The effectiveness of public services is vital to our social fabric and important to our economic competitiveness. Public service policy will feature heavily in the forthcoming General Election campaign, with debate overshadowed by the fiscal deficit.
Looking at this context, surveying innovative practice in public services and reading through the ideas being offered by the parties and their think tank advisors, a number of key trends can be seen emerging. They are:
Resource pooling: After years of discussing better joining up of information, budgets and back office services we will reach a tipping point. The Total Place pilots are already pointing the way. This will be made more possible by technological advances – better data capture and greater interoperability of systems and made more necessary by the squeeze on spending.
The search for legitimacy: Public agencies will continue to search for ways of engaging the public in decision making and service design. This will be made more possible by new techniques for engagement ranging from citizens juries and on-line deliberation to neighbourhood decentralisation. It will be made more necessary by continued public disenchantment from traditional forms of representative democracy (including our ailing political parties) and the need to legitimise difficult spending decisions.
Behaviour shaping: Policy makers and service mangers will continue to explore how public investment can be better used to shape the values and behaviours of citizens. This will involve services turning outwards and acting as a catalyst for change in the community. This will be made more necessary as, without encouraging greater self reliance and civic activism, services will not be able to meet growing needs. It will be made more possible as we learn about what shapes behaviour and social norms.
Social infrastructure: The goal of behaviour shaping is already leading innovative public services to try to find out more about what makes communities more or less resilient and resourceful. This will be made more necessary as we see the consequences of weaker social bonds, for example more isolated older people. It will be made more possible as projects like the RSA’s Connected Communities develop ways for agencies to map social networks and develop community tools to strengthen those networks.
From spending on to spending by: Personal budgets for social care are often cited as one of the best existing examples of innovation. Recently, reports from both right and left of centre think tanks have stressed the scope for turning public services into co-operatives or mutuals. These policies have in common the idea that instead of agencies spending money on services for disadvantaged people, clients are able to be the managers of their own services. The potential benefits are more responsive services, empowerment of service users and even scope for welfare budgets to provide the seed capital for emerging social enterprises. This is made necessary by the desire and the need for disadvantaged people to have more control. It is made possible by better, more accessible, data providing information about the cost of existing interventions and helping individuals and organisations to argue that they could use funding more effectively.
Taken overall, these trends see the core role of the state move from service provider to decision maker and strategic enabler. It will not be a smooth process of change ; there will be many pitfalls and dilemmas on the way. A key factor will be the degree of decentralisation. If local leaders are able to experiment then the welfare system as a whole can learn fast about what works (and what doesn’t).
If we get this right we will see wave upon wave of public sector innovation resulting in a smaller but more effective and strategic state alongside a deeper public commitment to collective decision making and social responsibility. If we get it wrong – if, for example, budget reductions are too extreme and too indiscriminate or if Whitehall reacts to tough choices and public concern by centralising control – then we are in for a decade of retrenchment, resentment and a hollowing out of the public sphere.
The stakes are high. The major parties are on their way to this vision but none yet has shown quite the clarity or courage needed. It will certainly be interesting, and even possibly electorally salient, to see who commands this debate in the next few months.
Decisions made today shape the lives of future generations. It is vital we take a long-term perspective when it comes to planning public services.