 Paul Flynn:
Chair: We do not want
to have a debate about the Third Way.
I can deal with it in one sentence. I did know that it was coming
up and so I have prepared. The Third Way was an attempt to redefine
social democracy and say that it had to respond to major changes
in the world, like globalisation, decline of deference and individualism.
Therefore, Anthony Giddens and other people believed that fundamentally
it was about rethinking social democracy for a modern age. Therefore,
it was a very political project. It seems to me that the Big Society
is not a way of redefining politics, although some people in the
Conservative Party would argue about this; it is trying to get
to the heart of a major social problem. I think it is right in
its diagnosis. The problem is that its prescription is, as economists
would say, not good enough to be wrong.
Q191 Nick de Bois:
Turning to commissioning, if we are to open up public services
to social enterprises, charities and private companiesI
hopethe question must be: is Whitehall ready and skilled
enough to be able to do this? There is thinking about whether
the Whitehall commissioners are currently prepared and have been
empowered to commission services from smaller organisations and
charities, which they have not really been dealing with. That
is a big change. I would be interested in your views, Mr Davies.
I make a couple of points. Certainly, in my time in Whitehall
over the last 10 years there has been increased professionalisation
of the procurement and commercial functions for commissioning.
There has been a big improvement, certainly in professional recognition.
If you think about improving the skill sets of the Civil Service,
it is important to get the incentives right. Certainly, the quality
of people who are being brought in now is a step ahead of where
we were a decade ago. That is a start. There certainly needs to
be greater awareness of the diverse range of providers on whom
you can call. A lot of the EU rules on procurement and the use
of framework contracts, PQQs and the like do tend to bias you
towards the larger players. This is not a question of preferring
one sector over another but ensuring there is a proper level playing
field and competitive neutrality. You can look at what DWP has
done through implementation of what they call the Merlin standards,
which is about how subcontractors are dealt with as part of the
work programme, and similarly the Compact, which is about how
Government generally relate to the third sector. These are the
ways in which we can try to improve awareness and understanding.
Q192 Nick de Bois:
To interrupt you on that point, I want to be clear I understand
it. Are you saying that what we may end up with are social enterprises
or small private companies being second or third tier contractors,
and is that necessarily the right thing?
If we look at the example of the work programme of my colleagues
in DWP, two of the prime contractors are from the VCSE, the voluntary
sector. However, 300 organisations are subcontractors. Depending
on the different roles and the strength of the balance sheets
needed to manage payment-by-results contracts, that is probably
appropriate. The key is to make sure that relationships work appropriately.
Certainly, in our Green Paper on modernising commissioning we
have some feedback on ensuring that the relationships are right,
and the ways those are managed are very important.
It is a new set of skills. No one would saycertainly
Gus O'Donnell would notthat the skills are there in Whitehall
yet. However, there is some very interesting work going on. If
we talk about the work I have seen in Blackburn and what Turning
Point is doing in relation to local integrated commissioning,
that is about community-level commissioning. Rather than it being
set up by central Government or even local Government, it is small
neighbourhoods saying what services they want. This goes back
to Matthew's point about coproduction. There is a range
of initiatives going on at the moment. Have these matured? No,
but it is certainly a start.
May I just say why I think this is difficult? I have spoken to
people at No. 10 who recognise this is a very difficult issue.
They are looking for new forms of commissioning and to find ways
to make it easier for third sector organisations to win out. They
are also desperately keen to try to get the whole payment-by-results
systems to work, but it turns out this is very, very difficult.
Even the one social impact bond that is being created is proving
to be incredibly difficult to get off the ground. There is a real
appetite in No. 10, but the solutions are quite a long way away.
I give you an example in one sentence of why it is
difficult. When we in No. 10 opened up the health service to contestability
we knew we had to create surplus capacity, so in a sense we had
to waste money. It was quite explicit that we had to create surplus
capacity in order to bring contestability into the system. If
you want to promote the third sector probably you have to do something
similar. The easy way to do it is to say, "We will over-procure
in order to give these players, who may be suboptimal, a
way in so they can develop and grow." But there is no extra
money for suboptimality. When you look at the work programme,
it is pretty clear that in the end the ones that won the contracts
were those that discounted. It was all done on discounting; that
was what drove it. Therefore, if you want the third sector to
win contracts you have to do something at a system level. Merlin
and these other contracts are fine, but either you have to change
the rules, which is hard for a variety of reasons, or in some
way you have to capture what the third sector brings within the
contract. Somehow you have to specify in the contract so that
what the third sector has gives it an advantage. Gareth will know
that these were very hard to do.
Q193 Nick de Bois:
To dig a little deeper, if I was running a charity or a social
enterprise with a group of volunteers my chances of winning a
bid would be pretty slim because my balance sheet would be rubbish
and I would probably have no working capital. If it is payments
by results it will come rather late in the day. Do you agree with
that view, Mr Brown? I will come back to you, Mr Davies.
Are you anticipating that problem? Have you got any plans to say
anything about that?
Adrian Brown: I
think that is a struggle for small organisations, whether or not
they are social enterprises. The Big Society bank, which I am
sure Gareth will talk about, is designed to start addressing that
Q194 Nick de Bois:
On commercial terms we anticipate, don't we?
Adrian Brown: On
commercial terms, but with an emphasis on delivering to organisations
that perhaps would not find that financing from regular sources.
To go back to your question, you referred to Whitehall commissioners.
Within the context of this conversation, obviously there are lots
of places where commissioning or commissioning-like activity is
happening not in Whitehall, and presumably the Big Society would
encourage this. It is happening at a local level, or individuals
are commissioning their own services. There is a lot of interesting
potential in those kinds of new mechanisms for commissioning,
which are more likely to mean the kinds of organisations that
you are talking about being involved in public service delivery.
I make three quick points. First, it is important to get the specification
right at the start. Bad procurement and commissioning is when
you look just for the cheapest option. Some of the work we are
now doing across Whitehall is to ensure we can improve the quality
of commissioning and get the service specification right. It is
not just about the individual service but the wider benefits it
brings. Secondly, there will be different ways of contracting
with different organisations. Some smaller organisations will
be subcontracting. The key is to make sure those rules are right
and the procurement is effective. If you look at what Cruise are
doing in North West Wales, that is quite small scale in terms
of that branch but they will then partner with others who can
have the balance sheet risk.
Thirdly, in terms of trying to broaden access to
social finance some of the ideas around social impact bonds are
incredibly innovative, but there is a real potential to change
the way in which smaller charities can access finance. The Big
Society bank will play a critical role in this. There will be
different ways in which it will provide capital. Sometimes it
will be long-term working capital, equity investments and different
types of debt structures. It would be for Ronnie Cohen to work
his way through that in terms of the details. We will be coming
forward with that over the coming months. But that will give opportunities
for different finance that may not be available from the more
standard commercial lenders.
Q195 Nick de Bois:
Is there any evidence to suggest that it is not working at the
It is a mixed picture. If you look at some of the success, for
example the DWP work programme, 300 voluntary groups have won
parts of subcontracting work. We are looking at getting about
£600 million into the sector through those contracts that
were competitively tendered. But in our feedback from the commissioning
Green Paper there is some concern about how those roles work out
in practice to make sure those relationships operate. It is certainly
something about which I am concerned. I am working with colleagues
in commissioning and procurement in Cabinet Office to think through
how this works in practice. There was an event on 11 February
where the Prime Minister and Minister for the Cabinet Office went
through some of the reforms to help expand commissioning opportunities
for those small businesses and the voluntary sector and the reform
of procurement rules. We are looking to abolish the PQQ, pre-qualification
phase, for some of the smallest contracts, frankly to take some
of the bureaucracy out of it, and look at ways in which we can
parcel up those contracts.
Q196 Nick de Bois:
I am all for taking bureaucracy out of it. Mr Haldenby, would
it worry you if social enterprises were given a competitive advantage
over, say, private sector companies in view of the fact that financially
they might be lacking in assets but might have some intangible
assets that were considered to be of greater value?
I think the Government have to decide on the purpose of commissioning.
Is it to get the best services delivered for the best value or
to build a certain network of suppliers in a way that is very
neatly specified from the centre?
Q197 Chair: Can
you separate those two?
Yes. Not so long ago there was the leak of a memo of a meeting
between Francis Maude and the CBI. Francis Maude said that, although
the Government spoke about open competition in public services,
in practice they were not in favour of outsourcing services to
the traditional big outsourcing companies; they wanted new ideasmutuals,
social enterprises and so on.
Q198 Chair: That
is because the present delivery model is very blunt and quite
difficult. We have seen this in other areas where very large contracting
organisations form an oligopoly that does not provide enough competition
But in some cases those organisations deliver outstanding performance.
Last year the Guardian's public servant of the year was
the governor of Doncaster prison, which happens to be run by Serco.
I have no brief for Serco, but that is just a fact. It is true
that all markets could be competitive, but I think the outsourcing
market is competitive. I would challenge the idea that it is completely
Q199 Chair: Mr
de Bois, I am sorry to interrupt your line of questions. Referring
to the whole question of profit and not for profit, we know that
polling shows that not for profit is nice and if people make profit
out of things they are not nice, but is it a mistake to get into
a rather poll-driven delivery model and be over-obsessed with
not-for-profit organisations? I see Mr Taylor nodding, which is
Yes, because I think it goes back to what I have been trying to
say throughout, which is: what is the objective you are trying
to achieve here? If, as I have been asserting throughout, the
objective is about encouraging people to be more responsible and
capable, there is no intrinsic reason why the third sector is
better at that than the private sector or public sector, or that
local Government is better than central Government. It depends
upon the model of delivery and your objectives.
I am quite sceptical about the idea that ownership
in itself matters. Would you rather your car was repaired by four
blokes, one of whom owns the garage and the other three work for
him but they like cars, or by a mutual of four people none of
whom is interested in cars and will rip you off? Would you say,
"It does not matter if my car does not work because at least
it was done by a mutual"? What matters is the way you specify
what you are trying to achieve and the delivery mechanism.
Of course, because third sector organisations are
not ultimately driven by profit they have greater scope for engagement
and a more open-ended relationship with people, so there are reasons
to believe but it needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
As we saw from building societies a few years ago, the fact that
you have a particular structure does not necessarily mean anything
about the way power is distributed in that organisation.
On the mutuals and social enterprises side, we should not let
Government get away with the idea that this is a new idea that
will potentially be transformative. We have been here before.
In the first term of the previous Government there was a whole
host of discussion about new organisational forms and community
interest companies. Indeed, units were set up in the Cabinet Office
to advance this idea. Transformation did not happen. I just want
to give a sense of the history and suggest that specifying those
particular delivery models does seem to be a genuinely odd option.
Chair: We will come to
more mutuals in a minute.
Q200 Robert Halfon:
Going back to contracting charities regarding the Big Society,
how do you stop the whole thing being hijacked by the big ones,
like the Tesco charities, which are inevitably much better at
lobbying for funds from the Big Society bank? A little charity
in my constituency will have little idea about approaching the
Big Society bank. Is not one possible great flaw in all this that
it will be just the big charities that benefit from the Big Society
Adrian Brown: My
understanding is that the Big Society bank will not lend directly
to charities but to intermediaries who will then work with charities.
My understanding of what the Big Society bank is trying to achieve
is that it will have a whole range of intermediaries who can work
with larger charities but also smaller ones.
Chair: We all know that
contracting with central Government, or indeed local Government,