Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Is Brown a really bold reformer?

By Gary O'Donoghue
Political correspondent, BBC News

Not long after Tony Blair took office in 1997, he was candid about his attempts to reform public services.

He told an audience of venture capitalists: "I bear the scars on my back after two years in government."

Six years later and 18 months before he left office he told the Labour conference: "Every time I've ever introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further."

Tony Blair in 2001
Tony Blair said he bore 'scars' from trying to reform public services

In other words, public service reform has been a hard slog for Labour and there is little to suggest that Gordon Brown is going to find it any easier.

It is not just vested interests that can make the process of driving through reform extremely hard work.

True, the unions and the professions can make it feel like wading through treacle.

Often there is an in-built "small c" conservatism among doctors, teachers and others.

Parliamentary rebellion

The unions worry about the implications for jobs and whether their members will end up constantly being asked to do more for less.

But opposition can also come from within.

Despite thumping great Commons majorities, Tony Blair had to rely on Tory votes to get his plans for trust schools onto the statute book.

Allowing credit crunched bankers to become teachers in six months rather than a year has dominated the coverage

And he faced major parliamentary rebellions on tuition fees for tertiary education.

When it came to foundation hospitals, it was Gordon Brown himself who was painted by the Blairites as a "block to reform" when he wanted to curb the revolutionary zeal of the then health secretary, Alan Milburn and restrict the ability of NHS trusts to borrow money on the open markets.

Now the prime minister has said that 2009 would be "our boldest year yet" in terms of public service reform.

No big shake-up

That is indeed a bold claim.

Allowing credit crunched bankers to become teachers in six months rather than a year has dominated the coverage.

There is also to be a prime ministerial commission on nursing and midwifery.

Gordon Brown and nurses at Kings College Hospital
Mr Brown has pledged the 'boldest year yet' on public service reform

But what is not here is a big institutional shake-up.

Ministers would reply that this is more about empowering individuals and communities than traditional reform, embedding the Blairite idea of "choice" in public services, removing the Blairite concentration on targets and replacing it with information and feedback so the public knows which GP is liked and which one is not.

There are good political reasons to try to give the reform agenda a bit more impetus.

First it demonstrates the government is not just fighting the recessional fire but recognising that efficient public services are all the more necessary in difficult times.

Second it serves to demonstrate that a party that has been in government for 12 years has not run out of ideas.

And third, the government knows that the public expects to get something in return for the vast amounts of money (NHS spending has more than doubled in real terms over 12 years) that have been pumped into the NHS and education system over the past decade.

The big problem of course is the proximity of the next election.

With scarcely more than a year to go before that happens, it is not just the civil service that hedges its bets and awaits the outcome before plunging headlong into new initiatives.

In that sense reform is something you should do at the beginning of your period in office rather than at the end, and that could mean that Gordon Brown's "boldest year yet" will prove extremely hard to deliver.

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