Today sees the launch of the final report of the 2020 Commission on the Future of Public Services, which has been based at the RSA and on which I served as a commissioner. The report has received a lot of coverage including two segments on this morning’s Today Programme.
I was on the second of these. As John Humphrys framed the report in terms of the Big Society, the discussion focussed largely on the question of whether citizens would be willing to be more engaged or to volunteer, for example, to run a local park or library.
As is to be expected with such a broad ranging – but thankfully short – report, different parts of the media have picked up different elements. If I had been given an open mike to say what I think are the most important points, especially as they relate to current policy debates, I would have chosen these three:
Not just the immediate fiscal squeeze but broader pressures, most obviously population ageing, mean we must get more for less if public service outcomes are to be maintained, let alone improved. This means we need citizens to be more engaged, more resourceful, and more pro-social. Already there is a great deal of good practice on citizen engagement but it is very patchy and fragile. We can’t expect more of citizens if we don’t give them more power either directly or by taking decisions closer to them, or by giving them better information about what they receive, how much it costs and how it might be done differently.
Privileged areas have got a lot of capacity to tap into in terms of the resources, expectations and abilities of their citizens. But it is deprived communities which can gain the most from a new relationship between the public sector and the citizen. So, even in the context of austerity, we need to invest in building the capacity of those communities. Building the Big Society requires a big dollop of redistribution.
Although the Coalition’s rhetoric about devolving power seems heartfelt (see this piece from David Cameron in the Observer), the reality is less convincing. In relation to welfare to work, schools planning and oversight, and NHS commissioning, local government’s influence is being further diminished. Given the centrality of worklessness, healthcare and education to any area’s prospects, to remove these issues from local democratic co-ordination makes effective joined-up strategy close to impossible.
My suspicion is that our report would be welcomed in Number Ten and ignored in the Treasury. It fits with the philosophy of the Coalition but not with the concrete policies emerging from many departments. The really big question now is whether the ideals of the Big Society will shape the strategy for the comprehensive spending review. If yes we would be in for a challenging but also very creative time in public services; if ‘no’ then the next few years may indeed – as the TUC suggests – be a period of pretty unmitigated pain and conflict.
I have just spoken at an event hosted by the Public Management and Policy Association. As the topic was public service reform I had to wrestle with a way of describing the Coalition’s strategy. So what you are about to read is at least new even if it isn’t original or well-developed.
I decided to label the Coalition’s emerging model for public services as ‘civic markets’. This describes the attempt to bind together a strategy for civic renewal (the Big Society) with a more traditional right of centre (accelerated New Labour) faith in market mechanisms.
In essence this means that more of the public sector will be opened up to competition among purchasers and providers but a variety of mechanisms will be used to try to ensure a stronger civic element to these markets. The mechanisms include:
- Offering communities the chance to be purchasers and providers of public services – for example free schools
- Expanding the scope for individuals to be in charge of purchasing services – for example through the expansion of personal budgets into health care
- Outsourcing more public sector work and encouraging more third sector organisations to bid for public service contracts
- Encouraging the emergence of hybrid services which combine public subsidy with volunteer effort, for example libraries which are largely staffed by volunteers
- Seeking to turn parts of the public sector into semi-autonomous social enterprises, for example GP purchasing consortia
- Giving the public a stronger voice in direct accountability and decision making, for example election of police chiefs, community veto on public service closures and an enhanced role for localities in developing their own local housing schemes
- Encouraging civil servants to get out to the front line and work with community groups so that they become, in David Cameron’s phrase, ’civic servants’.
There are a number of issues which a model of civic markets needs to address:
- Coherence – these examples describe a wide varieties of models of ‘civicness’- from new forms of accountability to shifting services from the public to the community sphere. How do these fit together and could they conflict?
- Efficiency – are civic markets the best way to achieve efficiencies?
- Capacity – does society overall have the capacity to be the partner Government wants it to be?
- Equity – as capacity is very unevenly distributed will privileged communities simply be much better placed to reap the benefits of civic markets?
- Co-ordination – with elected police chiefs, GP social enterprises, free schools, community vetoes, where does overall place shaping and strategic planning fit (if at all)? Given the patchy nature of existing local collaboration and leadership, does this matter?
- Accountability – where does accountability sit in this system, and what will happen when things go wrong?
The speech went down OK with questions which sought to develop the ideas rather than contradict them. So relying as usual on the intelligent comments of my readers I might elaborate on some of this later in the week.
Civic markets have a lot in common with vision for public services developed by the 2020 Public Services Trust here at the RSA but there are also important differences. So these are bewildering times for public service commentators and advisers, our thinking needs quickly to catch up with the scale and pace of change in Government policy.
The 2020 Public Services Trust published its interim report this week. Although an independent entity, the Trust is based at the RSA, I am a Commissioner and there is increasing collaboration between the Trust secretariat and our projects team.
The interim report got some good publicity (see for example this very nice piece from the Guardian’s Deborah Orr.
The report calls for decisions about public spending to be taken with a clearer long term strategy in mind. In particular it urges three principles:
• A shift in culture: from social security to social productivity
• A shift in power: from the centre to citizens
• A shift in finance: reconnecting financing with the purposes of public service.
The task between now and the final report of the Commission will be to apply these principles to particular public services, looking across a ten year time frame. I am involved in the education strand of this work and one idea is to develop a workshop in our partner city Peterborough asking a range of stakeholders to imagine what a 2020 education system might look like under two conditions: much greater local freedom but no extra money.
The public has every right to be confused about where we stand on public spending. Today there are dire warnings about the impact of cuts in higher education funding at the same time as news that the UK’s borrowing figures are likely to be significantly better for 2009/10 than most economists feared and even slightly better than Government predictions. Perhaps it is not surprising that an IPSOS MORI poll commissioned jointly by the RSA and the 2020 Trust found that only a half of voters accept there will have to be any cuts at all in front line services.
But even though the economy is over the worst and the deficit is beginning its long journey downwards, there are still many hard decisions to make. My own view is that the period of spending restraint may be less severe than our worst fears but will also be longer lasting.
I get the impression that ministers and civil servants are under instructions to choose their words very carefully. At a recent event I chaired, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell used the euphemism ‘we are entering a period of public spending consolidation’. But at an event earlier this week another civil servant let slip a much more accurate phrase, before immediately making me promise to keep his identity secret (which is not of course incompatible with me naming him in my blog): ‘we are’ he said ‘entering a decade of dearth’.
Now, that’s not a phrase you’ll be reading on a political party poster any time soon.
The day started with a seminar hosted by the RSA-based 2020 Public Services Trust focussing on social media and the ‘post bureaucratic age’. The ‘PBA’ is often talked about as the Conservatives’ big idea: the future lies in strengthening the capacity of individuals and communities to meet their own needs rather than relying on an ever clumsier and more overbearing central state.
Our speakers, one from ‘The Economist’, the other working for the Conservatives, told a compelling story about the strengths of the PBA idea. They then explained why the internet and social media facilitate collective action and invite the state to move from a paternalistic to an enabling way of working.
I chipped in with a question about the relationship between online and real world sociability. Given that online networking has eventually to be supplemented by face to face interaction to lead to sustained social action, how does it overcome the hard problems of voluntary organisation?
For example, if community groups start to take on responsibility for providing public services they will find it hard to maintain their spontaneity and responsiveness in the face of stifling rules of public accountability.
Then there is the simple but grim fact that the bad is more powerful than the good. I mean by this that difficult, aggressive, dull activists drive away creative people quickly and permanently (bright people have lots of alternative ways of spending their time), yet it can take huge amounts of time and energy for a dynamic group to deal with someone who wants only to moan or disrupt. I call this powerful and depressing truth ‘the tragedy of the organisational commons’. Of course, the internet too is full of anti-social people but there it is much, much easier to ignore them.
The problem – I went on (and on) – is that we assume individual and collective empowerment go together when often they don’t. The television and the car have both provided people with huge opportunities and freedoms but their effect on civic life has probably been less benign. There may have been growth recently of people going to concerts, art galleries and lectures but this is ‘being alone in a crowd’. It is completely different to the hard labour and politics of working in groups, making decisions, dealing with differences.
As the internet makes it easier for people to get what they want from each other and the state, they may find there is even less reason to waste their time in the messy business of collective action.
The clever chap from the Conservative Party thought I was being far too gloomy. ‘The internet doesn’t just empower, it changes social norms’ he said. Look at internet dating. The technology is so clever and subtle that people have got over their hang-ups and are more than willing to admit they use the internet to find the perfect mate.
At which point I remembered something I have often heard from Tories: the main reason young people join the Conservative Association in affluent towns and suburbs is to find a future spouse.
So perhaps the rise of internet dating and the continued decline in Tory party membership (despite its greater success at the polls) are linked. By giving them the ability to find exactly the right person, dating sites enable the young and single to dispense with the clumsy sociability of the Conservative Association spring ball.
I was gratified that the most distinguished attendee at the seminar, Stephen Dorrell, concurred. The problem, he said, is that as the state becomes in many ways more powerful (partly as a result of the network effects of digital information), and as more people adopt a purely individualistic and transactional approach to meeting their needs, the collective institutions needed to hold decision makers to account atrophy.
Suddenly, the brave new world of the PBA was looking a little bit less bright and shiny.
Lots of travelling recently – I am writing this on a train from Chester to Bangor (and what a great train journey it is too) on my way to do some interviews for a couple of Radio 4 programmes I am presenting. Friday saw me near Stafford at an AwayDay for the 2020 Public Services Trust.
One of the sessions at the AwayDay involved my group examining the proposition that the state should move from the goal of social security to one of social productivity. The notion of social productivity is based on the idea that there’s a lot of good ‘stuff’ outside the state which is vital to the functioning of a fair and decent society: self-reliance, caring and volunteering, for example. Public services should aim to recognise, nurture and grow this ‘stuff’. The more services do this, the more productive they are.
Our conversation led us to see the key sets of issues around this proposition. Firstly, if the state is seeking to tap into and shape people’s own efforts, there is a need for strong legitimacy. Secondly, however commendable the principles might be, how practicable is the idea that the state can enhance pro-sociability? Thirdly, if services are the outcome of the combined efforts of the state, individuals and communities, how does accountability work?
From this sprang a surprising conclusion: if service outcomes flow from explicit collaboration between public servants and citizens, then those outcomes must be both negotiated and contingent upon that negotiation.
Among public service planners and commentators, there has been a common call in recent years for outcome based performance management. But, if outcomes are merged from collaboration between service providers and people in specific and varying circumstances, then they shouldn’t be centrally specified.
Instead, the state should focus its energies on the core functioning of public services. Whether school children achieve good exam results, neighbourhoods are safe, or towns become healthier should be seen as a function of the objectives jointly agreed between the state and citizens and the ability of both sides to deliver on their commitments. Rather than services promising to meet outcomes which are not, in the end, in their hands (in which case they may resort to ‘fixing’ the outcomes to meet the targets) they should ensure they are guaranteeing specified levels of functioning, levels which make them a credible and respected partner, with which the public can deal.
This is not a conclusion I expected to reach and I haven’t thought through the implications in full. Perhaps some of my readers can help?