The lord chancellor’s Public Defender Service strategy illustrates the tendency of the state to grow, no matter what.

Of all the blind policy alleys this government has found itself disappearing up, the daftest must be the justice secretary’s decision to staff up the Public Defender Service.

To find himself being forced to replace self-employed QCs on zero-hour contracts with permanent, salaried and pensionable civil servants must stick in Chris Grayling’s Tory throat.

Whatever happened to Margaret Thatcher’s rolling back the frontiers of the state, let alone David Cameron’s big society?

If it’s any consolation, Grayling is in good company. The authors of a vogue-ish new book, The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state, would list the PDS imbroglio as a very minor example of the government machine’s tendency to defy attempts at slimming down. 

A more dramatic example from the criminal justice sector comes from California. Thirty years ago, 2,600 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association guarded 36,000 prison inmates. Today California has 130,000 prisoners, guarded by 31,000 prison officers, with the state spending roughly the same on prisons as it does on higher education.

This all happened in the birthplace of Proposition 13, which in 1978 supposedly launched the global fightback against ever-growing public payrolls.

For the growth in the Californian prison industry, we can thank an ‘iron triangle’ formed by the prison officers’ union, tough-on-crime Republican lawmakers and prison builders. We can see similar examples closer to home.

According to The Fourth Revolution authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, such alliances - together with the inherent difficulty of reforming the public sector - explain why the revolution kicked off by Proposition 13, and the subsequent Reagan and Thatcher governments, never really took off.

They describe it as a half-revolution, after the full-blooded revolutions that gave us in succession, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan state, secondly John Stuart Mill’s liberal state and Beatrice Webb’s Fabian one. (The authors are unapologetic about their Anglo-centrism.)

As Micklethwait and Wooldridge are editors of The Economist newspaper, you won’t be surprised that they believe the time is right to finish the job. Their reasoning, however, is interesting – and may be particularly pertinent to the courts and justice sector.

First, after a long, long wait, the productivity revolution promised by technology is really due to hit public services. True, we have heard this many times before, and with numerous false starts – in 1958, HM Revenue & Customs spend £1.16 on every £100 it collected in tax; today, after investing billions on information technology it spends £1.14.

The difference this time is that the internet will enable a ‘Copernican Revolution’, putting users at the centre of public services as well as enabling realistic comparisons of performance.

This leads us to the second reason – that we are now in a global race to design a government machine fit for the Google Age rather than the General Motors Age. Here, the role models are not European democracies but authoritarian technocratic Singapore, among others. 

In this competition, ‘Any state that harnesses the most powerful innovative forces in society will pull ahead of its peers.’

Democracy can compete – but only if the state reins back its activities, to free the machine from capture by special interests, corrupt parliamentarians and crony capitalists. We won’t do it by chucking money at sectors which patently don’t work, for short-term political advantage. 

I’m sceptical about some of The Fourth Revolution’s premises - the replicability of Singapore’s model, for example – but as a critic of successive UK governments’ attempts to reform the civil service I find the overall argument persuasive. I suspect Chris Grayling already has a copy on his Kindle or bedside table. Perhaps he should get around to reading it.   

Footnote: The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Allen Lane £20. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

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