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Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Big Yawn

Last week the UK Home Office released a White Paper titled "Building Communities, Beating Crime: A Better Police Service for the 21st Century." This was just the latest installment of the Blair Government's efforts to implement wide ranging public service reform -- an effort that is intended to touch on every dimension of domestic policy in the UK, from education and health care to transport and law enforcement. With general elections on the horizonin the first half of 2005, it is not surprising that policing and criminal justice have now been highlighted. It was, after all, his stand on crime in the early 1990s that elevated Blair to the leadership of the Labour Party.

What is different this time is, however, is that the central issue focused on in the White Paper is not fighting rising crime or even anti-social behavior (although these remain important issues). Rather, the stress in on improving police services by making them "more accessible, visible and accountable." This was evident in the rhetoric and news coverage surrounding the launch of the White Paper and the Home Secretary's (David Blunkett) presentation before the house of Commons. The primary goal was not to reduce crime, but to "embed a genuinely responsive customer service culture" throughout the UK's law enforcement community.

And it is on that point that I see a significant distinction between domestic public policy in the UK and the US. For while domestic policy agendas in the US are still driven by arena specific issues (e.g., crime levels drive law enforcement policies; traffic congestion drives transport policies; poor student performance drives education policies), the domestic agenda in the UK is driven by a broadly defined effort to improve public services. This is most clearly stated in a footnote included deep in the White Paper itself (in fact, in one of the appendicies): "The Government recognises that policing is, in some respects, necessarily different to other public services. But the debate around further reform of policing needs, nonetheless, to be seen within the important context of the Government’s wider strategy on public service reform."

Thus, the policing reforms put forward in the White Paper are not reflections of some crime fighting campaign or "broekn windows" theory; instead they are designed in accordance with the much touted "four principles of public service reform" set out by the Blair Government for all policy arenas: "namely, national standards, devolution and delegation, flexibility and expanding choice."

In similar fashion, public service reform is the overarching "driver" in many other countries as well, most notably New Zealand and Australia.

But in the US the very idea of a general domestic policy of public service reform draws little more than a big yawn from the media and the public. If Social Security is the "third rail" of US politics, adminsitrative reform is its "sleeping pill" issue.

I recall a story about advice given to Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign. As a policy wonkish advocate for reinventing government, Clinton was prepared to wax eloquent on improving government performance -- but he was advised by his staff to avoid the topic lest he bore the electorate. (Could it be that the famous call to arms -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- was as much a reminder to Clinton as to anyone?) Even the efforts Clinton and Al Gore made to hype their National Performance Review once in office ultimately proved futile -- and only a very small segment of the attentive US public paid much attention to public service reform for the next eight years.

Which raises an interesting question: why hasn't the US picked up on the global movement for public service reform?
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