Former political secretary and health and local government adviser to the prime minister, Robert Hill, wants to see government trusting frontline professionals, shifting away from the targets culture and the one-size-fits-all era.
Mr Hill says that the tendency of governments to sustain each phase of their reform programmes by implying that there is a single magic bullet for transforming services - be it the internal market, devolution to the frontline, Best Value, target-setting or, the current focus of government action, choice for consumers, is simplistic and damaging.
He writes: 'A one-club policy would be as much of a handicap in achieving public service reform as it would be on a golf course.'
'If the one-size-fits-all era is dead so far as the consumer is concerned, then we should not be looking to adopt an identical reform programme for each service. Because reforms are right for one service does not automatically make them appropriate for another. Because something works well in the NHS does not mean that it will necessarily work in schools, can be transferred to children's services, is relevant to policing or be applicable to offender management.'
Mr Hill homes in on a series of changes that could shape reform in future and describes how different change levers are appropriate to different types of services. And at its heart the reform must be based on a higher level of trust of frontline professionals. Public servants and professionals have been characterises as knights or knaves.
'The government should presume that professionals and public servants are knights until their actions make it impossible to maintain that policy. In other words it should move to a high, or at least a much higher, trust way of working,' he said.
Mr Hill also says the government is being too crude in how it communicates the need for reform. It is, he says, self-defeating 'to make the case for reform by constantly highlighting the shortcomings of the current system. That only feeds demoralisation within public services, undermines what has been achieved and throws doubt on whether increased public investment in public services is worth the candle.' The answer, he argues is to get a much better balance between the progress that has been made while not glossing over the problems that still need to be addressed.
In the essay, developed in collaboration with the Public Services Reform Group*, Hill shows how the government keeps moving the goal posts as its thinking on how to engineer reform and improvement has shifted and changed.
Five leading figures from the world of public services bring diverse and critical perspectives on reform.
--Alwen Williams, chief executive of Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust, recognises the progress that has been made as result of the NHS Plan but argues that what is needed now is greater structural stability, increased commitment to partnership working and more devolution to frontline health units in taking forward the health reform agenda.
--Brian Lightman, a headteacher of a secondary school in Wales, reflects on the experience of juggling a cascade of school reforms and initiatives and highlights the contrasting approach to reform being pursued by the Welsh Assembly.
--Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Lambeth LBC, draws on his vast experience of public service delivery to contrast the theory of change management and the 'reality on the ground'. He describes how some levers are completely ineffective - not connected to anything - and argues for a new emphasis on co-production: using people and customers to generate change alongside managers and politicians.
--Chief constable Peter Neyroud, chief executive designate of the National Policing Improvement Agency, describes the levers the police service should adopt to deliver 21st century policing. But he also argues that reform and improvement are not just technical matters but need to be value-driven with ethics supporting a new professionalism.
--Michael Barber, from his period as head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit and now as an expert partner for McKinseys assisting governments around the world to improve their performance, shares Robert's assessment that various levers need to be deployed but contributes his own analysis and framework based on applying different models according to how well a service is performing.
The SOLACE Foundation Imprint (SFI) has been created to support and incentivise writing, reflection and research on key issues affecting public services and local government. It is financed through the SOLACE Foundation's endowment, mainly from surpluses generated by SOLACE Enterprises, the commercial arm of the SOLACE family.
* The Public Service Reform Group (PSRG) is a group of former ministers and special advisers that works with ministers and special advisers, to reflect, learn and explain what had been done to date and to make the case for future reform strategies.