Britain’s New Giants: Public Services, People and Place - RSA

Britain’s new 'Giants': Public Services, People and Place

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  • Picture of Ed Cox
    Director of Public Services and Communities, the RSA
  • Institutional reform
  • Public services

In 1942 William Beveridge established the idea of ‘social services’ in order that the state – working in co-operation with individuals and households - might tackle what he defined as the five ‘Giant Evils’ in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.

Last year’s RSA Event ‘The State of Welfare’ brought together three protagonists to reflect on Beveridge’s Five Giants seventy-five years on. They provided interesting evidence of the continued existence of each, even if in quite different forms: squalor (the housing crisis), ignorance (access to broadband), want (foodbanks), idleness (economic insecurity), and disease (diabetes, dementia etc.). Their gloomy account was buoyed by the platitude that “at least the welfare state still exists”.

Some would question even that. Of course, many of the public services that Beveridge first designed still exist today but the language of ‘welfare’ and ‘social security’ have become pejorative terms and we are much more comfortable now discussing ‘public services’.

This change in language has been accompanied by a movement away from notions of top-down national provision towards concepts such as ‘social productivity’, coined by the RSA’s 2020 Public Service Commission, and more asset-based approaches.  Hilary Cottam’s Beveridge 4.0 report explicitly rejects the idea that we should redefine the Giants. Instead, she argues for a ‘new lens’ to look at social issues and ‘five core principles for a 21st century welfare state’.

The public service reform agenda can now be characterised as a mish-mash of well-intended programmes, processes and principles with a whole new lexicon of collaboration, co-production and co-design. Too often though, this worthy reframing is detached from the realities of real-world service provision and several steps removed from the ‘ills’ - or opportunities - we witness in our day to day lives. Despite numerous pilot projects developing here and there, few seem to have had any great influence on our highly centralised mainstream service provision.

For this reason, the RSA’s Action & Research Centre is undertaking a review of its work on public services and communities, exploring the new Giants that afflict 21st century Britain and questioning concepts of welfare, public service and inclusive growth. To begin this process, throughout the summer of 2018, the RSA is holding a series of events around the country in order to gather the experiences and expertise of RSA Fellows working in the fields of public service and inclusive growth.

These events are open to all and we welcome anyone interested in the topic to attend. At each event we want to explore the following questions:

  • How would we define the ‘Giant Evils’ facing 21st century Britain? How far do they differ from those identified by William Beveridge and how they are affecting our day-to-day lives? What are the ‘outcomes’ that citizens are concerned about today?
  • What are the opportunities that lie before us? How has our understanding of public service changed and how can abstract concepts such as ‘social productivity’ and ‘inclusive growth’ become more embedded in policy and practice on the ground?
  • What does reform look like? Are our ‘giants’ so different and great that we require the radical and revolutionary approach espoused by Beveridge and the formation of brand new institutions and ways of working? Or is there sufficient good practice emerging that our primary task is to experiment, network and spread?

Each event will include a short presentation of some of the latest thinking about public service reform and inclusive growth building on the RSA’s ‘Think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ approach to social change but the majority of our session will be devoted to debate and discussion with opportunities to learn about local good practice and for Fellows to share their own ideas. 

If you are unable to attend an event but are interested in our work on Public Service Reform, sign up below for regular updates. 


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  • Hi Ed,  I would really love to be part of this discussion.  I've written this booklet about how we've rapidly transformed healthcare planning in West Cumbria through co-production.  It also covers the importance of reforming the regulation of healthcare.

    I can send you a pdf if you like.  I'll send you a request to link on Linkedin so you can easily find me.

    I can't make any of the events but I think I've been thinking about and working on the problems that concern you in a really relevant way and I'd like to be involved.

  • Fascinating debate of our times, and great to identify the use and change in language. To identify 'lack of broadband' as the most relevant illustration of ignorance, for example, is to me an indication of how (language) interpretation can be manipulated to reflect the hobby horse of the moment, rather than address the fundamentals (education, in this instance). 

    Additionally, can any of this be meaningfully addressed without discussion of funding? 

    • Thanks for your comment. We're absolutely committed to getting to 'the fundamentals' and talking about funding so I do hope you can get along to one of the sessions or feed in in some other way. 

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