Issues such as the UK’s low health spending often bring about discussions as to whether depoliticisation could be the solution. Yet delegating decision-making to non-experts is not a new concept in British politics, raising the question whether its realisation has failed. Looking at New Labour’s reform of public services, Patrick Diamond explains that assessing depoliticisation requires an understanding of the Westminster model within which it operates, and which requires centralised political control.
The concept of depoliticisation has gained enormous currency in the analysis of British politics over the last fifteen years. The work of Peter Burnham and others addressed New Labour’s reforms of macro-economic policy after 1997, focusing in particular on how elected politicians sought to limit ‘the political character of decision-making’ in order to enhance their reputation for economic and governing competence. This analytical framework was extremely useful in explaining why UK governments, particularly social democratic ones, were shifting from a ‘discretionary’ approach involving direct state intervention in the economy through incomes policies and central planning, to ‘rules-based’ systems that gave priority to establishing credibility with key economic actors.
Burnham’s work further assessed the broader impact of New Public Management initiatives on the British state, alluding in particular to the paradox that while New Labour devolved responsibility to a range of actors in the public service delivery process, at the same time it enlarged the grip of the core executive (Number Ten, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury) over the policy-making and implementation process. That said, the application of the depoliticisation approach to understanding New Labour’s public service reform programme has necessarily been limited. The goal of modernising the public sector only became central to Blair’s agenda during his second term (2001-05), while the depoliticisation literature tended to focus almost exclusively on economic management. Nonetheless, the depoliticisation concept is important for understanding Labour’s public service reforms and its wider governing strategy.
New Labour’s commitment to depoliticisation
First, Labour was initially committed to the technocratic ideal that what matters in public policy is ‘what works’ rather than ideological prejudice, and ministers put particular emphasis on the importance of ‘evidence-based policy-making’. That can be seen as an explicit attempt to remove politics from the decision-making and implementation process and is consistent with a long tradition on the British Left of embracing rationalism in public administration, symptomatic of the Fabians in the early twentieth century.
Second, New Labour consolidated the approach of previous Conservative governments, delivering crucial policies through independent agencies ‘one step removed’ from the central state (the signature reform had been the creation of ‘Next Steps’ agencies after 1988). Ministers advanced this ‘governing style’ further by creating new institutions such as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the NHS, which had a remit to advise on clinical treatment and practice at ‘arms-length’ from central government. This underlines the extent to which New Labour’s reforms sought to ‘depoliticise’ the public service delivery process.
The politics of depoliticisation
On the other hand, depoliticisation is an inherently ‘political’ process, as Burnham and colleagues had always been keen to emphasise. By placing operational responsibility at ‘arms-length’, ministers were potentially insulated from the political fall-out generated by ‘policy fiascos’: this was important to acquiring and maintaining the reputation for economic competence that alluded previous Labour governments since 1945.
Depoliticising policy-making enabled governments to better manage and constrain the expectations of the electorate. Scholars more recently, notably Flinders, Moran, and Wood have underlined that despite the veneer of depoliticisation, ministers were still determined to project an image of governing authority and resilience, not least during crises when they were under pressure to appear authoritative and in command.
The limits of depoliticisation
The strategy of passing operational responsibility down the delivery chain had clear limits. Modern governance was less concerned with ‘the hollowing-out’ of the state; rather political actors wanted to rebuild governing capacity at the heart of the state. This illustrates that ministers are still ‘governing in the shadow’ of the Westminster model, and the British political tradition is a significant impediment to the realisation of the depoliticisation agenda (Richards & Smith, 2010). The argument is consistent with the marked expansion of central units under New Labour in Number Ten and the Cabinet Office, notably the beefed up Policy Unit (the Policy Directorate), the Delivery Unit, the Strategy Unit, the Office for Public Service Reform, and the Social Exclusion Unit. The core executive has been seeking to strengthen and embed its ‘steering capacity’.
The future research agenda on depoliticisation must seek to capture these potentially contradictory, even dialectical processes. The 2010-15 Coalition and the present government will no doubt provide a rich seam of empirical material through which to undertake further investigation of depoliticisation dynamics in the British state. It is equally important to examine the potential pathologies generated by such changes: Flinders has previously referred to the absence of overarching principles to inform the restructuring of governance processes, as the British have traditionally relied on piecemeal adaptation and ‘muddling through’.
A related argument is that British government has become increasingly elusive and opaque: citizens are more and more disillusioned with politics because it is impossible to know who is responsible for decision-making any longer. As the British state has become more complex reflecting the juxtaposition of depoliticisation operating alongside the Westminster model, few mechanisms have been developed to hold public bodies more effectively to account. For instance, the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, infamously struggled to ensure that responsible civil servants were held to account for their decisions by parliamentary select committees.
The emerging ‘hybrid state’ will need to be better understood by disaggregating the impact of depoliticisation on the diverse practices, procedures and institutions of British governance, both over time and across countries.
Please note: this article is based on the author’s published work.
Patrick Diamond is University Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London.