This article focuses upon one particular aspect of new institutionalist thinking – that which analyses the scope for, and constraints upon, deliberate interventions in institutional change. New institutionalist insights are used to illuminate the challenges faced by the British Labour government in its programme for modernizing local government. The focus is upon two core concepts: robustness and revisability – a pairing which highlights the potential contradictions that exist within the new institutionalist approach to design. It is argued that New Labour struggled to achieve a balance between these key design criteria during its first term, with revisability increasingly sacrificed in favour of robustness. In its second term in office (since June 2001), Labour has sought to rebalance robustness and revisability, largely through the principle of ‘earned autonomy’. In this context the values informing the institutional redesign of local government have become less clear and more contested, and there has been a progressive shift from commitment-based to control-based strategies for change.