Steve Richards: Power to the people is a bold idea, but do people want the power?

The degree to which the reforms will deliver improved public services cannot be easily discerned. In some ways that is the point
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The Independent Online

The Coalition has a big idea and is determined to implement it with revolutionary zeal. The seriousness of intent was displayed vividly at an event yesterday, when David Cameron outlined his government's mission, surrounded by most of the Cabinet and senior civil servants. Visual symbolism is as important to this government as it was to the last. This was a gathering aimed at conveying a sense of defining significance.

The big idea revolves around the theme of empowerment, one that gripped some Blairites in the last government and was also a theme in David Miliband's recent leadership campaign. With a neat and yet genuine coincidence the idea excites Tories and Lib Dems in the Government. As Nick Clegg stated at the event, they did not come into politics to carry out a comprehensive spending review. They did do so partly to implement this agenda, in theory shifting the focus of accountability from the centre to the users of public services.

During its dying years in power Labour's leading lights misread Cameron's leadership. Virtually all of them believed that the new Tory leader and his allies were not interested in hard policy work and were only bothered by slick presentation.

In fact the Tories came to power in May with far more detailed policies formed around a single governing idea than New Labour did in 1997. Early in opposition Cameron and his chief adviser, Steve Hilton, were holding several intensive and thoughtful day-long seminars around the theme of empowerment. By the time of the election another key ally, Oliver Letwin, had a policy programme in place to fill the first two years of a Conservative government.

As Letwin did not expect the Conservatives to win by a very big margin, or by any margin at all, he also paid close attention to what Clegg was saying and noted the potential for fusion. Letwin and Danny Alexander, in his role as the chief Lib Dem Coalition negotiator, are the main figures in monitoring what Cameron described as a revolution in the delivery of public services. At every point, from universities to hospitals and on to schools, there is a shift away from the state towards what Clegg's wing of the Coalition calls the "liberalisation" of public services, a phrase Cameron's wing is perfectly happy to accept as the leaderships discover acres of common ground.

The seriousness of purpose and the radical ambition is beyond doubt. The degree to which the reforms will deliver improved public services cannot be so easily discerned, even by its advocates. In some way that is the point. Cameron declared yesterday that the "the people must play their part" but he cannot know for sure whether many will do so.

On the positive side, the publication of previously hidden information on the internet about the delivery of public services is a powerful form of accountability. Too much darkness leads to complacency and a lack of accountability. When leading Tories first spoke about putting information online Gordon Brown's senior adviser in No 10 at the time, Stephen Carter, told me they would never do it if they won power. The details would lead to too many additional pressures, potential embarrassments and unintended consequences. Perhaps they will, but Cameron is going ahead anyway.

My worries are more to do with context and the degree to which objectives can be met by theoretical empowerment. It is unfashionable to make the point in Britain, but all the evidence suggests the best public services are in countries that invest at a relatively high level over a sustained period of time. Countries like Sweden might have more imaginative forms of delivery, but they also spend a lot of money and have done so for decades.

The Coalition embarks on its revolution as it cuts public spending. It is a myth that employing the private sector to deliver automatically leads to more efficiency. Some former ultra-Blairites tell me they have discovered to their horror a level of duplication and waste in the private sector they thought was confined to the public sector. They should not have been surprised. Some of their reforms improved the productivity of the NHS, but they spent a fortune on bringing in private companies.

Information about public services is useful and should keep the providers on their toes. It does not necessarily empower users. Train passengers have known about the precise unreliability of some companies for years. There is virtually nothing they can do about it. Information about the pay and the dizzying number of BBC managers has been available for even longer. It took the Government to act in order to bring about some limited response from the BBC's leadership.

More fundamentally, Cameron argues that his proposals represent the biggest transfer of power away from the centre. Such a claim is difficult to measure. Will it prove to be as big as Labour's programme of devolution, which brought about profound policy changes in London, Scotland and Wales? Empowering people would not have brought about the introduction of the Oyster Card in London and a congestion charge that paid for radical improvements to buses. Such big moves needed an elected Mayor of London with levers to pull, the state rather than a big society. Travellers were empowered by the state.

Still the Coalition acts with an unusually high level of ideological unity and coherence, certainly more so than New Labour, which was at the beginning paralysed by fearful expediency and towards the end divided between two subtly different ideologies, one in No 10, the other in the Treasury.

The Blairite ideology is still alive and kicking, at least in government. A former Labour Cabinet minister observes to me as I write that the biggest influence on the Coalition is not Margaret Thatcher, but Blair. Let us see how they do at a time of economic gloom. The former Prime Minister struggled to deliver genuine choice in schools and hospitals at a point when additional resources were being invested after decades of decline.

"Power to the people" is a slogan with obvious appeal. No leader is going to seek election on "Less Power to the People". Putting the more positive sounding slogan into practical form is fraught with complex dangers when the people have a lot on their minds and the Government has less money to spend.