I worked for Blair's Delivery Unit – trust me that the next government needs a new approach to reform

Top-down targets simply don’t release the creativity and compassion in our public servants that all of us are going to depend on, writes a former perm sec
Today’s economic climate is so much worse than 1997, when Blair became PM. Photo: Dan White/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jonathan Slater

06 Jun 2024


As Labour looks likely to take office again, many are returning to what they were up to two decades ago for ideas. After all, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get hospital treatment within 18 weeks again, or the council services we used to rely upon hadn’t been closed down?

After more than a decade of austerity, vast swathes of our public services are now broken, or teetering on the edge, as is clearly evident when a chief inspector warns of "high-risk prisoners" being released early because prisons are overflowing.

Looking back, many of New Labour’s improvements relied on a combination of money and "deliverology", with top-down targets, cascaded down to the front-line, at its heart. But that approach isn’t going to work this time. Partly because today’s economic climate is so much worse than 1997’s, and money will be tighter as a result. But also because getting out of the mess we’re in now will require all the ingenuity, commitment and skill of hundreds and thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers and so many others, doing the very best they can to help the public they serve improve their lives. Top-down targets simply don’t release the creativity and compassion in our public servants that all of us are going to depend on.

So what’s the answer? There is a new approach to public services emerging organically across the country, from Gateshead to Wigan, Barking and Dagenham to Plymouth, with new models that liberate public servants and local communities to work together to help citizens meet their needs. To take just one example, caseworkers in Gateshead are supported to take whatever action (within the law) they think is necessary to help vulnerable people deal with the challenges they face, rather than applying a bureaucratic assessment regime. And the results have been impressive, including reduced attendance at A&E, lower levels of debt, and better attendance at school.

We need a government which will enable and support this kind of innovation - helping public servants to learn from each other how to do the best they possibly can, rather than trying to micro-manage them. Working with Demos’s Future Public Services Taskforce, which brings together an inspiring and diverse group of people working hard to make a positive difference in their local communities, I’ve helped develop a new vision for public services – published last week – which sets out a new balance of duties between politicians, professionals and citizens, where responsibility is shared and individuals are liberated from the shackles of old agendas. 

Whoever wins the next election must resist the urge to ram through a top-down reform agenda from the centre, but instead ask: what can we do in Whitehall to support innovation and learning? How do we unlock the passion of public servants who have had to cope with so much in recent years? How do we help them genuinely connect with the citizens they serve?

Reform is crucial, as Blair understood in 1997, and we can be inspired by his zeal - but a very new approach is required in 2024. 

Jonathan Slater was permanent secretary at the Department for Education from 2016-2020

Share this page