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Government Review of Regulation Must Reflect Far – Reaching Public Services Reforms, writes

Public services are changing, and so too must public bodies.

So says the Audit Commission’s recent report on the future of regulation in the public sector, which throws open the door on the debate on how, and by whom, regulation should be framed and implemented. As public services have changed over time, and public expectations with them, we are faced, it contends, with a new kind of public service offering, one that not only delivers, but also commissions, creates markets, and innovates.

Delivery, its traditional raison d”etre, has also changed, with the development of a far wider range of providers extending beyond the public sector, which are becoming, as with everything else, far more personalised, customised and focused on the individual need, or so says the Audit Commission. Providing value for money, it contends further, is becoming a growing concern.


Doubts, it seems, have been raised as to whether the rate of change and improvement can be sustained by the continuation of the current approach to public service reform and regulation, and there are “even greater doubts”, it goes on, as to whether the current approach can secure the quantum leap in service quality that is believed to be both possible and necessary. Cue a “public debate”, seemingly Labour’s favourite past-time, on how regulatory public bodies will change to meet these developments.

Yet, to a large extent, there doesn”t seem to be a great deal of debate going on in this report. According to the Commission, which provides ten basic guidelines for changes in the nature of regulatory bodies and how regulation is framed within the report, the only way in which the above developments can be truly accommodated is through an enhanced role of Government. The latter it seems, will be able to determine the major framework within which crucial decisions such as the funding, commissioning, and delivery of public services, will be made.

While the report is careful to address the pressing issue of regulatory independence, it fails to reassure the reader that this arrangement will preserve it. “The Commission recognises that the future of regulation, including the number and shape of regulatory bodies and the roles they will be expected to play, is a matter for government and parliament to decide,” says the report. While operationally the regulatory bodies will remain independent, their entire remit and operational framework is predetermined by the Government, and therefore by its priorities, whatever these may or may not be (but we can at least be sure they will be partly political).

Dictating the Agenda

In essence this report recommends that the Government dictate the agenda, while regulatory bodies implement it. This arguably leaves little room for independence, therefore suggesting that the credibility of regulatory recommendations will be challenged. By the Commission’s definition regulation is intended to provide “assurance” and promote “accountability”, but what other assurances are we sacrificing if we allow our independent bodies to be subsumed within the Government’s own agenda? And how can we promote accountability when precisely the kinds of bodies designed to exert pressure on Government and hold it accountable, are being undermined by the Government itself?

As New Labour strives for further and further control, we cannot be surprised at these latest recommendations, but neither should we impassively assume they are designed simply to promote “improvement”, when power-wise the Government has so much to gain from these changes.

Michelle Price

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