Man walks into a column, no.28: Ideology

When launching Monday’s Open Public Services White Paper, Mr Cameron said ‘It is not about ideology. It is about the best way of getting things done’. This left me wondering whether the White Paper had too much ideology or too little, and either way why ‘ideology’ has become something politicians want to distance themselves from as much as humanly possible.

First, let’s clear up some terminology. Dictionary definitions of ‘ideology’ include ‘a system of ideas and ideals, esp. one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy’, a ‘set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations and actions’, and ‘the ideas and manner of thinking of a group, social class or individual’.

Should this kind of White Paper be ideological, then, based on these definitions of the term, irrespective of whether it actually is? The Coalition makes clear that this is a ‘comprehensive policy framework’ but also, essentially, an agenda: because of the need to engage, consult and, y’know, listen the paper also outlines a range of ‘wider ambitions’ where the Government will consult over the next few months.

Policy frameworks and ambitions… sounds pretty ideological to me. Then there’s the joint Cameron/Clegg foreword, which is not so much ideological as fervent: ‘the forces which restrict opportunity for some inflict an injury on all’ and ‘every pair of idle hands, every mind left uncultivated, is a burden on all society as well as a weight on our conscience’. The overriding tone of the whole document could be summed up with the distinctly ideological phrase ‘power to the people’.

And actually I think this kind of agenda setting is an entirely appropriate focus for a White Paper of this nature. It’s not a White Paper about a specific sector or policy issue, it articulates the values, principles and underpinnings for the whole of the public service system.

So what’s the problem with ‘ideology’, then? Why when this clearly is and indeed should be an ‘ideological’ document is Cameron making such a point of saying it isn’t? When did ideology become such a tainted term, synonymous – it seems from the PM – with the dreaded ‘dogma’ (‘The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best – it’s gone’ he said)?

In this context specifically what Cameron means when he says this is ‘not about ideology’ is ‘this is not about us having an ideological preference for private sector companies taking over public services’ – in response to problems with Southern Cross and other companies messing up. They do, however, have an ‘ideological preference’ that provision of public services should be opened up to providers from more than one sector, principally in order to boost citizen choice.

More broadly what Cameron means is that Whitehall should not be dogmatically telling local areas what’s best for them. That’s fine in principle, but in order to make this work in practice the Government will need to do at least two things. First it will need to fulfil its side of the bargain, and resist the urge to squish local solutions that run contrary to its preferences (and there are plenty of examples, especially in local government, of this not holding true – the so-called ‘Pickles effect’).

Second, the Coalition needs to provide or at least facilitate support and capacity building for key local actors to step up. Commissioners need help in incorporating choice, diversity and a fuller appreciation of ‘value’ into their procurement decisions. Local politicians need support in order to become the ‘community champions’ the White Paper envisages. And local staff and residents need substantive reassurance that if they take a risk and try to take over running a public service, local and national government will be on their side. As far as I’m concerned, being ideological is not the same as being dogmatic: it’s about knowing where you stand.