You may not be familiar with the first of these hash tags. I refer to the Open Public Services White Paper and not for the first time. I’ve also posted on the protests against public sector cuts and the pretence that only the Tories like them. Indeed, I went so far as to argue that the public sector could do with losing a few pounds … it is crowding out initiative. Or so I said in a piece for The Guardian. Its hard to push through radical change when ‘submerged in the politics of U-turn, compromise and painstaking public reassurance’. That’s according to Gavin Kelly at the New Statesman. He says the NHS debacle has both ‘overshadowed it and undercut its ambitions’. Its not radical, if the truth be told, either. Its just another reform in the ‘modernising’ tradition of Blair et al. The NOTW scandal has deemed everything else unnewsworthy. But still I barely noticed it myself. And we social policy wonks have supposedly been waiting on the proverbial tenter hooks for this moment.
Having said that, who can object to calls for ‘more freedom, more choice and more local control’. (These were the words Cameron used at the launch of the white paper.) From personal budgets to free schools and residents ‘taking control’ of local services, at least on the face of it there is much to recommend these reforms in my view. As I’ve also posted here, we are not victims, and campaigners against public service reforms, and against the cuts, need to remember that. Of course this sort of thing can easily become an apology for offloading the state’s responsibilities, but I’d rather side with those arguing for responsible, autonomous citizens doing it for themselves, than with those who hide behind ‘the vulnerable’ to defend underperforming services. Scepticism about easy rhetoric is one thing. But cynicism comes far too easily to those who oppose each and every coalition policy proposal as a matter of prejudice rather than judgement.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if the reforms really were a threat to the ‘cherished’ institutions that Polly Toynbee thinks we’re so smitten with. But in truth the reforms are, as the Telegraph puts it, a ‘modest step in the right direction’. A very modest step. They are timid and 5 months behind schedule, betraying a profound loss of nerve in government, even in that truly most cherished of notions, Cameron’s ‘big idea’. As Polly Curtis reminds us: ‘where once the white paper was described as paving the way for a “big society bill”, the phrase big society now appears only once in the whole paper’. That most beloved of brands is looking as toxic as NOTW, though I suspect its decline will be less spectacular.