FROM SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS

There are no solutions to problems because, as Aaron Wildavsky (1980: 62) noted in one those aphorisms at which he was so adept, ‘policy is its own cause’. Each new solution breeds the next generation of problems. The trend towards a hollow state in Britain will be no exception. This section discusses several important, unintended outcomes. It does not discuss the likely consequences of using individual policy tools; for example, I do not discuss the strengths and weaknesses of contracting out. I concentrate on the consequences of hollowing out the state.

Fragmentation

The experiment with alternative service delivery systems is an exciting one, provided it is an experiment. A policy experiment should involve systematic learning; that is, it must generate data so the policy-maker can identify and correct errors. The current government programme is not so designed, an omission of some importance because some unwelcome outcomes are in the offing.

The inevitable corollary of the new systems is institutional fragmentation. So, service delivery will depend increasingly on linking sets of organizations. For example, the mixed economy of care in the social services involves cooperation between numerous organizations in the public, private, and voluntary sectors. In other words, organizational interdependence is ubiquitous and steering complex sets of interdependent organizations will become increasingly difficult for governments. As Hesse (1991: 619) notes:

advocates of decentralised self-guidance and control often fail to realise that highly differentiated societies and pluralistic, fragmented institutional systems create a growing need for collective steering, planning and consensus building.

Government is aware of this danger. Seminars and workshops puzzle over ‘strategic management’. An anecdote under Chatham House rules: ‘We do do strategic management’, insisted the Permanent Secretary, ‘we pass review papers to the minister and he sends them out again’. Or, in the words of another senior official, ‘the medium-term is driven out by the short-term demand to cut costs’. The same awareness exists for local government. Thus, the idea of ‘the enabling authority’ posits an overarching strategic and coordinating role for the local authority. Awareness is not action, however, and the drive for short-term cuts remains irresistible.

Fragmentation not only weakens coordination, it also reduces efficiency. Fragmentation leads to functional and jurisdictional overlap, otherwise known as duplication and waste, thereby increasing inefficiency. For example, the new Trust hospitals are short of skilled personnel (nursing, ancillary, and medical). So, the Trusts will pay, and are already paying, higher salaries to attract the necessary staff. The resulting competition between the Trusts will drive up labour costs, an outcome that the Conservative government, among others, will see as increasing inefficiency.

Parenthetically, duplication and overlap can increase effectiveness. Landau (1969: 356) identifies the benefits of redundancy:

It provides safety factors, permits flexible responses to anomalous situations and provides a creative potential for those who are able to see it. If there is no duplication, if there is no overlap, if there is no ambiguity, an organisation will neither be able to suppress error nor generate alternative routes of action. In short, it will be most unreliable and least flexible, sluggish, as we now say.

Or, in other words, the complex new service delivery systems will create duplication and overlap. Agencies from the public, private, and voluntary sectors will compete for clients and thereby increase the take-up of services. This outcome may be welcome but it is costly on two grounds: the ‘inefficiencies’ of duplication, and paying for more people to receive the service.

 
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