Heywood has helped integrate tech progress into policy decisions, says Willetts

Debate on how to deliver public services hears that the era of choice and competition may be coming to an end


By Richard Johnstone

26 Jan 2018

Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood deserves credit for integrating technological process into Whitehall policy discussions, former government minister David Willetts has said.

Speaking at an Institute for Government event on how to run public services on Wednesday evening, Lord Willetts, who served as paymaster general in John Major’s government in 1996 and then as universities and science minister under the coalition government from May 2010 to July 2014, said he had became “a bit of a technophile”, and that the technological and digital revolution was increasingly going to affect public services.

Heywood, who has been cabinet secretary since 2012, deserves credit for embracing this shift, he told attendees.


“I would observe in Whitehall, and I would give Jeremy Heywood quite a bit of credit for this, we have shifted from the assumption that technology was fixed for the time horizon of any real policy decision that you have to take," he said. "I would say the assumption is now a very different one: that technological advance is sufficiently rapid, is sufficiently relevant, that it is likely to be part of the solution to any acute policy dilemma that you face. And in particular, most relevant from the technological revolution, is the massive amount of new data that becomes available once you have more online interactions.”

This “transforms policymaking”, said Willetts, opening up more possibilities for fine detailed analysis in areas like social mobility.

“The first thing you get is a much more sophisticated analysis of what is happening to users than we had in the past, but I think you get more than that – you get the potential through frequent online interactions to create communities and trust.”

New networks can be created, he highlighted, using the example of internet music streaming service Spotify. “I have quite a high level of trust in Spotify. In fact, my only frustration is that I wish they understood me a bit better and they got their recommendations even better. My interactions with Spotify – which is just an organisation with a database tracking the music I listen to – are entirely favourable. When Spotify recommends to me that I should listen to some new track, I think Spotify knows me very well and I ought to trust Spotify.”

Public services have huge amounts of data, on NHS performance for example, but will also collect a lot more in the near future that can be used to run services better, the former Conservative minister said.

“I think education organisations, moving more and more education online, are [going to be] able to use this data. If you’re a local education authority or if you’re a university, if you properly harness the data you’re going to be able to possess in the next few years about the learning experience of your students, it gives you enormous potential both to find out what is working and what is not working, to redesign what you do.

“So I think the future of public services is to generate large data sets, to manage them with such high ethical standards and to create sufficient amounts of interaction between users and between users and providers as to generate trust, and to use these very large data sets as an asset which enables them to change the way their services are delivered, to make connections between previously unconnected services and issues.”

Quasi-markets 'no longer the dominant narrative'

The event also considered the role of private providers and outsourcing in the wake of the collapse of Carillion, but Willetts said that the “question of exactly who is a public or a private provider will become less significant than who is trusted to comply with high standards of ethical codes about the use to which data is put”.

He added: “The potential there is to rapidly change service provision, to observe where there are problems and to transform the way services are delivered.”

Also at the event, Nicholas Timmins, senior fellow at the Institute for Government and the King's Fund, set out the history of public service provision. He said that there had been a move to central government control from local government, but also a trend, exemplified in the market-focused, New Public Management model of public sector reform taken forward by governments since Margaret Thatcher's “that government should be involved in steering, not rowing” in public services. This means defining what should be done in public services, but not doing it itself. This led to both quasi-markets and outsourcing becoming “the key instruments across public policy”, he said.

"We do things differently in different sectors for different reasons and not all ideas work equally well everywhere. But are we any nearer to finding the right horses for the relevant courses?" – Nicholas Timmins

However there has now been a loss of faith in choice and competition and quasi-markets as the dominant system for organising public services, Timmins said, even before the recent headlines.

Andrew Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms ended up being the high-water mark of choice and competition in the NHS, he said, with the direction of travel now on integration and local budgets for population health. Free schools were intended to provide additional competition, but their budgets have been raided to keep existing schools going, while PFI deals have been reduced since 2010.

Austerity may also be why faith in choice and competition has been reduced, Timmins added, as it is nearly impossible to let a school or hospital close overnight when it becomes financially bust.

“For the better part of 30 years having quasi-markets as the dominant narrative, we now longer have one,” Timmins said. “The idea appears to be running out of road, but doesn’t appear to be being replaced by any other dominant way of doing things.

“I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing – the truth is we do things differently in different sectors for different reasons and not all ideas work equally well everywhere. But it does raise the question: are we any nearer to finding the right horses for the relevant courses?”

Julian Le Grand, a professor of Social Policy at the LSE and former special adviser to prime minister Tony Blair on public service and health management, told the event that the Blair government got it right, highlighting that NHS was meeting all targets when Labour left office in 2010.

Choice, competition and targets have been replaced by heavy-handed regulation, he said. Although this was like central control, the difference is that there are now many commanders.

However, he acknowledged that large failures such as the collapse of Carillion have had greater political impact than the “modest successes” of outsourcing more generally.

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