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The economy will no doubt be the dominant issue at the next general election, but we can also expect public service reform to feature highly. So, given their prominence in political controversy and their importance in so many people’s lives what might be a new progressive approach to public services?

The first imperative is to seek to depoliticise the debate. As the policy shifts of the major parties demonstrate, there is nothing inherently left or right wing about whether to centralise or devolve, whether to trust providers or empower users, whether to favour uniformity or responsiveness. Indeed as Christopher Hood argued back in 1997, using our old friend cultural theory, the ‘messy dialectic’ (my phrase) of public service reform is as much a story of the battle between hierarchical (centralised, bureaucratic), individualist (market based), and egalitarian (producer led, devolved) models as between political ideologies.

Every reform strategy has its flaws which lead, even if after some initial progress, to the emergence of contrasting strategies. I heard a vivid example of this the other day in the story of a head teacher operating in one of the largest chains of Academies. The head had resigned in frustration at the control over his school exercised by the chain’s national board. A governor of the same school confirmed to me that there is minimal devolved authority in areas like budget allocation. So, Academies, a policy which can be seen as the final stage in the process of liberating schools from local bureaucracy that started back with local management of schools in the late eighties, has recreated the very systems of control (albeit based on an Academy brand rather than a locality) which the original reformers set out to abolish!

Getting the right mix of national strategy and accountability, local responsiveness, professional esteem, user power, continuity, efficiency and diversity is a never ending juggling act. The politicisation of reform not only denies this complexity it encourages Government opponents continually to argue that services are in crisis (which helps to explain why when NHS user satisfaction rates are at an all time high 4 in 5 of us agree that the health service ‘in in crisis’!) and, worst of all, it encourages the myth that public services could solve all their problems, indeed all our problems, if only we found the right mode of delivery.

This is why the first imperative in a new progressive approach should be the encouragement of new public service alliances bringing together policy makers, managers, professionals and citizens committed to strong public services but also, instead if lapsing into shroud waving or special pleading, to facing up to the difficult issues. This is what the RSA is trying to do with its education charter, which we hope will gain support from everyone from employers and academics to governors and students.

A national alliance of this sort is the corollary of the local collaboration vital to the progress of public services. There are important examples of how public services can move from being services delivered to passive users to co-productions in which professionals and citizens work together. One is individual budgets in social care where the client’s and carer’s desire for dignity and control (previously seen as problem by the system) is now a resource to ensure people get the service they want while at the same time reducing the need for council bureaucracy. Another is refuse collection, where the expectations of recycling now mean many of us spend more time sorting our rubbish than does the council. But the insight that public service outcomes can best be delivered by a genuine collaboration between provider, user and the wider community is still too marginal, and we need more ideas and innovations about how to turn this insight not only into new forms of delivery but into new services.

Finally, and here I echo points I made yesterday about ‘us and us’ political dialogue, we need to get real about public services can be expected to deliver without our explicit commitment and practical support. The idea that in a society where economic inequality has increased substantially over the last two decades (albeit falling most recently), we can expect schools to deliver educational equality or the NHS to tackle health inequality is ludicrous. It is equally deluded to imagine that we can expect cash strapped public services to close the ever widening social care gap. If we can’t find better ways of mobilising family and community support only those with the most pressing and urgent needs will get the care they need.

The power of public services is that they express our collective commitment to each other and to the ideal of continually improving our well-being. But we need to be clear about the depth of that commitment, about what we can expect from public services, about the trade-offs that have to be made, and that services that operate without public engagement and support are like a brick wall without cement.

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