Andreas Whittam Smith: The big society agenda is more speculative than convincing

Essentially it is just outsourcing more public services than at present
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For the past 25 years, governments have had great difficulty in providing public services effectively. Ministers, having nothing in their experience that gives them any aptitude for the task, have lurched from expedient to expedient. Instead of settled, competent management, there has been a succession of experiments.

And now there is a new one. For the significant point that emerges from the party manifestos published this week is that they describe yet another approach, hesitantly outlined in the case of Labour, but boldly enunciated by the Conservatives.

The Tories' astonishing ambition is to "use the state to help stimulate social action, helping social enterprises to deliver public services and training new community organisers to help achieve our ambition of every adult citizen being a member of an active neighbourhood group." In other words, after we elect the Conservative Party to office, if we do, the new Government will turn round and say: "Now it's back to you".

Reform of public services began in the early 1980s when Mrs Thatcher privatised a number of state owned industries such as water, electricity and gas. Returning these services to the private sector has been the only unambiguous success in the whole story. The second step taken by Mrs Thatcher was the introduction of market mechanisms into those public services considered unsuitable for sale, of which the leading example is the National Health Service.

This has had mixed outcomes. Artificial markets never work as well as the real thing. Moreover, management techniques borrowed from the private sector often turn out to have perverse consequences. Gordon Brown's mantra, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, was that there would be no investment in public services without reform.

The culture of targets was taken much further. The Treasury signed precise agreements with public service providers. The perverse results duly appeared. In the first place, the emphasis given to meeting a particular target was often achieved at the expense of other important tasks. And second, managers and staff quickly learn how to game targets so that apparent successes were often far from real.

Take the new cancer guarantee promised in the Labour manifesto. It is designed to ensure that "all patients see a cancer specialist within two weeks of GP referral and that all cancer tests will be completed and the results received within just one week." But what other services will be sacrificed to meet the target and will hard-pressed staff, perhaps subject to the bullying that is common throughout the NHS, contrive to give an appearance of meeting the target when the reality is quite different?

So to the Tories' exciting new idea. "Our alternative to big government is the big society: a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility; a society where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities; a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control... our public service reform programme will enable social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups to play a leading role in delivering public services and tackling deep-rooted social problems."

Essentially this is a policy of outsourcing a much higher proportion of public services than at present. But outsourcing to whom? In the new thinking, it will be partly to public sector staffs that turn themselves into free-standing enterprises. The Labour manifesto, for instance, refers to extending the right for staff, particularly nurses in the NHS, to request to run their own services in the not-for-profit sector. The Tories are harder, arguing, "Giving public sector workers ownership of the services they deliver is a powerful way to drive efficiency." Outsourcing will also be to charities. In fact many charities already supply specialised services to Government.

But a step change is envisaged; hence the reference to social enterprises as well as charities and voluntary groups. A social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners. So the question is whether a sufficient number of skilled social entrepreneurs will come forth to meet the opportunity and complete the step change.

This is unknowable. There is no evidence either way. Yes, the quality of people working full time in the charitable sector is often very good. So conceivably a substantial amount of social entrepreneurial talent exists waiting for the call. But Mr Cameron doesn't know. His big society is, finally, just one more experiment, a jotting on the back of an envelope. It is not, in any sense, a tried and tested policy.