Oliver Letwin: Fear doesn’t come cheap


Am I afraid? Does this face look afraid?

The comments of Oliver Letwin over the weekend have caused quite a stir within the Public Sector. In case you missed it (where have you been?) Mr Letwin said:

“You can’t have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don’t live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them,”

“If you have diversity of provision and personal choice and power, some providers will be better and some worse. Inevitably, some will not, whether it’s because they can’t attract the patient or the pupil, for example, or because they can’t get results and hence can’t get paid. Some will not survive. It is an inevitable and intended consequence of what we are talking about.”

In response some of our favourite blogs sought to make sense of things. Fighting Monsters took him to task in an article entitled ‘why I despise Oliver Letwin’ which amongst many points said the following:

What kind of society have we become when we feel it is appropriate for a Government ‘Policy Minister’ to drive a disdain and almost bullying approach to a public sector that provides services he will never need?

Meanwhile Flip Chart Fairy Tales got to the bottom of some of Mr Letwin’s more general arguments and looked specifically at the issue of productivity. After agreeing that there has been a fall in productivity alongside an increase in performance he argues about the upcoming savings agenda:

Will more discipline and fear help? Probably not. A bit more discipline wouldn’t go amiss in some areas but it’s not going to save £52bn. If anything, language like this will just further piss off the already pissed off public sector managers, the very people on whom the government is relying to make the changes work.

So what is left to say? Despite all the heat and light about Mr Letwin’s intemperate comments there is a real challenge for Local Government that underpins the Government’s approach.

Whether Local Government remains as a service provider or even if it becomes solely a commissioner the one thing we can surely all agree on is that we will require local government to ensure continuity of essential public services, regardless of what happens to those people providing the service, fear or no fear.

Under Mr Letwin’s model providers of these public services will be allowed to go bust if they are not up to scratch. Obviously, this is fine for services that people are not relying on but as the debate and concern about Southern Cross has shown if an important provider goes bust or leaves the market it is still incumbent upon local government to ensure that the vulnerable are protected.

This leaves local government in a really difficult position. If public services are to fail then they need to ensure that there is a replacement easily on tap and ready to launch. However, having excess capacity can also be incredibly controversial as this story from the BBC website shows:

Surrey County Council paid about £2.5m last year to healthcare providers for beds it did not use, it has emerged.

The authority said it was “worried” by the figure paid to health firms Anchor and Care UK but was working to renegotiate the contracts.

Under the terms of the contracts, the council pays the companies for the use of 1,000 beds. Last year, about 10% of those beds were not needed.

Opposition councillors accused the authority of wasting taxpayers’ money.

The worry I have (amongst many) is that in Mr Letwin’s world the providers of public services will be allowed, and in the name of fear encouraged, to fail whilst local government will be responsible for mitigating against the risk of failure.

Whether the public are willing to allow local government to pay to mitigate this risk is quite another question.

You see Mr Letwin, fear, even in the Public Sector, doesn’t come cheap.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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5 Comments on “Oliver Letwin: Fear doesn’t come cheap”

  1. cb Says:

    Thanks for the mention. I was so angry when I first read that post that I had to rattle off a response to stop me ranting in the ‘real world’! I accept it might not have been a very considered response but it was heartfelt!

  2. Tom Phillips Says:

    In many areas, “services” can be seen, if you like, as a hierarchy of separate smaller provision, projects, initiatives, etc. Something like youth outreach work is far more tangible to people as a “service” than is the “Community Services” umbrella that these sorts of things usually live, as one example. There are many other examples.

    The umbrella won’t fail in the sense of a big headline collapse (though Letwin might cause it to develop a management culture of paralysis by fear); it is the individual projects and initiatives that will fail, be closed, end and not be replaced etc. And these are the parts of local government that are nearest to the lives of real people. What then happens is that the hierarchy of projects crumbles. This is slow death, gradually recreating the polarised society of haves and have nots so beloved of successive Tory administrations.

  3. Performance Says:

    In defence of Oliver Letwin (don’t shoot me now!)

    His words were pretty appallingly chosen, but in truth what he’s saying isn’t that far off. If you take the opposite of fear (in a work setting) its the lack of accountability and complacency that has been rightly decried on this blog and elsewhere. And if what he’s saying is that we need to get beyond this to give people a real drive to improve, then he’s right.

    Just that ‘fear and discipline’ are entirely the wrong ways of saying it….sigh….

    (PS – excellent point about risk management too!)

  4. Andrew Says:

    When (not if) smaller providers of schools/hospitals/care homes fail the authority will not have the resources to provide the service again – as all the expertise and money will have gone to the now failed provider. So they will look for another provider to pick up the pieces. Inevitably that will be one of the current players – no time to set up a new organisation when kids are out of school, old people on the street etc. Over time there will be fewer and fewer providers and we will end up with several big organisations providing specific services (private firms) instead of several smaller organisations providing lots of services (local authorities). This may or may not be a good thing (personally I incline to not, but I can see the opposite view), but where does the view of local people, as mediated via elected members, end up when all the members do is meet once a year to vote on any contracts which fall due. Perhaps the Government should have some sort of localism agenda to deal with this!


  5. [...] find it difficult to rant about the things I should rant about. Oliver Letwin wants to spread fear in the public sector; I raise my eyebrows. Francis Maude calls it ‘absurd’ [...]


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