Public services and the Big Society - some reflections - RSA

Public services and the Big Society - some reflections


We had a great conference here today to mark the formal end of the work of the Commission on 2020 Public Services: forty five speakers (including Francis Maude) and over 230 delegates, many of them RSA Fellows.

Among the key themes was a general support for the idea of social productivity – that public services should aim to increase the capacity of individuals and communities to meet their own needs, an idea which fits well with aspects of Big Society thinking. The most commonly expressed concern was that in the cuts it will be core public services which are protected at the expense of community engagement, preventive services and investment in public sphere. The argument wasn’t against the overall fiscal package (that battle is over for the time being) but that some of the things that matter most for building civic capacity are the most vulnerable.

In the last plenary I attempted one of my extended metaphors. Tell me what you think.

There are many ingredients which could contribute to creating innovative, citizen focussed forms of public service. Among these are:

- The Government’s stated willingness to devolve power and allow local differences in service form and outcome.

- The growing number of talented people who seem excited by the idea of social innovation and enterprise.

- The possibility that more and more public services will be funded on a payment by results basis with new providers able to win work if they are willing to be paid in this way.

- The scope of information technology and social media to drive innovation, cost savings and new forms of user and citizen engagement.

- A growing interest among investors and entrepreneurs in social investment vehicles.

But for the ingredients to fuse successfully requires an oven that is sufficiently hot. Among the factors that determine the heat of the oven are:

- Money – enough must be made available from mainstream budgets, special funding streams and up front risk funding to provide the foundation for innovation and social innovation.

- Regulation – despite the Government’s rhetoric there is still a long way to go before the rules (central and local) really encourage innovation and risk taking.

- Public opinion – will the public (which often means the media) tolerate experimentation, shifting resources from one form of delivery to another and local variation?

The possibilities are big and the RSA could even be a player in a new mixed market of public service provision, but at the moment optimism feels like a triumph of hope over expectation. The taks now is to generate the ideas, innovations and business plans  and challenge Government to live up to its words.

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