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Government by Task Force: A Review of the Reviews

Catalyst pamphlet 2: text version

 

Power to the people?

Less than a year into the New Labour government and at least 192 different policy reviews, task forces, advisory groups -- and one Royal Commission -- have been initiated by Tony Blair's ministers. A veritable mountain of worthy reforms in the making, reflecting the backlog of 18 years of Conservative government -- or evidence of buck-passing on a monumental scale? Proof of New Labour's commitment to an open, inclusive approach to government -- or a pluralistic charade that takes power away from parliament without giving it to the people?

In both its scale and its involvement of people from outside the usual Westminster and departmental circles, the new government's policy review process has marked a significant break with the past. It has an importance for the governance of Britain that goes well beyond the specific decisions and policy changes brought about by any individual policy review or the particular actions initiated by any task force. It is, in a very real sense, a new type of government process, hiving off issues that might formerly have been the exclusive preserve of ministers and MPs and putting them out for wider consideration. But who are these new reviewers of policy; and who reviews the reviewers? What does the sprouting of myriad task forces and advisory groups tell us about New Labour's approach to the determination and implementation of public policy? What does it mean for parliamentary democracy itself?

A landslide of reviews

The reviews came thick and fast almost from the very moment of election victory. Here was a review of the operation of the National Lottery to turn it into New Labour's promised "People's Lottery"; there was a review of the millenium celebration arrangements, which confirmed the construction of the Millenium Dome as their centrepiece. Here a minister announced a review of animal welfare controls on live exports; there a minister announced a review of breast screening. These and others were done and dusted almost before the votes had been counted in the Labour landslide. Other reviews put off major and potentially divisive decisions until well into the future.

Some reviews bordered on the parochial: the review of toll charges on the Skye bridge, the review of services at Edgware hospital. Others -- the strategic defence review, the Welfare to Work/New Deal Task Force -- involved the work of entire departments or combinations of departments. Underlying (and overriding) them all was the Big Yin -- the comprehensive spending review, under which all government departments are required to review all aspects of their work with a close eye on the efficiency and cost of their service delivery.

This pamphlet is the first attempt to assemble outline details of all the reviews, task forces and advisory groups established since the 1997 election. It has involved a trawl of all government departments, information officers, press releases, parliamentary questions and other sources to produce the most comprehensive listing possible (other than would only be obtainable, as the jargon of unanswered parliamentary questions has it, at disproportionate cost). Even so, it will almost certainly have become outdated between the point of assembly and publication. New reviews are still being announced at the rate of one or two a week; previously announced ones are reporting in increasing numbers. No one is keeping a central record or check on the whole process.

Indeed, it is difficult to elicit comprehensive information about which reviews are underway even within an individual department, let alone across all areas of government. Inter-departmental coordination and cross-referencing depends largely upon the common membership of overlapping review teams. Where this does not exist, different reviews operate in isolation from and sometimes ignorance of each other. The left hand might know what the right hand is doing at the very highest ministerial level (and by that we mean the Prime Minister, Chancellor and, within the areas covered by his extensive remit, the Deputy Prime Minister). But on the ground the impression is one of confusion, patchy reporting within departments, inadequate reporting between departments and an overall reporting to the outside world that has as much to do with news management as the effective communication of information.

The nearest that parliament has come to getting an overview of the policy review process has been in response to parliamentary questions, put exclusively by opposition politicians. One such was a question by the Conservative peer, Lord Chesham, in the House of Lords in February (Hansard, HL 222 and 223, Written Answers, 12 February 1998). This elicited a list of most (but not all) of the reviews, task forces and so on then in train, but provided no details of their terms of reference, membership or modus operandi. It is the only information readily available to MPs, the media and members of the public that attempts to provide any guide to the policy review situation overall -- and, in a large number of cases, it comprises the only readily available information about individual policy reviews as well.

As might be expected, the work of the major task forces is relatively well tracked and documented. (This is particularly so in the case of those with the highest public profiles, such as the Football Task Force under David Mellor's chairmanship or the most recent addition to the task force family, the 33-strong Panel 2000 "ambassadors of cool" charged with invigorating Britain's image overseas.) That of many smaller or lower profile reviews has all but vanished into the Westminster woodwork.

Information and accountability

The first issue raised by this explosion of government reviews and advisory bodies, then, is the basic democratic one of information and accountability. This is not to say that there is any deliberate attempt to "bury" potentially controversial policy reviews, but the sheer volume of those underway inevitably means that attention will be distracted from large numbers of them; in effect, they are "lost" under the mass of other government activity. Even MPs, ministers and departmental officials are unaware of many reviews with which they are not themselves directly concerned; the wider public is even more in the dark.

At the very least, therefore, a central register of reviews, task forces and advisory groups should be established, detailing each by department and including essential information about their terms of reference, membership, consultation procedures and reporting timetable. Details should also be publicly available about who is conducting each particular review, who it reports to and how it connects with other reviews underway at the same time. The reviewers should themselves be subject to review; the mechanisms for public and parliamentary scrutiny must be readily accessible and transparent.

Public involvement

Different reviews have established different standards of public involvement and consultation. A handful, such as the Football Task Force, have gone out of their way to encourage the public to have their say -- in this case including the organisation of open public meetings around the country to which football fans have been invited. Most, however, meet only in private. Many keep all their deliberations confidential. (This includes bodies such as the informal Housing Sounding Board forum, where none of the usual justifications for secrecy -- such as those concerning national security and commercial confidentiality -- can be said to apply.) Hardly any hold any public discussions.

As far as public membership of the review bodies is concerned, the response to David Blunkett's appointment of an "ordinary parent" to the Literacy Task Force tells its own story. In appointing Diane Wright to join the likes of Professor Michael Barber, head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the DfEE, and Ken Follett, the novelist, in advising on the implementation of the country's literacy strategy, Blunkett brought a maelstrom of media interest upon the head of his nominee. The media were drawn by the novelty value of the appointment; there has been nothing comparable in any of the 190-odd other bodies set up since May 1997. Whatever David Blunkett's original intention, it is difficult to resist the suggestion that in practice this amounted to little more than a public relations gimmick.

The same might be said of some of the "star name" appointments to various advisory groups and task forces, not least in the case of the Panel 2000 members, who include the Gladiators' star Judy Simpson, the fashion designer Stella McCartney (Paul's daughter) and the Channel 4 broadcaster, Zeinab Badawi. In this case, the public relations imperative may be excused since a major reason for their appointment is to promote Britain as "a dynamic, self-confident, outward-looking society" to the rest of the world. In other cases, there is less justification for the preference accorded to the "star turn" over less well-known "ordinary" members of the public.

Under-represented groups

Yet the government's commitment to a wider, more representative membership of public bodies is well established. The Nolan Committee's first report endorsed the proposals of a review by the Public Appointments Unit that the presumption should be that all posts in executive non-departmental public bodies (NDPB is the preferred government term for quangos) be advertised. And in January, the environment minister, Angela Eagle, took this one step further by advertising more than 200 part-time posts on bodies such as housing action trusts, regional development agencies and advisory groups that come under the auspices of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

This drive to open up membership of the DETR's 36 executive and 24 advisory NDPDs (involving appointments typically requiring one or two days paid work a month) was aimed particularly at "under-represented groups". "I want to see our public bodies truly reflect Britain as it is today," said Angela Eagle at the time. "This is an excellent opportunity for people from all walks of life to come forward for appointment. I want to stress that broad life experience, possibly gained through community or voluntary work, is just as valid a qualification as an MBA, and particularly urge more women, ethnic minorities, disabled and younger people to consider seriously making an application." No figures are currently available to give an indication of the outcome of these efforts.

The same rationale has underpinned other government initiatives. The local government minister, Hilary Armstrong, hosting a series of "local democracy seminars" around the country in the past few months, has said that: "We want to put local people in the driving seat on local government -- so that they are in charge of what the priorities are and how councils spend their money. That means modernising the democratic process -- so that it properly reflects how people live now. We want councils involving their citizens a lot more in establishing priorities." The health minister, Baroness Jay, has called for an end to what might be termed the "culture of gratitude" felt by many people with regard to the health service: "The British people endorse the public service values of our NHS. The issue is how to involve people in decision-making about their own care, how services are developed, and more widely, how to involve people in deciding how the NHS is run." And the public service minister, David Clark, in launching the 5,000-strong "People's Panel" in January (which will be run by the opinion pollsters MORI "to find out what people think about how public services are delivered and how that delivery can be improved") dismissed suggestions that it amounted to "government by focus group" with the assertion: "I want to look at the services government provides from the point of view of the citizen, and make improvements to the delivery of those services which suit ordinary people rather than the system."

Under-representative task forces

Yet, with that single exception of David Blunkett's appointment to the Literacy Task Force, "ordinary people" are conspicuous only by their absence from the policy review and advisory bodies set up by these and other ministers. A survey of 30 major task forces and advisory groups set up since last May (1) reveals that, of the "under-represented groups" singled out for special attention by Angela Eagle, women comprise only a little over one in four of their members, while a rough count of black and Asian members (2) suggests that they make up less than 3% of the total membership -- and are not represented at all on more than half of the bodies. Disabled and younger people are virtually absent from the great majority of policy review or advisory groups; a measure of the latter's absence is to be found in the fact that of 165 people for whom age details were readily obtainable, only two were aged under 30.

Table 1: Membership of 30 leading task forces and advisory groups

Total membership 449
Men 324 (72%)
Women 125 (28%)
Business/private sector 129 (29%)
Trade unions 26 (6%)

Apart from those who are appointed for their direct experience or expertise in the relevant policy areas, representatives of business and the private sector predominate among members of these bodies. In all, the private sector accounts for 29% of their total membership, five times more than the trade unions. (There are also more memebrs drawn from business and the private sector than there are women from all sectors.) Trade union representation, moreover, is concentrated in a small number of task forces and advisory groups, with just four bodies accounting for three-fifths of their total representation. Eighteen of the 30 bodies surveyed here include no trade union representatives at all; in contrast, only six lacked at least one representative from the private sector. Significantly, among those bodies which excluded any trade union representation was the Panel 2000 Task Force -- the country which gave the world trade unionism clearly has no desire to promote the fact as part of its modern image to the outside world.

No producers, no consumers?

This limitation of trade union involvement is not the result of any apparent pro-consumer bias. Indeed, consumer interests have virtually no independent representation on any of these bodies. There are no parent representatives on the school standards task force, no tenants on the Housing Sounding Board, no claimants on the New Deal bodies, no pensioners on the long-term care commission. Uniquely, the Football Task Force goes out of its way to take account of football's consumers -- the fans -- but even in bodies such as the film and creative industries task forces, which cover comparable areas, it is as though the likes of the film-goer or music-buyer do not exist. (Similarly, while the Football Task Force includes representatives of players, referees and managers, as well as of the clubs and the football authorities, there is no sign of anyone who works in the film and creative industries on their respective task forces. It is as though the government's view of the industries is one in which the entrepreneurs and star turns do everything themselves, including physically producing and personally purchasing their end products.)

Where producer voices are represented, it is generally as individuals rather than trade union representatives. Hence the National Schools Standards Task Force, for example, contains a large majority of people employed in the education service, but does not include a single represenative of a teaching union. This is not for the want of a certain kind of inclusiveness, since the task force has as its vice chairs two men who were previously thought to hold irreconcilable views -- Chris Woodhead, HM chief inspector, Ofsted, and Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer. As well as including the obligatory businessman (John Baker, chairman of National Power) and star name (Lord Puttnam), it also includes a fair sprinkling of seven headteachers among its 24 members -- as well as, unusually, one "ordinary teacher", Janet Major from Bungay High School. There are, however, no parents.

The fingers of one foot

In the health service, the minister Frank Dobson has utilised both "star name" outsider appointments -- such as that of Greg Dyke, chairman and chief executive of Pearson TV, to give the NHS a new Charter for its 50th anniversary -- and, working alongside them, its own experts and managers. Dobson has also announced a task force on involving staff in improving efficiency and working practices in the NHS, which he says will include non-professional staff such as porters, maintenance workers and cooks as well as doctors, nurses and managers.

"I want the task force to involve staff, professional bodies and employers," Dobson said in January. "And when I say staff, I mean staff. Not just the usual suspects. I want nurses who are still nursing, surgeons who are still cutting, people who are still pushing trolleys or cooking meals. Not just the usual suspects. Not just the great and the good. I also want some people from outside the NHS. The process of implementing the White Paper has to be a team process. It will require top class management but this inclusive approach can't be confined to the 'management team'. It's got to involve everybody. The doctors and nurses and midwives and medical scientists and therapists. Medical secretaries, receptionists, telephone operators, cleaners, kitchen staff, security staff, maintenance staff."

Unfortunately, on the available evidence, the sum total of medical secretaries, receptionists, telephone operators, cleaners, kitchen staff, security staff and maintenance staff appointed to the various health service review bodies, task forces and advisory groups can still be counted on the fingers of one foot.

The limits of pluralism

The commitment to inclusiveness and pluralism in appointments to these various bodies has other limits too. Diversity of opinion among their members has been kept within fairly narrowly defined bounds. When Alan McGee of Creation Records, a member of the Creative Industries Task Force, denounced Labour's welfare to work plans in March as "soul-destroying, incredibly naive, unfair and Draconian . . . penalising the lifeblood of our cultural future", he responded to questions about his position on the task force in the light of him expressing such views by saying: "They shouldn't have appointed me if they didn't want me to say what I think." Some members of the government, however, were clearly shocked that someone on one of their advisory bodies should think the way he did. The appointments were not meant to work like that at all.

For these are not advisory bodies in the sense that their members are chosen to advise the government on the whole range of public opinion on a subject. Nor are they policy review bodies in the sense that their members are expected to review the whole range of policy options. Anyone joining a policy review group in the expectation that they would be given free rein to develop their own views on what policy ought to be would be very much mistaken. This government's review process, advisory groups and task forces are about the implementation of policy, not policy-making. What the great bulk of the reviews are meant to do is to determine how best to implement a policy the broad parameters of which have already been decided upon.

In many cases, this is stated quite explicitly -- and may indeed be the only sensible approach. Nothing would ever get done if every review body was given the opportunity to go back to policy basics on everything they discussed. Hence, no one is left in any doubt that the principal purpose of the Task Force on Youth Justice, for example, is "to provide advice on taking forward an action plan as agreed by the interdepartmental ministerial group on youth justice". This is clearly the task force's primary, overriding remit regardless of what else it might say in its terms of reference about it being able to "propose to the Home Secretary action on any other youth justice issue". As the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, remarked in launching the government's plans for the reform of youth justice, "All those working in the youth justice system must have a principal aim -- to prevent offending." The task of the task force is to support the government in achieving this objective, not to review youth justice policy as a whole; it is has been set up to assist in the delivery of policy, not in determining it.

Predetermined objectives

It is telling that in another context, when rejecting the idea of a Royal Commission to examine the current drugs legislation, Jack Straw said that: "Governments set up Royal Commissions when they are uncertain what to do about something. We are not uncertain about this." Only one Royal Commission -- on long-term care -- has been set up by this government. In the great majority of cases where the government has set up reviews, task forces and advisory groups, it is a reasonable assumption that it is has a fair degree of certainty about what outcomes it is seeking. To this extent, the impression of inclusiveness and consultation is an illusion; as Alan McGee may have been only the first to discover, in appointing people to these bodies, the government is choosing them not so much for their independence of thought as for their ability to help the government in fulfilling its predetermined objectives.

There are several advantages to the government in adopting this approach apart from the obvious one of bringing in additional experience and expertise to help in finding solutions to practical problems and implementing government strategies. Appointments reward friends and supporters. They serve to keep potential critics quiet (although this clearly hasn't worked too well with some representatives of the music and arts world -- in addition to Alan McGee's outburst, for example, Lord Puttnam has used his position on the schools standards task force to weigh in with some trenchant criticism about arts teaching being "sacrificed at the altar of numeracy and literacy targets"). And they help to bind those who are appointed into the government's overall political project.

The inclusion of the likes of David Mellor on the Football Task Force and Michael Heseltine's continuing role vis a vis the Millenium Dome has helped to neutralise potential political opposition in both of these areas. And whatever other questions might be raised about the extent of business representation in areas such as the Tax and Benefits Task Force (where Barclays chief executive Martin Taylor has been given one of the biggest challenges in modern government on two days per month) or the Low Pay Commission (where three employers' representatives match three from the trade unions), it will be difficult for those business representatives to come out against policies that they have themselves had a role in devising and implementing.

Blairite consensus

But there is no room in this new participatory model for too much free-thinking, maverick opinions or advocates of alternatives to the preferred government strategy. The pluralism of government by review stops well short of permitting any serious challenges to centrally-determined policy. Underpinning it all, the unifying principle is to be found in the search for a new national consensus around the central tenets of Blairism. The policy reviews, task forces and advisory bodies comprise Tony Blair's much-vaunted "third way" in action -- the involvement of people of all shades of (centrist) opinion in coming together to produce the "best" solution to any given problem; an assembly of the "brightest and best" to come up with the answers to any of society's ills.

This ignores one simple fact: that there are some issues on which consensus simply cannot be achieved. Any attempt to contrive a consensus in such circumstances ends up being either dishonest, unworkable -- or both.

This has not stopped the government from trying -- or from adopting the flimsiest arguments in pursuit of this objective. No more so has this been the case than in relation to the strategic defence review, in which the Ministry of Defence has been attempting to create some spurious national agreement on the basis of simply ignoring the most irreconcilable schisms -- over nuclear weapons or the overall level of defence spending, to cite the two major examples -- that have riven defence policy for decades.

The defence minister, George Robertson, has said: "When I launched the strategic defence review at the end of May, I said that I wanted it to be open and inclusive, unlike the secretive and partisan reviews of the past. I firmly believe that there is a consensus on defence within the British nation, and I want this review to reflect that common agreement. I am sure that it will be possible to establish a wide base of support for the conclusions which the review will eventually reach."

A "wide base of support" is not a consensus. But Robertson is single-minded in pursuit of this illusion: "The aim is clear cut; to build on the developing consensus on defence and to establish the widest possible shared vision about Britain's future security needs and the tasks of its armed forces. The achievement of a national consensus on defence is not an impossible goal. It exists in many other countries. In the United States, a periodic defence review is an established part of their planning machinery, not a political football. This review gives us a unique opportunity to produce a non-partisan approach to Britain's defence in the next century. I do not want this to be a Labour strategic defence review, I want it to be Britain's defence review."

The limits of consensus

The notion that a "national consensus" on defence exists in the United States requires a wilful dismissal of large bodies of opinion that are not represented in the governing elites of that least inclusive of democratic systems. Agreement on a narrow range of defence issues among the political ruling classes at the head of the Republican and Democratic parties is a long way from general national agreement about defence policy as a whole.

The only way in which any review can be "non-partisan", as George Robertson seeks, is by the abandonment of issues of principle and by ignoring any strongly-held, conflicting opinions. The claim for a "developing consensus" on defence in Britain -- a country that has been bitterly divided (for example) over its possession of nuclear weapons for at least 40 years -- is a nonsense. This is all the more so coming from a man whose own Scottish Labour Party conference only recently voted in favour of scrapping Trident, a policy that is anathema to the present national leadership.

Above all, it displays a disregard for the fact that there are simply some issues that are not amenable to practical or technocratic consensus, and on which any decision will have a powerful body of opinion ranged against it. The business of government in such circumstances is not the pursuit of some spurious "third way" between one side to a disagreement and another, but the taking of decisions based on the underlying principles -- or ideology -- that brought it to power.

Underlying principles

One of the key problems with the current policy review process, however, is that there is no underlying set of principles against which policy can be set or judged, whether these be economic, moral, or whatever. Pragmatism alone is not sufficient. Merely asking the question "What works?" does not provide an adequate basis on which to choose between alternative answers. In order to make their "hard choices", governments of all persuasions need also to answer questions such as: Who gains? Who loses? Is this fair? Does it increase choice and freedom? Does it provide wider opportunities and greater equality?

The absence of these more ideological underpinnings to policy formation and review is not to usher in some new golden age of utilitarian pragmatism. It is to duck the difficult decisions that lead people to take different political standpoints in the first place. At its worst, this results in policy being reduced to a series of ad hoc decisions made by people who share no underlying objectives. Sooner or later, this false "consensus" will fall apart. Government by review, advisory body and task force is an attempt to take the conflict out of politics. But in the end there are always winners and losers. And if you don't have the conflict in the policy-making process, it will only erupt elsewhere.

Parliament and the people

Behind the government rhetoric about pluralism and inclusion, and all the talk of creating a new national consensus, there lies an older, familiar reality: one of government by elite. Representation on the various review bodies, task forces and advisory groups is so heavily skewed in favour of those in positions of wealth, power and influence -- in favour, in other words, of the status quo -- that it marks not so much a new direction in government as a remodelling of the existing order. Even where the intention is to improve the position of those who were previously excluded or disadvantaged in society, it is by paternalistic means (the experts know best, things being done for people rather than by them) rather than direct empowerment.

Real inclusion would involve the messy, much riskier democratic business of devolving power away from government -- and, in the context of this pamphlet, permitting people to propose or do things that may not always be the ones that the government wants. Instead, real power is being kept at the centre -- and what's more, it is being kept at the centre of the government, not in parliament.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the various policy reviews, task forces and advisory groups is virtually non-existent. And it is highly significant, moreover, that apart from the direct ministerial and departmental representation on these bodies, no role has been provided for MPs. Martin Bell, the independent MP for Tatton, who has been appointed to the Panel 2000 Task Force, is the only backbench member on any of these 192 bodies. When the minister without portfolio, Peter Mandelson, spoke recently of the decline of representative democracy and its replacement with new forms of consultation and decision-making, he could not have pointed to a clearer example.

Part of the raison d'etre of New Labour's love affair with the idea of government by review and task force lies in a growing belief that in a wide range of policy areas it is possible, in effect, to take the politics out of politics. To a very significant extent, it is also taking parliament out of politics, not to give power back to the people, but to enlist a wider range of elites in using it more effectively from the centre.


NOTES

(1) The survey looked at membership of 30 task forces and advisory groups set up by the government since its election in May 1997, including all the most important and highest profile bodies. The full list is as follows (the members of all these bodies are detailed in the appendix): Better Regulation Task Force, Bureaucratic Burden on Teachers Task Force, Competitiveness Advisory Group, Construction Task Force, Creative Industries Task Force, Disability Rights Task Force, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools Advisory Group, Electoral Procedures Working Party, Export Forum, Film Task Force, Football Task Force, Further Education Student Support Advisory Group, Gene Therapy Advisory Committee, Housing Sounding Board, Literacy Task Force, Long-term Care Royal Commission, Low Pay Commission, National Schools Standards Task Force, NHS Efficiency Task Force, New Deal Task Force, New Deal Task Force Advisory Group, Numeracy Task Force, Panel 2000 Task Force, Private Finance Task Force, Scottish Advisory Task Force on the New Deal, Skills Task Force, Special Educational Needs Advisory Group, Surrogacy Review, Wales New Deal Advisory Task Force, Youth Justice Task Force

(2) No official monitoring has been carried out. A crude count based on surnames, personal kowledge, biographical information and enquiries to government press officers and departmental officials identified 13 black and Asian people among the 449 members of the task forces and advisory groups covered in this survey (0.29% of the total).

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