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December 8, 2014
As part of the RSA's contribution to public debate ahead of next year's general election, they are inviting key politicians to think about the future. Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive, recently stated:
"We have a slight sense that too much of our political discourse at the moment is a kind of a nostalgic test and we think that there should be more conversation about the future - particularly how radical change in society and technology might change the way we think about politics, about policy and about the relationship between policy and social change. This also links to the RSA's own emerging world view of the power to create".
Five days after the last Autumn Statement before the election, Francis Maude MP was invited to join in the discussions with the RSA. Francis is Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General within the coalition government, and was invited to talk about innovation in the design and delivery of public services - focusing on the role of digital and structural change.
"I'm going to talk a little bit about our experience of efficiency and reform in this parliament and how we will need to build on that to bring about a more radical transformation in the next parliament," Francis explained.
He spoke about the government's long term economic plan to ensure that the country lives within its means, and shared one approach that he had recently come up with to support these plans, "Last week the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary and I laid out ambitious plans to make £10billion pounds worth of savings in efficiency and reform by 2017-2018, and £15-20billion by 2019-2020." These savings will of course help the government to focus resources on the front line and thus support their long term economic plan. "Savings on that scale will be challenging", Francis admits, "but it's also an opportunity to transform Whitehall; to apply new technologies and to redesign services around the needs of users, not around the convenience of bureaucrats. The government has to be firmly on the side of hard working people who except their taxes to be spent wisely."
Francis conveyed that in the first days after the 2010 election, the government didn't know how many of their savings were going to be made, "We were flying quite blind but were certain that there were savings to be made - even the most efficient organisations in the world will find scope year after year to make efficiency savings". Well, they were right about that and lots of civil servants across the country embraced this new agenda so that last year the government were able to announce that they had made unprecedented savings of £14.3 billion (that's 2013-14) compared with labour's last year in office. "So now we have a much clearer view of where we can make savings!" Francis reassuringly remarked.
Though these savings have been a great success, Francis also stated that with less money as well as an ageing population and rising expectations, there is more to do for less. He then referred to Ernest Rutherford who is alleged to have said, "We've run out of money, now we have to think".
This year the government have managed to tease out the five themes that have, in reality, underpinned their reforms. Francis talked the RSA and its distinguished audience through each of the five themes:
1) Openness; transparency builds trust, it sharpens accountability and it drives improvement. Tax payers can see how their money is being spent and people can judge how service perform because the outcomes are measured and published. Today Britain leads the world in the open government and open data stakes.
2) Tight control from the centre over common areas of spend - there's simply no good reason different departments should be paying different prices for the same goods and services. Treasury and cabinet office need to work ever more closely together - matched by much looser control over front line delivery
3) Shifting power away from the centre and diversifying the range of providers of public services - public service professionals should be set free to do their jobs in the way that they know best - and that's why we support mutual's and joint ventures to spin out of the public sector and we want to be doing more business with SME's and the voluntary sector and social enterprises.
4) Digital - as well as being cheaper services online can be faster and easier - gov.uk has revolutionised out online presence as well as winning an award along the way - designed around the need of people who need them
5) There has to be a properly innovative culture to try sensible new ideas. We need to learn from the fail-fast motto of Silicon Valley and our programme of civil service reform is all about supporting a faster and less bureaucratic system focused on outcomes not processes. We know that the best organisations learn at least as much from what doesn't work as from what does and we need to capture more of that and support people who take sensible risks in order to innovate and to improve.
Once Francis had finished his talk he sat down with Matthew and shared open dialogue with questions from the audience as well. These themes suggested real impacts may be coming our way and were encouraging listen to. It was a real privilege to attend this event and gave great insights into the government's approach towards change moving forward. The trick now, as always seems to be the case, will be to turn these words into real, effective actions within society.