Leave the outcomes to the people

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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?

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