John Tizard's review of Kittens Are Evil - Little Heresies in Public Policy to which Kathy contributed a chapter on marketisation.

[First published in MJ on 11th April 2017]

When I saw a book with a title ‘Kittens are Evil – little heresies in public policy’, I knew that I had to read it to understand what these heresies might be; and perhaps more intriguingly, to understand why a book on public policy should have such a provocative title.

I happen to like cats and kittens but I also enjoy challenging orthodoxy, and so the idea of slaying some public policy heresies was appealing. Could I tolerate the title to explore what was being slain as long as it was not a kitten?

I am very pleased that I followed my curiosity and bought and then read this book (‘Kittens are Evil – little heresies in public policy’ – edited by Charlotte Peel, Rob Wilson and Toby Lowe and published by Triarchy Press). 

It is a short book with eight individual chapters, written by a range of good public policy practitioners including John Seddon, Kathy Evans, Simon Caulkin, Simon Duffy and Sue White. The authors each challenge a current orthodoxy pervading our public services, including local government. And collectively, they challenge the concept that the only way to secure better public services (whatever ‘better’ may actually be) is by the adoption of New Public Management (NPM) and acceptance of a neo-liberal ideology.

Local government has had to adopt NPM to some extent because central governments of all political persuasions have: set performance management regimes and targets for local authorities and their services; at times compelled them to use competitive tendering to determine service providers; directed and legislated for them to undertake specified programmes; and in the last eight years, dramatically reduced their financial resources, enforcing local austerity and cuts programmes.  Government programmes commonly contain words like holistic – but all too often, this is merely code for pressuring local authorities and others to address issues in silos rather than on a whole system basis, and thus tackling merely the symptoms rather than the causes of social, economic and environmental problems.

Now, I am not going to argue that there weren’t some benefits, especially in the short term, from some of these central government interventions and directives, particularly those relating to performance management. Some performance increased significantly in the short term. However, the questions are how sustainable are such approaches and, as Toby Lowe argues in the book, how long before local authorities and their principal people start to “game” to achieve their targets rather than meet local needs and/or respond to local choices.

The authors challenge a range of specific policies and programmes with supportive evidence and helpfully also propose some reasonable alternatives. Their targets include: performance management when solely focused on outcomes; payment by result contracting; outsourcing and a reliance on markets for services, especially personal services such as children’s services; ‘early family intervention’; dystopian central government interventions; the idea that big is always best; contemporary management thinking and practice; and oh, so much more. Critically (and in my view, quite rightly), there is a powerful thread throughout the book that public service and public services cannot ‘simply’ be modelled on the business sector.

I think too that local government and the wider public sector too often adopts the language of business when this may not be appropriate; and uses carefully crafted language to obfuscate and/or to spice up what otherwise might be unpopular decisions and actions. Direct transparent honesty using the right words matters.

However, for the full flavour and content of the book – I recommend that you go buy and read it. [Declaration of interest: I have no interest, other than the fact that I enjoyed the book]

The authors are clear that public services should be responsive to service users and communities. Personally, I would go further and say that most services should be co-designed and co-produced, although I recognise that this is not always possible (for example, for every aspect of enforcement services). There is also a strong theme throughout the chapters that ‘people are not robots’, and will not always act rationally or as public sector leaders would like them to do, even if they introduce incentives and try to nudge behaviours.  I agree - people are people, and this includes professional public service staff.

It is hard to deny that there has been a general acceptance (or probably an absorption) of the mantra of NPM and in many cases, of a wider neo-liberal approach to public services, even amongst politicians and professional executives, who will generally have a different core ideological, professional and personal set of values.  I truly believe that the latter (and indeed, leaders across local government) would benefit from reading ‘Kittens are Evil’, and allowing the arguments in its eight chapters to challenge their current thinking and practice. I would not expect many readers to agree with every word or thesis in this book, and indeed, I didn’t. However, if by reading the book, local government and other public sector leaders and politicians stop for a moment and reflect on their values, their practices and what may in reality be a lazy acceptance of contemporary orthodoxy, I do believe this would be a great and worthwhile outcome.

I would have liked to have seen an additional chapter, which addressed and challenged the conventional view held by many, that local government is only about effective and efficient service delivery or procurement, and so consequently technocratic managerialism should be dominant over politics. I have long argued in these columns and elsewhere that local government is government and not administration, making political choices and not simply following a managerial guidebook. Politics has to dominate and overcome NPM; and where politicians are not ideologically neo-liberals, they should not act as neo-liberals. Indeed, they should both resist and push back – although I do accept that at local government level, they must also be pragmatic and act in the best (or least bad) interests of their communities and citizens. The ‘dented shield’ is relevant - but so is principle. Politicians have to set their own boundaries and be accountable for doing so.

So this chapter that I would like to have seen added to the book is the case for local government, able to act and respond on behalf of local communities, accountable to local electors and leading their ‘places’, on behalf of their communities.  The heresy that such a chapter would have slain is the one that still behaves as if the ‘man or woman in Westminster or Whitehall knows best’, or that local governance must be granted to local places only on licence, and not by constitutional and democratic right.

I believe that such a chapter would be consistent with this excellent set of evidence- based and provocative essays/chapters. The authors, editors, publisher and Kite – the Centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise at Newcastle University are to be commended for their timely and thoughtful book. Local government could learn and re-think a great deal by reading what are less than one hundred pages, packed with provocation and evidence. Here lies the foundation for a  new popular and people centric approach.