Big challenges, squeaky solutions. - RSA

Big challenges, squeaky solutions.


In yesterday’s post I wrote about the need – in these times of falling expenditure and rising demand - to reconceive public services as processes of co-production in which users and citizens collaborate with public officials to generate social value. This perspective was, I said, pretty much absent from the recent Coalition White Paper on public services. 

This may all sound a bit abstract so here is a concrete example.  Part of the value of a refuse collection service lies in it maximising recycling. Were we still to treat this service as one we simply consume, which was the case until a few years ago, then the total cost of recycling would have fallen on the local state (which ultimately means us as hard pressed taxpayers). But because we have reconceptualised and redesigned refuse management as something which involves citizens, through the requirements of domestic recycling, the service is able to generate more social value with less additional public spending (indeed in certain market conditions councils can generate significant income from recycling).  We urgently need to think about how other services might be reengineered, and other social needs met, through a similar shift from delivery to co-production.

But the glaring gap at the heart of the white paper concerns new models and modes of public service. The white paper eschews planning and strategic policy making in favour of a model of incremental change driven by choice and hyper-localism. I tried to explain on Wednesday why I don’t think that will work.

Choice and localism are important parts of public service modernisation strategy but they can’t be the only, or even the primary, drivers of service transformation. This is not simply a defence of Whitehall but of the necessary leadership role of the centre.  Businesses – which live and die by consumer choice - understand this. For example, the head of sustainability at M&S recently stated that customers can’t be expected to take a lead in shaping ethical and sustainable consumption, as they can’t have the knowledge to initiate demand or the coordinating power to shape what is supplied.

But what makes the lack of central strategy more worrying still is that its absence hasn’t stopped the Coalition having policies or making promises. This means that in area after area we have a set of different aspirations without any serious attempt to articulate them into a coherent and realistic strategy. Here are three examples:

The health department is pledged to maintain – and in some areas significantly raise - health standards and outcomes, to reduce real spending levels by an unprecedented sum while undertaking a massive bureaucratic re-organisation yet not directly addressing the glaring structural problems of the NHS (too many general hospitals being the most obvious). I can find no one outside the Department of Health who thinks this is remotely possible.

Michael Gove is seeking to accelerate the pace at which pupil attainment is rising, to create a complex mosaic of newly independent state schools for which the centre will ultimately be accountable (because the role of councils in schooling has been abolished), and to impose a back to basics school curriculum and assessment system. Mr Gove is an impressive man and is in the Prime Minister’s inner circle but he will have to be the most successful, the most reforming and the luckiest Education Secretary in history to pull off all this (especially with not much money to spend). Something is likely to give, but what?  

There are many interesting and varied new ideas in the Localism Bill and other Government documents about creating new lines and models of local accountability. But how do ministers see this playing out? What will local governance look like in five years and are there any dangers about the different modes of accountability overlapping or clashing or breaking down? I have asked two ministers these questions. In both cases the reply was that accountability is never neat and it is not up to the centre to dictate. But this is surely disingenuous. To have an account of how the new governance might cohere is not the same as saying it will or it must.

Having had the privilege of working there, my central Government sympathies always lie with Downing Street. When he visited about a year ago, I warned the nice young man form the Number Ten Policy Unit that his expectation the PM could get by with a policy team of four enthusiastic but inexperienced special advisors might turn out to be a unduly optimistic. A few weeks ago, at the Institute of Government, I offered my limited wisdom to the large group of new advisors who have now been drafted in to support the PM.

So, here is my summer 2011 tip to Mr Cameron: Just because – so it is said – you are not, personally, terribly interested in strategic policy making, and even if you are – rightly – suspicious of grand Whitehall modernisation plans, that doesn’t mean you can do without this kind of thinking in the centre of Government. The challenges facing the public sector are elephantine but the public service white paper was bit of a mouse. Once the problems start piling up and public disillusionment sets in, long term thinking becomes even harder. It isn’t too late to get a grip, but time is starting to run out.

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