David Miliband – 2004 Speech on Public Services and Social Democracy


Below is the text of the speech made by David Miliband at the Guardian Public Services Summit on 28 January 2004.

I want to start with a simple point. I am here as a politician. And we are at an absolutely critical time in the life of the Government – the first Labour government re-elected to serve a full term, the only Government in Europe to be raising investment in education and health care as a share of national income, the first Government since 1945 to make the renewal of public services its number one priority.

Day to day and week to week it is your decisions that help patients, pupils, victims of crime. But politics sets the direction, the investment, the purposes, the priorities. I want to use my short time to address the following: what is a distinctively social democratic approach to public services, and how we make a social democratic settlement for public services a reality in Britain.

A Social Democratic Settlement

I speak as someone who believes passionately in the renewal of social democracy – the project of civil, social and political progress that dominated reform, though not always government, of industrialised countries for most of the 20th century. The aim for our country is simple: to extend to all the life-chances of the most fortunate. And the challenge for public services follows directly: to create a public realm where security and opportunity are available on the basis of need not ability to pay.

This needs more than good policies – though they are vital, and numerous in the work being done around the country. A social democratic settlement for public services aims to embed in the governing structure and culture of the country new parameters for public policy.

We need services that are, and are seen to be, excellent or improving or both. But we need more. A social democratic settlement for public services would have distinctive features:

– a social democratic settlement would tilt against inequality, giving greatest help to those in greatest need, and using the power of an active welfare state to change life chances;

– a social democratic settlement would engage citizens in their production of public services; people do not want to spend their lives in meetings, but they will increasingly want choice and voice in how their services are delivered

– it would embody the best of social partnership, making the most of the sense of vocation among public servants, and using this commitment as a spur to the most modern working practices, not an excuse for holding back change

– it would have funding secure, sustainable and equitably raised;

– and it would recognise that the public sphere cannot do it all, and instead thrives when it brings together the best innovation from public, private and voluntary sectors.

If these are the aims, I see three central challenges to their achievement, derived directly from the ambitions I have set out. They go to the heart of the political and policy choices open to us today. They concern the role of the individual citizen, the purposes set by government, and the incentives for staff.

The first challenge for a social democratic settlement is to ensure that universal services meet individual need. Neither rights-based paternalism nor choice-based consumerism are adequate.

Some people argue that by definition mass services cannot deliver the personal touch. I disagree. Services for all citizens can be customised to the needs of each citizen.

In education we call it personalised learning. Its key components try to learn from experience – strengths and weaknesses – of professional power and market forces. It depends on flexibility at the front line, choice for the learner, and incentives for innovation:

– the education service can only be personalised when there is serious and ongoing assessment of individual student need; this requires the time of staff and the engagement of students

– it needs school staff to be able to deploy a range of teaching strategies, so professional flexibility and development are key

– the school and its component lessons need to be organised around the learning needs of the student, so that lesson times and timetables are informed by what we know about how youngsters learn as well as what they want

– when students get older they need an increasing range of curriculum choice, within the school and including college and work-based alternatives; this requires integration of service between different institutions

– and services in school must be properly linked to services beyond, which is the exciting promise of the new engagement between education and children’s social services.

These foundations of personalised service cannot be restricted to the education service. From what I understand intelligence-led policing is founded on serious engagement with data; efficient hospital care depends on proper integration of primary and secondary services around the needs of the patient; this summit can deliver deeper understanding of the links and similarities.

The second challenge concerns the relationship between excellence and equity. We see this in every debate, from Foundation Hospitals to university funding to specialist schooling. In an unequal society, how can excellent provision serve the least fortunate, rather than the most?

There are two answers. One is to say we cannot; excellence will always be monopolised by the well-off, so a social democratic approach should be simply to tackle poor performance.

I believe this is profoundly wrong. We must obviously tackle failure. But aside from the absurdity of trying to put a glass ceiling on the achievement of different services, excellence can be used as a battering ram against inequality.

Education is a case in point. Since 1997 the number of schools judged effectively failing by Ofsted has fallen by 960 in primary and 227 in secondary, to 207 and 78 respectively. But tackling inequality of opportunity requires us to do more:

– by challenging every school to develop a centre of excellence for itself and as a resource for other schools; this is the aim of the specialist school programme

– by paying the best schools in public and private sectors to partner with other state schools and spread their good practice; this is the aim of the Leading Edge programme, which now involves 100 leading schools and 600 learning from them

– by pooling budgets so schools can use each other’s resources to raise standards; this is how leadership development is being fostered in our 1400 toughest secondary schools

– by promoting the development of federations of schools, and syndicates of schools, that replicate excellent provision.

So excellence should be a resource for a more egalitarian system, not a threat. It can do more than set an example; it can be a locomotive for improvement across the system.

The third challenge is about how we combine flexibility in delivery with accountability for results. No one believes every community has the same needs; but flexibility on its own can lead to poverty of aspiration and paucity of provision.

It may be tempting to say that that strategies, targets, Czars and interventions are a diversion. But they are a reaction to the laissez-faire that led to low aspirations, provider convenience, limited innovation. We saw it in English secondary education in the 1970s.

We need central and local government to speak up for the fragmented voice of the consumer, and make good the market failure that allows underperformance to continue. I stress the importance of local government: a Britain of a 100 strong, vibrant and challenging city governments would be a great place.

But here are what I see as the bones of the settlement between front line providers and their funders in central and local government:

– There must be public information on performance, produced in an accessible form, that commands the confidence of professionals and citizens. It should rounded and informed view of how different institutions are performing. That is why we are developing the idea of a School Profile, that will set out in an accessible way qualitative as well as quantitative information beyond the bare bones of raw and value added exam and test results. The answer to the limitations of league tables is more information not less.

– There must be central intervention to set minimum standards. For example in the 111 schools with less than 20% of pupils getting 5 GCSEs grade A-C, and the 425 schools above 30% but underperforming given their intakes, we are intervening directly from the centre to help them make progress.

– This central intervention must be in inverse proportion to success, and critically it should be an organised and systematic engagement with a single accountability mechanism. In education it is what we are now calling the ‘single conversation’: every school with an annual engagement with all its partners, central and local, to identify problems, agree priorities, set targets.

– Choice between services helps raise the quality of those services; it promotes innovation and improvement; but it is most effective when it is combined with voice for individuals over their services, to help shape it to their need.

– Some funds will always need to support central initiative – to tackle inequalities, to promote innovation, to spread good practice; but the aim should always be to end up mainstreaming it in front line services. So funding should be delegated as soon as capacity exists to the frontline, with full flexibility to meet local need.

Intelligent accountability is the essential foundation of public confidence in public services. It can be a burden, but it is a vital one, because it supports improvement and challenges the lack of it.

Let me conclude as follows. Ideology without competence is a dangerous vice. But competence without ideology is a limited virtue. I believe our challenge is to achieve a consistent harmony of the two.

A social democratic settlement for public services is vital for the future of the country – and most vital for those in greatest need. Enabling government, empowered staff, informed citizens. This is the relationship I have tried to sketch out today. I look forward to discussing it with you.