The argument over the programme is part pragmatic, part philosophical. How can taxpayers get better services without paying higher taxes? Where are the proper limits of the state's responsibilities? And what of the ethos of public service?
In the United States, the fashionable book on the subject is Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. Much read here, too, it describes how the public sector can be transformed by an infusion of entrepreneurial spirit that switches management from commands to incentives, from 'rowing to steering'.
The central idea is obviously applicable to Britain and is already showing promising results. But it may be misunderstood and misapplied by a British government that has swung too far towards a minimalist view of government. The American book does not call for massive privatisation but for revitalising the public sector by importing modern management methods from the private sector. Contracting out some public services is part of this process, but not its be all and end all. The process also relies heavily on stimulating initiative in local government, which does not seem to be on John Major's agenda.
Warning voices are being raised in Britain. Professor Peter Hennessy argues that the private sector should not take over services such as prisons and taxation, where coercion is required. Those should be performed by servants of the Crown under public control. Douglas Hurd appealed eloquently to the Conservative Party conference to 'show that we are not driven by ideology to question every function of the state'.
Mr Waldegrave is trying to move too far too fast. He is likely to produce spectacular results in some areas and disasters in others. If civil servants can avoid appearing merely as defenders of entrenched interests and try instead to be constructive about necessary reform, they might attract more attention - even sympathy.Reuse content