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An overview of the key changes in public administration in the United Kingfom from 1970 to 2002

Rosarii Griffin
p. 225-248


Cet article montre qu’il n’y a eu rien moins qu’une révolution dans l’administration publique au Royaume-Uni durant la période allant de 1970 à nos jours. Les quatre principaux secteurs des services publics abordés sont : la sécurité sociale, la santé, la sécurité et tout particulièrement, l’éducation. L’article aborde tout d’abord le rôle des autorités locales qui furent instituées à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle pour assurer les services publics et virtuellement abolies sous les ères Thatcher et Major des années 80 et 90. Les conséquences de ces réformes drastiques sur l’administration publique y sont discutées, ainsi que le rôle des nouveaux organes de contrôle (Quangos et NDPBs). Ces derniers sont destinés à : a) maintenir et améliorer les normes des services publics ; b) assurer les rôles traditionnels des autorités locales. Cet article s’achève par une brève discussion de la démarche du New Labour vis-à-vis du secteur public et les réalisations générales (ou autres) des différents gouvernements des années 1970 à nos jours.

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Texte intégral

The significance of context

1Since the 1970s, there has been a massive shift in key aspects of public administration in the UK, and while the year 1970 can be seen in some respects as a landmark year – with the election of a Government that took the UK into the then European Economic Community (EEC) – it is necessary to begin with a brief background to aspects of public administration before that and to define the scope of the discussion. This paper wishes to paint the « toile de fond » of such changes in public administration. In doing so, the author, coming from an education background, will place special emphasis on the related changes in the education sector over the past quarter century.

2By « public administration » we are concerned here with four main areas of social sector provision, the policies that inform them and the systems through which they are delivered. These four main areas are : social security, the health services, law and order, and educational provision. All of these sectors have their roots in the nineteenth century. Britain, as it was then, had a tradition of charitable organisations taking the lead in the first three of these areas (i.e. social security, the health services and law and order). It was not until the Liberal Government of 1906 that the idea of a welfare state became official policy. The creation of modern « Local Authorities » in the late nineteenth century, including the new County of London to serve the metropolis, set in place a locally accountable scale of public administration that was to survive for about one hundred years. Consequently the changes with which we are concerned here can be regarded as genuinely radical, albeit inspired or abetted by global trends and certain key events. Though not elaborated on here, the creation and role of « think tanks » over the period 1970-2002 has also had an important influence on public administration in Britain (see Appendix).

3It took two world wars to stimulate the birth of the « welfare state » at the hands of Clement Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945 to 1951, during which period the first truly universal public services in the four main sectors mentioned above were established. This « welfare state », as it came to be known, was designed by Beveridge, then Master of University College, Oxford. In particular, there was the creation of the National Health Service (NHS), the implementation of universal secondary education (as detailed in the 1944 Education Act), and state schemes for pensions and unemployment benefit. Public utilities and transport systems were, in general, nationalised and all was funded by different forms of taxation. Through several changes of government, this range of services remained in the public sector up to 1970. This created a new tradition and expectation of state support for society in general. It is that mental state that has since been challenged, though not extinguished by trends and events since 1970.

4In this paper, the different scales of administration that both create and deliver policies that inform the operation of public services will be mentioned. It must also be understood that the United Kingdom is a form of federation created in 1922 following the formation of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland. Hence, the « UK » is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (with « Great Britain » comprising England, Scotland and Wales). Scotland, for instance, has had historic independence and control over education and law and order for centuries. Major innovations and reforms in the political systems of the UK’s federation in the 1990s have had fundamental implications for some public services and their administration, especially the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Power Sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. These represent a significant degree of devolution.

1. The 1970s: key events and trends leading to reforms in public administration

5The election of the Heath Conservative Party Government in 1970, followed a period of a) rapid expansion of public services in an environment of democratic socialism, b) global economic expansion and, c) vigorous trade union support of pay increases for workers in the public sector. The high birth rate of the post-war years had fed through into a ready supply of young labour paying taxes that, in turn, fed back into further investment in public services. Nonetheless, there was sufficient disquiet within the electorate about :

  • widespread reform needed within the secondary schooling system

  • the inadequate supply of doctors, nurses and police

  • the high levels of inflation, and

  • the frequent strike action in support of annual pay increases.

6All of this helped to effect a change of government which, it was hoped, would curb these perceived ills. Although, there was little reform of public administration during the four years of the Heath administration, four key events however served to mark it as a turning point in the history of the public sector provision in the UK. The first of these changes was the appointment of Margaret Thatcher as Minister of Education. She, however, failed to gain sufficient support for a return to selective secondary education and the enhancement of the privatisation of education. This made her determined to prioritise this when she became Prime Minister in 1979. Secondly came the entry of the United Kingdom to the EEC. This meant that the UK needed to engage with new ideas and regulations emerging from Brussels. Thirdly, the global impact of the OPEC crisis of 1973 which cut dramatically the capacity of the public sector in the UK to maintain high levels of spending in real terms. And fourthly, there was the confrontation between the Heath administration and the coal mining community which was to have a dramatic and negative effect.

7It was in energy sector that the Conservative government decided to make its first efforts to break the public sector monopoly on the provision of utilities i.e. power supplies. The government met with militant resistance from the National Union of Mineworkers lead by a high profile communist, Arthur Scargill. Although there were violent confrontations in all the mining areas between the communities and the police, - including the Welsh and Scottish coalfields - it was in Scargill’s own area of the South Yorkshire (England) that daily battles were fought in the spotlight of live television coverage. The realities of the policy were made known through the media, and in general, the population at large identified with its effect on ordinary families. So although the strike was lost, it contributed to the downfall of the Heath government after just four years in 1974 and the return to a fourth term of office of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. Heath was subsequently replaced as leader of the Conservative Party by Margaret Thatcher.

8This change of government to Labour meant that while privatisation of public utilities and services were postponed, their contraction and rationalisation was definitely not. For instance, in the field of education, Shirley Williams had to preside over the closure of the majority of teacher training colleges and the rationalisation of the university sector. The middle school sector for children aged between 8 and 14 years, which had emerged in the affluent 1960s, began to disappear from most of the Local Education Authorities. This helped cut institutional, especially staffing costs, thus causing widespread parental discontent at yet further structural reform and dislocation of the school system. Ironically, it was in education that the Labour government created a form of privatisation by abolishing the « direct grant » grammar school component of the public (state) secondary sector. These schools were prestigious academic schools with « voluntary aided status » and much sought after by middle-class parents especially. They were given the option of : a) becoming private, b) coming under Local Authority administration, or c) closing down. The most prestigious schools went private. This created a significant expansion of the non-boarding independent (private) sector suiting middle-class professional parents who wished to maintain an integrated family life.

9In the mid 1970s, the National Health Service was beginning to suffer from the inability of the government to provide sufficient funding for its maintenance as a totally free public service. In real terms, the level of financial support declined, it became impossible to meet the salary expectations of medical staff - particularly nurses - in a national context of high inflation. As in the Miner’s strike and later on in education, the nurses and other hospital staff turned to the Trades Unions for support. There were unprecedented strikes in the health sector which, again like education, failed to elicit much support from the general public who felt threatened by the instability of what they had always regarded as secure bastions of the welfare state. As little investment was made in the expansion of training capacity for nurses and doctors in the health sector, increased reliance was placed on the recruitment of such staff from South Asia and the Caribbean, although one new medical school was opened, at the University of Nottingham.

10The mid 1970s proved a difficult period for a Labour government still committed to the ideal of nationalised public services. During this time, Prime Minister Harold Wilson resigned and was replaced by his deputy, James Callaghan. By this time, the economic crisis was deepening. There was also a massive rise in unemployment. This put an even greater strain on the Department of Social Security which had to develop and administer a range of benefits for the increasing numbers qualifying for financial support. The system devised for the provision of support became so complex that, in practice, such support became near inaccessible to those who needed it most. Crime rates also began to rise, especially in the inner cities, and policing became more difficult due to both underfunding, and the lasting image of the miners’ strike which had affected public regard for the security service in general.

11Also during the 1970s in Britain, « The Troubles » in Northern Ireland escalated (see Griffin, 2002). Related increases in social disorder and dislocation of services increased which lead to the fall of the Northern-Ireland Assembly under Ian Faulkner. Prime Minister Callaghan sent in the British Army to assist the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland, but this in turn lead to further conflict. As a result of a) the economic crisis, b) public sector strikes and, c) the problems in Northern Ireland, the Labour Callaghan Government fell in 1979. Following this « winter of discontent » - during which the UK public sector was rescued from collapse by a loan from the IMF - the way was open for Margaret Thatcher to win the resulting general election and set in motion a series of radical reforms of public services and their administration.

2. Public administration reform under Tatcher and Major: 1979 to 1997

12Margaret Thatcher took office with a mission. Her policies were informed by the global right-wing discourse and certain « think tanks » favouring the privatisation of public utilities and services. Her political opinions were also fuelled by the frustrations she experienced within the Heath administration. Thatcher’s term of office began in 1979 and lasted until 1990. She was finally deposed on two main counts : a) the Poll Tax she implemented, and b) her anti-European stance. She was succeeded by John Major (1990-1992 ; 1992-1997). Major continued, in effect, to implement the reforms which Thatcher had begun. He sums up the post-Thatcher period thus :

« Our response was inevitably piecemeal. A new, more friendly approach to Europe ; a fresh education agenda focusing on vocational qualifications and training credits for post-school further education ; an embryonic series of changes to improve public services, and the replacement of the Poll Tax. All of these had to be welded to the continuation of existing policies and the struggle against a worsening recession » (Major, 1999, p. 219).

13The following is an account of the general reforms in public administration implemented under Thatcher and continued by Major until 1997.

2.1. The reform of Trades Unions

14Although Mrs Thatcher was keen to effect radical reform of public administration in all areas, she prioritised the fundamental reform of the Trades Unions in order to avoid the potential damage of strike action. Legislation was enacted that greatly reduced the power of the unions to impede reform. Having achieved that, she then embarked on a range of policies to carry through as much privatisation of public utilities and services as possible.

2.2 New funding mechanisms and new regulatory bodies

15Thatcher’s model greatly reduced the power of the Local Authorities - traditionally the administrators of most public services - by introducing new funding mechanisms. The new funding mechanisms came directly from the national level and devolved to the local level but not to the local authorities themselves (except to a limited extent in education as will be described below). Instead the government either devolved funding direct to the institutional level, or to a QUANGO (Quasi Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation). QUANGOs refer to a wide range of bodies between the private and the public sectors that « have widely different powers, responsibilities and relationships with central government » (Dynes and Walker, 1996, p. 130). Examples of QUANGOs would be the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC). These QUANGOs have, in turn, became the new bureaucracies in education, as have the NHS Hospital Trusts in the health sector. An alternative term to Quango is NDPBs (non-departmental public bodies). In the two years 1997-1999, the first Blair government created thirty new NDPBs. However, over the period 1979-2000 the number of NDPBs has fallen from 2167 to 1035. (Apparently, this is due to mergers and not to closures, so that the amount of work the remaining NDPBs have to do is undiminished.) Approximately three hundred of the current NDPBs have executive powers (Greenwood et al., 2002). Whether economies in public service expenditure are effected therefore is not clear, but the main point is that QUANGOs, for instance, are not accountable to democratically elected local government, and therefore are susceptible to political influence only from the central government (see Chester, 1979). Quangos appeal to politicians because, according to Hood (1981) :

  • Governments need bodies from which they can distance themselves;

  • Temporary bodies can be conveniently and easily abolished ;

  • they bypass other (including elected) public bodies ;

  • they are useful political « window dressing ». (Hood and Wright, 1981, pp. 100-122).

16However, Chester (1979) warns that such a shift away from the simple democratic principle is dangerous and that « those that perform public duty should be fully responsible to an electorate - by way of either a minister responsible to Parliament or of a locally elected council » (Chester, p. 51-4).

2.2.1. Regulatory bodies

17In addition to the reform of funding mechanisms, the successive Thatcher and Major governments instituted more regulatory bodies (i.e. QUANGOs or NDPBs) to safeguard public interests in the privatisation of public utilities and services. Examples of these include : OFWAT (Water), OFGAS (Gas), OFTEL (Telecommunications) and OFSTED (Office for Standards on Education). Other such bodies regulating, for example, the privatised rail network do not have such standard acronyms. While the American system of public utility provision was taken as a model, it is not a just analogy as the US organisations are non profit-making. A great deal of concern has arisen in the UK over the for-profit nature of basic utilities. As Greenwood et al (2002) noted :

« While in some spheres the existence of these dedicated and specialised agencies successfully addressed most of the concerns about the impact of privatisation on public accountability, serious problems arose in others. Public concerns about the excessive profits being generated by some of the newly privatised utilities during the 1990s led OFTEL, OFWAT and OFGAS to tighten their price-cap formulas » (p.212)

18These concerns mainly arose during the Prime Minister Major’s administration of (1990-1997). Concern also arose over the massive inflation in the salaries of senior management and their financial rights on dismissal or retirement. While the amounts concerned may not be large in relation to the total budget of public utilities and services, immense scepticism and disaffection on behalf of the general public helped to retain support for the former totally public-funded system. However, while public/private partnerships was seen as the new solution to maintain « The Welfare State », the Thatcher and Major governments also believed this to be an intrinsic component to the introduction of market mechanisms for the delivery of public services and their capitalisation.

2.2.2. Regulating the health system

19In the field of health services, the Thatcher government attempted to create a so-called « internal market ». Long-standing Regional Health Authorities were by National Health Service Trusts (NHS), between which (and within which) competition was to operate. Strict budgetary limits were applied and overseen by the Ministry of Health. Performance indicators were agreed upon and the meeting of such targets was deemed to be an indication of the standard of health care provided in each Trust, hospital and department within each hospital. Funding mechanisms were devised within each trust, according to national guidelines. Financial responsibility was to be devolved to each hospital/Trust. Each element of delivery had its cost (e.g. each bed). Criteria were established to monitor performance (e.g. length of time patients waited for operations to be undertaken after referral to hospital by their General Practitioner) (GP) ; and the length of time they wait in Accident and Emergency (A&E) reception before being treated.

20On the basis of such a regime it is up to each NHS Trust to determine what health care it can provide most efficiently and in which locations. This lead to the rationalisation of services on economic grounds, which has become a particularly contentious issue. Inevitably cases arose, sometimes serious, where patients had to travel considerably long distances to obtain routine or emergency care. The NHS seemed to become an economically driven health system rather than a medically driven one. Doctors and nurses have become more involved in bureaucracy - providing information for the quality control and management systems – which has taken them away from patient contact for longer. Each hospital’s performance in every area of health is now calculated and league tables are published so that the public can see how their local hospitals compare with others. However, since in most cases the public do not have a choice of where to go for hospital services, how this helps them to benefit from the « market » is difficult to see.

21Hospitals that do not meet their targets are deemed as « failing » and are given new targets to reach. If they fail to reach them again, new senior management will be brought in from « successful » hospitals. Failing this, the next stage is to introduce senior managers from the private sector (industry and commerce) who, it is assumed, can reform whole hospitals and Trusts and make them more efficient. Already, non-medical services, like meals, cleaning and waste disposal must be made available for the private sector to bid for. This had lead to some bizarre situations and delays, including to the cleaning of operating theatres prior to emergency operations !

2.2.3. Regulating law and order

22Police forces are also being made accountable in a similar way, though the scale of their operations normally remains closer to that of the local authorities. Attempts to be economically efficient led to gradations of intervention (from « zero tolerance » to « no go areas » though the latter are normally denied). Since the tradition of each Local Constabulary being answerable to a Local Authority Police Committee remains, there is a much greater relationship to Local Authorities than in the case of health. However, the current Home Secretary is seeking to promote stronger control and new pay structures from Central Government. These have been overwhelmingly rejected. Again, league tables are produced and published so that the performance of each Police Force can be compared with others, especially in the same part of the country. Here again, these are not market forces but performance indicators. Similar to the public fields of health and education, there has been a significant increase in bureaucratic tasks for police officers, which could be resolved by the employment of « civilian » clerical staff.

2.2.4. Regulating education

23Given Margaret Thatcher’s frustrations as Minister of Education from 1970 to 1974, it was not surprising that she wanted make a key feature of her Premiership fundamental reforms to the state’s provision of education. She was given some momentum to build on by the effect of a major speech by her Labour predecessor, James Callaghan in 1976 when he strongly criticised standards in English state (public) education and the failure of the system to meet the needs of employers. Mr Callaghan’s advocacy of a greater role for vocational education in schools was picked up by the Thatcher government and promoted in the form of a succession of vocational initiatives such as TVEI (Technical and Vocational Education Initiative) which were sponsored by the Department of Employment rather than the Department of Education. This was an indicator of Mrs Thatcher’s desire to loosen the grip of education professionals on the education system, and to open it up to the influence of the business and commercial world. Similar to the National Health Service (NHS) she sought to create a quasi-market which would engender competition between schools and thereby raise standards. In terms of public administration the key changes were concerned with the governance of state schools and the reform of their financial mechanisms.

24As a result of the 1988 Education Act, the role of the Local Education Authorities was severely reduced. They were no longer the owners of schools in the state system. Neither were they the employers of the teachers. Instead these powers and responsibilities were vested in the Governing Body of each individual school. In practical terms, this responsibility devolved to the Headteacher and the Chair of the Governing body. All schools were to be inspected regularly by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education set up in 1992 under Major) which had considerable influence. OFSTED was to have an extremely negative and demoralising effect on the teaching profession especially under the leadership of the Chief Executive Officer, Chris Woodhead (Griffin, 1998) or, as expressed by Crook (in correspondence, 2002) « Ofsted’s powers have been more far reaching - especially in respect of presenting a challenge to teachers’ sense of professionalism - and these were particularly felt during the period of Chris Woodhead as HMCI ». However, according to Major who approved of its approach, « OFSTED was quite fearless in condemning low standards and opening up information to parents » (Major, 1999, p. 397). Should a school be perceived as failing, it would be put on probation by the Local Authority to reach certain targets and thereby raise their educational standards. Such standards were published annually in the national press as « league tables » of both primary and secondary schools within each Local Authority area. League tables of schools’performances were first published under Major’s government in 1992 ostensibly for the purpose of assisting parents in selecting a school for their child. Although, de jure, catchment areas and local authority boundaries were abolished in order to create a market situation, de facto, other regulations forced parents to select their nearest school. This was to avoid the chaos that would have arisen in public administration if all parents were able to exercise a free choice of school.

25Similarly, in order to reduce the influence of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), the government devised a system of Local Management of Schools (LMS). With LMS, the government passes funding to the Local Education Authority which is required to pass over 90 percent of it onto the individual schools. The Thatcher Government also re-created the « direct grant system » by inventing a new category of school called the Grant Maintained School (GMS). This meant that if two-thirds of parents of the school vote for GMS status then the school could « opt out » (leave) Local Authority control and receive all of its public funding from Central Government. In order to administer this, the Conservative government established the Grant Maintained Schools Council which distributed funding to these schools. Finally however, only ten percent of publicly funded schools opted for this (primarily due to the resulting increase of administrative duties of the school), and in 1997 the « New Labour » Government of Tony Blair abolished this scheme and put these « opted-out » schools back into Local Authority control. However, former GM schools are still allowed to select their own entry, which the majority of state schools are not.

2.2.5. The regulating of the social services

26The area of « Social Security » is another major field involving public administration in the UK. It covers a wide range of provision, but the main components are : state pensions, allowances for the disabled, unemployment benefit, and other benefits for disadvantaged situations. Some of this is paid for by income tax of those in work, while some comes from National Insurance contributions automatically deducted from wages and salaries of people in work. The National Insurance contribution is also a major source of funds for the health service.

27As far as the public administration of this area is concerned the main role is taken by the Department of Social Security (DSS) of the Government which has to deliver all these pensions and benefits. The field of direct contact with people experiencing social problems (the homeless, child protection, domestic violence etc etc) is largely in the hands of the Social Services Departments of each Local Authority, most of which are underfunded.

28A major area of public administration concern is working in harmony and efficiently with different charities that exist to assist with the alleviation of social problems, and also with the police. There are enormous legal complications in this area, for instance, as to where the responsibilities of each partner end. Unfortunately, often human tragedies occur (e.g. death of young children from physical abuse) because there are loose administrative ends and gaps between the legal responsibilities of the police, the social workers and the charities.

29In terms of national visibility, the largest area of concern in this area at present is that of pensions. One key issue is that arising from the projected inability in the medium to long-term of the Government to produce sufficient public money through direct taxation to secure the State Pension for an increasingly ageing population (see RSA Journal, 2002). People are starting paid work (and therefore not paying tax) until later than before, early retirement is increasingly common, so more and more people cease to pay tax at an earlier age. As most people are also living for longer, the demand for pensions is greater. That demand will continue to rise indefinitely.

30Those administering social security are also faced with frequent changes to the regulations as successive Governments look to find ways to raise more public money while appearing not to raise taxes. This puts great strain on an already immensely complicated system of public administration of pensions and benefits.

31All of this has raised the profile of private pensions as a way of securing sufficient income after retirement. Such provision was highlighted and encouraged during that Thatcher and Major years, and since.

3. The age of “new labour” under Tony Blair: 1997-2002

32The landslide victory of the Labour Party (larger majority even than Mrs Thatcher) in 1997 was achieved by shifting into the centre-ground and appealing to those who had given Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major their support in the four previous general elections. Hence the « face-over » and the new image of « New Labour ». Part of the appeal to these middle-class voters (known as « Middle England » in the UK press) was that in the 1997 Manifesto, New Labour committed itself to the tight spending projections arising from the planning of the Major administration up to around the year 2000. This meant that spending on the public services, education, health, social services (unemployment benefit and pensions) and even the military was curtailed. This was initially accepted by traditional Labour voters as a necessary price to pay for their party getting into office again. One of the benefits of this tight budgeting, and also the decision to stay out of the Eurozone for a while, was low inflation. This has been popular, despite its resulting in less benefits from savings and investments.

33« New Labour » also maintained the Tory reforms of privatising public utilities (water, gas, electricity) and public transport (railways, former municipal bus companies, telecommunications and postal services). The only major area still not privatised in this way is the London Underground (Metro) which was delayed by the establishment of an elected Mayor for London. This election was won by an Ken Livingstone, an « Old Labour » left winger, but the situation regarding the Underground remains contentious and unresolved.

34By 2000, there was only a year left before the next UK general election. During 2000-2001, New Labour announced plans to increase significantly public spending on education, health, social services and law and order. Europe (and EU issues) were left aside. Meanwhile, the Conservatives under William Hague made the mistake of placing at the front of their campaign a) the « spectre » of a European Super State, and b) the loss of sterling. However, voters were not particularly interested in that. The public was more interested in the forthcoming improvements in public spending that New Labour proposed.

35The 2001 election resulted in an even larger majority for New Labour. Now the chickens were coming home to roost ! Failure by New Labour to break away from the tight spending plans of the Major legacy resulted in massive under-funding of schools and hospitals so that the public service target figures in almost all areas were not met. Similarly, the underfunding of the police forces assisted the rise in crime, despite the economy still being strong and unemployment being held in check. Also, the new job market required better education and training than has been provided since 1997, indeed since the 1970s. Nor did New Labour instigated strong enough regulation of privatised services, and there have been some resulting spectacular collapses, the most notorious being « Railtrack » - a private company set up to look after and develop the tracks and the stations comprising the rail network. The failure of this company to invest in the tracks and signals lead to several rail crashes since 1997. Since, the company has been reformed and made into a non-profit organisation in order to try to improve safety on the railways by investing more in renovation, especially of signalling equipment.

To summarize

36The beginning of the 1970s faced the consequences of considerable public spending from the 1960s, mostly under the Labour Government of Harold Wilson. At this time, education in particular had benefited with increased capacity at all levels and had widened access. The various crises of the 1970s changed that position rapidly and there was much rationalisation of public administration and services, but not enough was done in time as the UK had to appeal to the IMF for financial aid. This debacle, caused in part by an over commitment to public spending, provided ideal ammunition for the new market-oriented approach of the Thatcher administration which began in 1979 and were continued by the Major administrations (1990 to 1997). During these eighteen years of Conservative Government, all public utilities were privatised, ostensibly based on the American model. This, in turn, proved problematic (as in the Railtrack case) as no noticeable improvement was made in the provision of services. Meanwhile, local authorities in the UK were marginalised as partners in the provision of public services. However, in spite of the implications of such policies which have resulted in the transfer of large parts of the former public sector into « private hands » during the 1980s and 1990s, Greenfield et al. (2002) believe that although this :

37« undoubtedly had the effect of reducing the role of the state in many respects, privatisation also gave increased emphasis to the state’s function as a regulator, or a guardian, of the public interest » (p.212).

38From 1997 to the present, New Labour has, in general, accepted the Thatcherite approach and kept public spending under tight control. There are signs now, however, under mounting public disquiet and pressure over the state of public schools, hospitals, and especially the railways, that New Labour is committed to significant increases in public expenditure, albeit funded by additional taxes.

39Probably one of the most significant achievement of New Labour in public administration terms has been the creation of The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland (power-sharing) Executive. This has meant that each of the four component countries has some autonomy in the public services/spending field. So « devolution » is probably the greatest change in public administration and it can be influential. For example, the Scottish Parliament has voted for the abolition of student tuition fees in Scottish Universities and also the provision of free health care for the elderly irrespective of income. These are massively attractive to people in England and brings the public service record in England under close scrutiny.


40There has been nothing short of a revolution in public administration and public services in the UK since 1970. This transformation is epitomised in John Major’s statement on becoming Prime Minister (1990) :

« I wished to improve the performance of public services. Where this could best be done in the private sector, I would privatise. Where not, I wished to devolve decision-making so as to cut bureaucracy and improve the image of the service and the morale of public servants. There should be no excuse for poor performance. The culture of the public sector needed changing, and I believe I knew how to do it » (Major, 1999, p. 203).

41Greenwood et al. (2002) believe that the decades since the 1970s have, « under a succession of Conservative governments witnessed a clearly interventionist strategy on a wide range of areas (e.g. Finance, compulsory competitive tendering, education, housing). Intervention became a reality even if control proved to be rather elusive, the aim being « to weaken and bypass elected local authorities and empower consumers » (p.134).

42The New Labour Government has continued with a similar agenda within the public administration sphere. Greenwood et al. believe that while governments can make as many reforms (or not) as they like in relation to local government and public administration, « they need to be accompanied by cultural change if they are to succeed » and that while « organisational frameworks are one thing, cultural change is quite another » (p.134).

43We are now entering the phase leading up to the next election (probably in 2005). The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has proposed massive increases in public spending together with rises in tax in order to pay for them. However, to date, the main criticism of the Blair Governments is that while the initial caution was sensible (indeed necessary to get elected) they have been too slow to change their political strategy after 1999. Ideally, the Blair government should have more put public money into essential utilities and services. However, there have been some major achievements, for example the instigation of a national minimum wage (recently raised again) and the cautious recognition again of the Local Authorities (though they are still chronically underfunded). It remains to be seen whether future Budgets will be radical enough to keep public support and commit sufficient funds to education, social services, law and order but especially, to the health service.

44In addition to this, the Government faces the problem of an ageing demographic profile, as well as the late entry of young people onto the job market due to staying in education and training for longer. This leaves a smaller « middle band » of wage and salary earners to be taxed to provide the funding. Hence the drive towards private investment and participation. There is a also lot of concern also over the role (and spending) of the Blair Government on supporting USA led initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere which is taking from money which could be more usefully used within the public administration sector in the UK. These are the key areas of concern to most people. However, it is widely understood that Blair’s reelection in 2005 will depend on the public services improving, and especially that of the National Health Service.

45It is clear, therefore, that over the past quarter century or so there has been a firm shift in government policy towards the marketisation and privatisation of public services. The rationalisation of the public sector was initially to curb spending which, given the economic climate at the time, could not be sustained. However, it appears that introducing the notion of a market into public services in an attempt to raise standards and improve efficiency has not work as sufficient « choice » mechanisms do not exist and simply cannot exist in a climate of rationalisation ! It is also debatable whether the creation of Quangos and NDPBs have actually aided efficiency or just created another layer of bureaucracy and furthermore, one that is not publicly accountable nor politically neutral. This has also created greater centralisation and has, to a certain extent, undermined local democracy. Finally, it appears that over the period 1970-2002, there has been a marked shift in the culture of the public sector- from a professional orientation to that of a business orientation (such as the health services), in the pursuit of greater accountability. However, it appears that as a result, services have become even more bureaucratic and less effective professionally. It is also questionable public-private partnerships can really work (e.g. Railtrack) given the profit-making motive of the private sector, which in the case of Railtrack, (recently disbanded by the Government) as it appeared to sacrafice public safety for profits. Hence, Londoners may well have good reason to fear the privatisation (or partial privatisation) of the Underground.

46Although the Blair government has softened the Thatcher-Major approach, their policies have not been so different. The 1970-2002 period can be characterised as a move from structures towards standards (Crook, 2002, in correspondence). However, it seems that in the pursuit of standards, quality of service and quality of professionalism has been neglected and in some cases, undermined (eg. OFSTED’s effect on the morale of the teaching profession, as well as successive governments’ anti-professional stances have weakened standards by making entry to these professions unattractive to high quality graduates). It appears therefore to this author that the narrow « benchmarking » and « league tables » need to take the broader context into consideration, especially in relation to inner cities. It is only then that the actual quality of service (in relation to both standards and profits) can be truly assessed.

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The author would also like to extend her thanks to Dr Colin Brock of Oxford University for reviewing this article and for his invaluable insights and suggestions for this article. Thanks also must go to Dr David Crook, of the Institute of Education in London for his useful commentary. The author would also like to thank especially Olivier Pierret, Ludivine Damay, Steve Jacob and Alexandre Piraux for their suggestions in relation to the text. Any mistakes herein are the sole responsibility of the author.

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Action Centre for Europe

Adam Smith Institute (1977)

Centre for Economic Policy Research (1983)

Centre for Policy Studies (1974 by Margaret Thatcher)

Centre for Reform (Public sector think-tank : 1994)

Institute for Public Policy Research (1988)

Institute for Economic Affairs (1955)

New Policy Institute (1996)

Politea (1996)

Social Affairs Unit (1980)

Social Market Foundation (1989)

Details of their published contributions to the debate can be found in Innis and Johnson (2001).

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Rosarii Griffin, « An overview of the key changes in public administration in the United Kingfom from 1970 to 2002 », Pyramides, 5 | 2002, 225-248.

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Rosarii Griffin, « An overview of the key changes in public administration in the United Kingfom from 1970 to 2002 », Pyramides [En ligne], 5 | 2002, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2011, consulté le 15 juillet 2018. URL :

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Rosarii Griffin

Researcher in the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches en Administration Publique (CERAP - ULB) and is a recipient of the Wiener-Anspach Foundation Scholarship for post-doctoral studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Prior to this, Rosarii was a Research Officer and ESRC (British Council) Doctoral Scholar at the University of Oxford, UK. Rosarii is a native of Co. Cork, Ireland.

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