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I have just spoken at an event hosted by the Public Management and Policy Association. As the topic was public service reform I had to wrestle with a way of describing the Coalition’s strategy. So what you are about to read is at least new even if it isn't original or well-developed.  

I decided to label the Coalition’s emerging model for public services as ‘civic markets’. This describes the attempt to bind together a strategy for civic renewal (the Big Society) with a more traditional right of centre (accelerated New Labour) faith in market mechanisms.

In essence this means that more of the public sector will be opened up to competition among purchasers and providers but a variety of mechanisms will be used to try to ensure a stronger civic element to these markets. The mechanisms include:

  • Offering communities the chance to be purchasers and providers of public services – for example free schools
  • Expanding the scope for individuals to be in charge of purchasing services – for example through the expansion of personal budgets into health care
  • Outsourcing more public sector work and encouraging more third sector organisations to bid for public service contracts
  • Encouraging the emergence of hybrid services which combine public subsidy with volunteer effort, for example libraries which are largely staffed by volunteers
  • Seeking to turn parts of the public sector into semi-autonomous social enterprises, for example GP purchasing consortia
  • Giving the public a stronger voice in direct accountability and decision making, for example election of police chiefs, community veto on public service closures and an enhanced role for localities in developing their own local housing schemes
  • Encouraging civil servants to get out to the front line and work with community groups so that they become, in David Cameron's phrase,  'civic servants'.
  • There are a number of issues which a model of civic markets needs to address:

    • Coherence – these examples describe a wide varieties of models of ‘civicness’- from new forms of accountability to shifting services from the public to the community sphere. How do these fit together and could they conflict?
    • Efficiency – are civic markets the best way to achieve efficiencies?
    • Capacity – does society overall have the capacity to be the partner Government wants it to be?
    • Equity – as capacity is very unevenly distributed will privileged communities simply be much better placed to reap the benefits of civic markets?
    • Co-ordination – with elected police chiefs, GP social enterprises, free schools, community vetoes, where does overall place shaping and strategic planning fit (if at all)? Given the patchy nature of existing local collaboration and leadership, does this matter?
    • Accountability – where does accountability sit in this system, and what will happen when things go wrong?
    • The speech went down OK with questions which sought to develop the ideas rather than contradict them. So relying as usual on the intelligent comments of my readers I might elaborate on some of this later in the week.

      Civic markets have a lot in common with vision for public services developed by the 2020 Public Services Trust here at the RSA but there are also important differences. So these are bewildering times for public service commentators and advisers, our thinking needs quickly to catch up with the scale and pace of change in Government policy.

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