A sign post not a satnav


Around a year ago the RSA 2020 Public Services Commission published its final report. This morning what is now the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub published an update, exploring the Government’s reform programme looked at through the prism of the Commission’s recommendations.   

My task was to reflect on the degree to which the Commission’s injunction that services be judged by their ‘social productivity’ has been observed. The answer, as those who read this blog regularly will guess, was ‘not very much at all’.

Over the long term socially productive public services help people meet their own needs, collectively and individually. The RSA bases this argument on our analysis of the widening ‘social aspiration gap’ between society’s needs and expectations and what the state can provide if citizens continue to think and act as we do right now. The goal of social productivity is facilitated by two ways of thinking about services.

First, service outcomes should be seen as co-productions, reflecting the combined efforts of state and civil society to meet shared goals, such as children having a stretching and enjoyable education, people living healthy lives and communities being cohesive and safe. Second, the key determinant of the success of a service lies in the clarity and quality of the relationship between service commissioner/provider and citizen/service user.

But despite the comprehensive and radical scale of Coalition reform neither of these ideas is prominent. Michael Gove will point to free schools. But not only are these marginal to the system as a whole, but it is far from clear whether – once they have been established - the relationship between school, pupil and parent will be any different (indeed, overall, it looks as though Academies are less responsive to parents and communities than their predecessor local authority schools – something which is storing up big trouble in the medium term). Meanwhile the Department for Education has shown no interest at all in encouraging or supporting new, more collaborative relationships between schools, parents and communities (by the way, drawn from our Citizen Power Peterborough project, here is an example of what the RSA is doing on this topic).

Similarly, despite some complex and rather confusing new accountability mechanism bolted onto Andrew Lansley’s health plan by the Liberal Democrats, the focus of NHS reform is on structure and  governance not relationships between the health service and communities (of place or of interest) or between clinicians and patients. The Government may be seeking to change the model of service delivery but service delivery it will remain. Increasing contestability and giving more power to GPs may make marginal improvements to NHS productivity (although there is no evidence that they will), but it is inconceivable that growing health and social care needs can be met without a more co-productive model of responsibility and provision.

A final example of the apparent incuriosity of the Government towards the relational nexus of services lies in higher education. Here the rhetoric of markets has left the sector hopelessly confused as to whether students should be seen as learners (which implies deference to the institution and academics) or consumers (which implies the student is in charge).

The great irony in all this is that many of the criticisms I have outlined can be seen to reflect a Big Society approach. Notwithstanding the massive pressure of spending cuts, a fusion of Big Society thinking and (for want of a better term) ‘post bureaucratic’ public service reform could have created a rich context for innovation. But as we all know, Whitehall as a whole views the Big Society project with thinly veiled contempt (judging by his conference speech, even the Prime Minister may now be giving up on his pet project).

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a fascinating conversation I had after this morning’s event. A senior advisor in the Cabinet Office approached me to say that he broadly agreed with my emphasis on reforming the relationship at the heart of public services. ‘But’ he went on ‘just because Whitehall isn’t forcing councils, officials and agencies to think and work in this way doesn’t mean there isn’t the space for them to choose to’.

In a way this is fair. It is certainly easier to talk to local government about citizen engagement and co-productive than Whitehall.  But the idea that local agencies will spontaneously take on the challenge of reframing services and recasting the relationship between professionals and the public is surely a triumph of hope over expectation. 

On the one hand, even if Whitehall has reduced some of the burden of central targets, it still places powerful constraints and incentives on public sector agencies and institutions. If citizen engagement is not among the incentivised behaviours it is likely to be pushed aside by those which are. On the other hand, just because the centre doesn’t mandate an action doesn’t mean it can’t provide leadership through - to list just four mechanisms -  exhortation, strategic guidance, dissemination of good practice or lauding the achievements of pioneers . When, I wonder, was the last time Michael Gove invited head teachers to London to praise their efforts in connecting with the community?

But while I think the advisor’s line of defence was a touch disingenuous, it does open up an interesting question (in fact, one that the same advisor had raised in a different context in the earlier group discussion): how does the centre promote a direction of policy without imposition? Number Ten is very keen on nudging as a method of individual behaviour change but what about organisational nudging? 

I don’t have any sources to hand, but this must be an issue which has been explored by academics or consultants in the context of various organisations. Any thoughts?

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