Cameron’s ‘big idea’ is for a ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’ enabled by the internet. Will it work? Peter Hoskin and Neil O’Brien aren’t sure

The future: it’s all about computers. Anyone could tell you that. But not everyone gets quite as evangelical about it as David Cameron. Put the Conservative leader in a room full of tech-heads, web freaks and assorted blue-sky thinkers, and he soon starts to preach his gospel. Computers will catalyse our political evolution, he says. Armed with only an internet connection, the public will start seizing back control from an overreaching state. Everything will be cheaper, faster, better — and we’ll all be happier to boot. Burke’s Little Platoons have just gone digital.

Yet beyond this the narrative fizzles out — and rapidly. This bright future has been saddled with a name that only a management consultant could love: ‘The Post-Bureaucratic Age’. And, worse, the Conservatives are more than a little uncertain about what it will look like. They have launched the occasional initiative here and there, but the party’s brightest policy wonks admit that it is still a work in progress. With the election fast approaching, that’s something of a problem for them.

This is the point at which most readers would switch off, taking it as proof that the Cameron agenda is essentially cosmetic. But the struggle to formulate a post-bureaucratic age takes us to the very core of today’s Conservative party. The Cameroons regard it as their Big Idea, their guiding light; just as Tony Blair had his Third Way, and Thatcher had her copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. Understand it, and understand how the probable next government sees itself and its role.

So where to start? Well, Exhibit A is George Osborne’s plan to publish online every major item of government spending. It has an unforeseen cousin in the form of MPs’ expenses data, which various politicians and parties have started including on their own websites. This is the kind of information which only bureaucracies could access before. But the internet makes it easier to share this information with the people whom the bureaucrats are supposed to serve: you and me.

And with information comes power. There’s an item of wasted spending? Then an army of online activists will be all over it in an instant. An MP has been making outrageous expenses claims? Likewise. The Man in Whitehall will have no escape from the hyperscrutiny of the digital age. Groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and bloggers like Guido Fawkes, will feature more heavily in his nightmares than ever before — shouting and demanding that he achieves better value for money. Internet exposure will be a powerful enemy of bureaucratic excess.

The horizons for this approach are practically limitless. Online crime maps can give a community more information about how their police force is performing. The publication of minutes and briefing papers can help people understand why their representatives make the decisions they make. Websites allow doctors and schools to be rated by patients and parents, not an inspector. One result is stronger democracy. An informed public is one which is better able to decide for itself — about which hospital to go to, about which area to live in, about whom to vote for.

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And that’s what it really comes down to: the ability to choose. Post-bureaucracy is the logical extension of Tony Blair’s choice agenda: aligning public services to the priorities of the public and away from central government targets. But where Mr Blair failed in his task, the Conservatives believe that technological developments will help them succeed in theirs. Innovations like the BBC’s iPlayer, iTunes, and Sky Plus have already made the public used to getting what they want, when they want it. So why not use similar tools in local and national government?

But empowering the public needn’t require technology. There are plenty more ways to cut bureaucracy, if the next government really wants to get its hands dirty. For instance, some local councils have dabbled in giving social care patients control of their own budgets — letting them shop around for the best deals they can find. The patients can choose between, say, different types of wheelchair. Or they could choose something else altogether: personal assistance, gym membership, or even decking for the garden. Money is saved, and the patients are happier with the service they receive.

The same thinking could be applied to many other areas. What about letting people buy their own training, rather than having 27 different quangos trying to guess which skills are needed? What about tuition for gifted and talented children? Or, more radically, mental health and drug treatment for those who need them? Painting the private and charitable sectors into the picture would widen the scope even further.

We could go on (and will, in a report to be released soon). The whats and the whys of post-bureaucracy are the easy part. It’s the hows which are going to prove tricky. Just how would the next government implement all this? And how could it go wrong?

This is where the politicians’ plans are weakest. For them, it’s a case of just publish and be damned — get a whole load of information online, and let the public work their magic. But even that won’t prove simple. Much of the data either won’t exist, or will have been conveniently lost down the back of a departmental filing cabinet. The Treasury’s central database of spending — the Combined Online Information System — is a sorry case in point. ‘It’s full of junk,’ groans one civil servant, shaking his head.

In this and other areas, IT upgrades will be needed to help the process along. But, as we’ve seen with the infamous NHS computer system, this creates a whirlwind of problems by itself. Cost will be the one which most troubles the next government. With Gordon Brown’s debt mountain looming, savings will have to be made — but in the public sector it’s always easier to cancel an expensive computer upgrade than sack someone. The Conservatives have already shown which way they are likely to veer in government, with an announcement last week placing a cap on the cost of IT projects.

There’s a rather embarrassing secret behind all this: post-bureaucracy will make huge demands of the bureaucracy itself. If all those online tables and new computer systems are to work properly, then Whitehall will have organise itself like never before. Just imagine the kind of ironies this may inspire. A Department for Post-Bureaucracy, perhaps? Or PBA commissars embedded in each department? Most politicians will balk at the open goals that could be left for their opponents.

And who’s to say whether the bureaucracy will even co-operate? It’s hard to imagine many civil servants working to bring about what they may regard as their own obsolescence. What’s more, departments will not be eager to shine a light on the areas where they’ve been underperforming. There will have to be either significant incentives for compliance, or significant punishments for non-compliance. Either way, ministers and permanent secretaries will need to exercise great control to make it happen.

The further the next government goes with this agenda, the more enemies it could find ranked against it. Accountability and choice have never really sat well with the unions. And then there are the politicians themselves. One of the main reasons why only shadow Cabinet expenses are currently published on the Conservative website is that the party leadership is reluctant have a run-in with the backbenchers.

But the Cameroons are slowly consolidating their forces. They’ve enlisted a platoon of advisers — including Tom
Steinberg, the founder of mySociety.org, and Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov — to help them in this area. And their work will contribute to a range of policy announcements and speeches early in 2010. Indeed, we have already seen the Conservatives offering a £1 million prize to someone who can create a website which will help the public have a say on policy.

If it all comes together, then we may witness the biggest centre-right idea of the age. The goal is fairly clear: to shine the light of freedom, choice and competition into the areas which even Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s market reforms couldn’t reach. The NHS, the police, even parliament itself — all stand to be moulded by the demands and expectations of the people they serve.

But, as Mr Blair showed, the best-laid plans about improving British government can dissolve on contact with the ministerial red box. Like so much about the Cameron operation, the post-bureaucratic age has the capacity to bring radical transformation to Britain — or to flop utterly. And the Tories have about five months to work out which it is to be.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated