A strategy for hard times


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.

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