Health minister Alan Milburn last week set out his view of the way forward for public services, harnessing the Blairite jargon of the 'third way' to range far beyond his NHS brief to take in education and social services.

In his speech to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy's annual conference, Mr Milburn sidestepped any reference to privatisation and spoke of a 'third way', not just for the NHS but for all public services.

Such a third way had to move 'beyond the old stereotypes of laissezfaire conservatism on the one hand and over-regulated state interventionism on the other', he said.

Mr Milburn told the conference that this meant devolution of responsibility for managing services had to be matched by improved performance, openness and accountability.

It must also be backed by strict quality control measures, he said.

Mr Milburn said there were six key features that defined the third way for public services (see box).

He cited the newly announced Framework for Assessing Performance as a third way tool which breaks away from the 'narrow obsession with counting activity for the sake of it'.

The framework's performance targets, which will be made public, will give a real picture of how the NHS is performing, Mr Milburn said.

Consultation on a draft framework has just finished. It will focus on health improvement, fair access, effective delivery and outcomes as well as efficiency and openness. The results will be published in league table form.

The areas covered had been chosen to 'capture what really counts for patients and staff ', he added.

'We will be looking to see that performance is improving across all six areas, year on year, ' Mr Milburn told delegates.

'From this we will get a real picture of how the NHS is performing - and the results will be made public.

'This will encourage benchmarking of performance, while the publication of comparative information will, in contrast to the secrecy of the internal market, allow managers and clinicians to compare performance and share best practice.'

Mr Milburn concluded: 'The third way is far more than a soundbite. It is a real and important development for our public services.'

The 'third way' The six key features outlined by Alan Milburn as defining the 'third way' are:

Clear national standards for quality and access, reinforced by monitoring arrangements.

Local responsibility for delivering services, backed by a performance management system 'that counts the things that matter'.

Open benchmarking.

Public involvement and scrutiny to hold local services accountable.

Incentives for the best performers.

Intervention and penalties 'to sort out failure'.