Modernisation is widely regarded as desirable yet, at the same time, no one seems sure exactly what it means.
The drive for modernisation in government began under Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and gathered pace under John Major (1990-1997). The pace increased under New Labour, first with Tony Blair (1997-2007) and then Gordon Brown (2007-2010) (Giddens, 2007). David Cameron picked up on modernisation as part of a drive for government savings to sit alongside his austerity programme (Maude, 2013). Now Ed Miliband is promising further modernisation as part of Labour’s One Nation policy review.
For New Labour modernisation was about changing governance to address cross-cutting policy issues such as child poverty, community cohesion and employment that required co-operation from more than one department (New Policy Institute, 2013). Further they sought policy solutions based on trust in external organisations, formed from networks involving both government and relevant groups (Klijn & Skelcher, 2007). However, trust takes time and forming networks requires willingness to take part. Following slow progress with inter-departmental co-operation in central government, New Labour’s second term of office adopted a more straightforward top-down approach. Cross-cutting targets originally co-ordinated from Downing Street and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) were transferred to the Treasury and became closely linked to expenditure (Cairney, 2009).
Since 2010, Cameron’s Coalition government has been implementing their version of modernisation. Where Blair and Brown saw modernisation as increasing efficiency, for the Coalition modernisation is focussed on reducing inefficiency. Hence it is used as a banner for cuts to government and government services. The rationale for this is that it is in tune with Britain (Maude, 2013). In practice this means fiscal caution, free market promotion and a smaller state that is Eurosceptic and pro-business (Bale, 2013).
Shrinking the state may be beneficial to those who do not rely on the state or are not employed by the state. But what about those whose well-being depends on public services? What about those whose livelihood is provided by the public sector? These are the people who are set to lose out from such an approach (Reed, 2011). Nevertheless, the Conservative part of the Coalition sees modernisation as evolutionary and hence on-going and never ending (Maude, 2013). This means that Tory modernisation mixes symbols and substance. In terms of policy development it is an attitude rather than a reasoned position or manifesto (Room, 2012).
The Coalition is working towards a post-bureaucratic age. By this they mean that technology and our desire for more control over our lives, together with a growing unease about centralised, top-down solutions, has led to a demand for services that are locally determined, locally accountable, more flexible, delivered faster, and that are tailored to the needs of individual service-user. Putting this form of modernism together with its own brand of localism, the Coalition can see the potential for an unmediated relationship between local people and central government, and the government-funded services they receive (HMG, 2013). At the same time, however, the Coalition has been making big cuts to public expenditure so removing resources and reducing capacity that could have been used to create or enhance local networks and embed the Big Society (Pugalis & McGuinness, 2013).
At the moment, it is not clear that the Coalition really intends this to happen. It may be that their brand of modernisation is about simplifying the processes of government rather than about policy. In other words, it is not so much what they do as how they do it. For example, the Contestable Policy Fund and the Government Digital Service have cut some middle-ranking officer posts (Maude, 2013). But how much support there is for this sort of modernisation is not clear (Bale, 2013).
So what’s next for modernisation? Where will it go after the 2015 general election? Well, maybe the time has come to leave modernisation behind. Maybe what we need is a clear view of what is happening now and a set of policies to deal with the current situation. After all, the commitment to a modernising ideal is so twentieth century.
Bale, T. (2013) ‘What the Modernisers Did Next: From Opposition to Government and Beyond’, Juncture, 20 (2), London: IPPR.
Cairney, P. (2009) ‘Implementation and the Governance Problem’, Public Policy and Administration, 24 (4), pp. 355 – 377.
Giddens, A. (2007) Over to you Mr Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press.
HMG (2013) The Coalition: Together in the National Interest: Mid-Term Review. London: TSO.
Klijn, E. and Skelcher, C. (2007) ‘Democracy and Governance Networks: Compatible or Not?’, Public Administration, 85 (3), pp. 587 – 608.
Maude, F. (2013) ‘No Resting on Laurels’, Juncture, 20 (2), pp. 144 – 145.
New Policy Institute (2013) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Pugalis, L. and McGuinness, D. (2013) ‘From a Framework to a Toolkit: Urban Regeneration in an Age of Austerity’, Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, 6 (4), pp. 339 – 353
Reed, H. (2011) The Shrinking State: Why the Rush to Outsource Threatens Our Public Services. London: Unite.
Room, G. (2012) ‘Evolution and the Arts of Civilisation’, Policy and Politics, 40 (4), pp. 453 – 471.