'We've lost the art of prioritisation' - what public sector leaders think about the state of the State

As exclusive polling shows the public think there's an urgent need for reform in public services - but have little hope it will happen - what do public service leaders think about the state of the State? The anwer might suprise you
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By Charlotte Pickles

24 Jan 2024

What three words would you use to describe the current state of the State?

We asked over 100 public sector leaders – from senior civil servants to chief constables to NHS Trust chief execs. The most common answer, understandably, was “challenging”. But the second and third most used words might surprise you: “hopeful” and “opportunity”.

These reflect an anticipation that the coming year will create the conditions for a reset – that a new government, whatever the colour, can make a break from the reactive, crisis-driven policies made necessary by disruptions in recent years and set a more long-termist vision for public services.

The good news is that public sector leaders are ready to act. They understand the need for fundamental reform and they want the political leadership in place to drive it.

That, however, comes with a clear message: success means not just setting clear priorities, but actively deprioritising activities and expenditure that don’t fall within those remits. There was an overwhelming view that while successive governments have each laid out a new set of aspirations, these have invariably been added to existing activity.

As one senior civil servant put it: “Government’s problem is that it does too much. We don’t get to stop doing things that aren’t priorities, but they do slow down as we focus on delivering the government’s uber-priorities like the prime minister’s five pledges. Priorities are only added, never taken away.”

Another Whitehall official noted wryly that "we’ve had a sustained period of growth in the State and lost the art of prioritisation.” That means resources stretched ever thinner and delivery compromised. A more productive state means doing less, better.

While public sector leaders are hopeful for a reset, they are crystal clear that a new government will inherit public services under acute pressure and declining in quality, with a “money tree” that “looks empty”.

The optimism expressed is also, in part, a counter-balance to the idea that a “doom loop” has taken hold among public servants, where the focus is all on the negative, ignoring areas of real success. Shifting this negativity is seen as key to rebuilding morale among a workforce that is exhausted and feels undervalued.

The public, however, do not share that sense of optimism. Reform and Deloitte’s exclusive State of the State poll of almost 6,000 UK adults found a nation pessimistic about the future and government’s ability to improve it.

The cost of living and NHS waitlists were overwhelmingly the top two priorities for improvement in all four nations, yet just 17% think the former will improve over the next few years, and 13% the latter. In fact, more than half of those surveyed think they will get worse.

This likely links to the lack of faith in government: neither the UK government, nor those in the devolved nations scored positively on net trust measures. When asked whether they trusted the UK government to “deliver the outcomes you want”, for example, respondents gave Westminster a net trust score of almost minus 50.

Despite unprecedented waitlists, and pessimism that this will improve, the NHS continues to score well on trust, while police forces hover around neutral and local government scores in negative numbers.

When asked what people want from public services, the answer was tellingly basic: accessible, decent quality services that are accountable when things go wrong. Just 2% of people, unsurprisingly, said public services do not need improving.

Yet there is no consensus for increased spending. In fact, the public are divided on the question of tax and spend: 30% of people polled think the UK should aim for higher levels of public spending than at present, even if that means higher levels of tax and/or higher public borrowing, while 31% think the UK should aim for lower taxes and/or lower public borrowing than at present, even if that means lower levels of public spending.

Despite current discussions about tax cuts, few actually think the State will shrink in the next few years. Almost 60% of people expect spending to increase or stay the same, while 17% expect cuts. An incoming government has a tight fiscal path to walk.

All of this confirms what key metrics like wait lists, the public finances and major project RAG ratings show, the State is in poor health. Yet, as the polling shows, simply improving the basics can shift the dial on public perceptions. And with public leaders standing ready to reform, political leadership willing to be ruthless in its prioritisation can set Britain on a course to recovery.

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