The questions posed by 2020


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.

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