New Ideas

3 minute read

“Radical reforms and equal chances” are what Tony Blair says Britain needs. He is proud that his party’s fat list of pledges for the next term “is not a manifesto for a quiet life.” If Blair gets back to Downing Street, no one will be more unquiet trying to produce results people notice than Geoff Mulgan.

Mulgan, 39, heads the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office and is central casting’s notion of what the Americans call a wonk: the serious, policy-driven young man who can argue for hours in a windowless conference room about the fine points of progressive taxation. He is also seriously charming, disarmingly direct and an unusual marriage of fresh thinker and hustling entrepreneur. In his previous life, he organized rock concerts for Labour, consulted on telecommunications, wrote books and founded the respected Third Way think tank Demos. After working for Blair at Downing Street, where he helped launch programs to cut poverty and unemployment, he became an officially nonpartisan civil servant last year in charge of 63 people trying to make government work smarter. “This government is obsessed with results,” he says. How will it get them? Spending more is crucial but not enough. “All politicians recognize there will have to be radical reform of the structures of public service if performance is really going to improve.”

Mulgan is a big exponent of putting more government online and on the phone. The National Health Service already has nhs Direct, a 24-hour telephone hotline and website intended to improve access for patients and ease pressure on doctors and nurses. In five years, he says, “probably two-thirds of British households will be online.” If a government website lets expectant parents, say, book their medical appointments, compare prices for childcare in their area, learn about programs for kids with special needs and sign up for the new “baby bond,” “these are all step-changes in service that people will notice” — as long as the local school gets a new roof too. As banks, airlines and other big companies increasingly lavish the most attention on the most profitable customers, Mulgan thinks, “in five years, the government could be outperforming the private sector in terms of the service it gives the typical family.”

But the private sector won’t be disdained. Blair has said that contractors will take on more parts of the health service, schools and post office. The old bureaucracies will be shaken up in other ways, to reduce “the strong culture of central direction in Whitehall.” New elected mayors will raise the public’s expectations about local services and shift its gaze away from Westminster. The powerful civil service will be overhauled to give less prominence to mandarins who devise policy and more to managers who can implement it. “Governments are often appalling on creativity,” Mulgan says. Well, not always.

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