Think tanks tend to over-claim influence in high places. But sometimes you just have to admit no one in Whitehall is listening. So it is with this week’s Coalition White Paper on public service reform and the RSA 2020 Commission on the future of Public Services.
At the heart of the analysis of the 2020 Commission was the idea of social productivity: public services should be judged on their ability to enable people to meet their own needs individually and collectively. In essence, this means redefining the production mode of public services so that value (social outcome) is seen as the result of a process of co-production rather than one of delivery to consumers.
This idea features centrally in the core recommendations of the recent Christie Commission on public services which reported to the Scottish Executive.
Here are Christie’s top recommendations:
Recognising that effective services must be designed with and for people and communities - not delivered 'top down' for administrative convenience
Maximising scarce resources by utilising all available resources from the public, private and third sectors, individuals, groups and communities
Working closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs, maximise talents and resources, support self-reliance, and build resilience
Concentrating the efforts of all services on delivering integrated services that deliver results
Prioritising preventative measures to reduce demand and lessen inequalities
Coalition Ministers might argue that there is nothing here which contradicts the thrust of the White Paper but that would be disingenuous.
Christie (and the 2020 Commission) emphasise two things which get pretty short shrift in the White Paper. The first is the idea of better service integration. The White Paper gives some nods in this direction including a brief mention of community level commissioning. Also, the allocation of new responsibilities to local government such as public health and, possibly, skills might help join-up some areas of policy, but there is more on the negative side of the ledger.
The Coalition has removed the clunky but well-meaning measures the last Government put in place to encourage better integration, such as Local Area Agreements and local strategic partnerships. Schools are being encouraged to be entirely independent institutions with no encouragement to form links with other local schools let alone other services. There will be new, separate, lines of accountability for police and commissioning for health services. In many places – like Conservative-led Peterborough where the RSA is doing its Citizen Power project – local leaders will continue to work together on collaborative strategies but this will be in spite of, not because of, Government policy.
But more striking even than the limited enthusiasm for integration is the absence of any interest in the idea of co-production. As I said yesterday, the favoured forms of citizen engagement are through consumer choice and citizen control. But the notion that public services and institutions should involve creating shared social value through shared social responsibility is almost entirely absent from the White Paper. Children’s learning should not be something that schools do to pupils but should engage parents, pupils, communities and schools in a jointly designed and delivered endeavour. But such an idea seems completely alien to the current Education Department. This kind or re-imagining is also of no apparent interest to other major policy departments.
This speaks to one of the core weaknesses of the Big Society (which is still, I believe, an important concept): it largely relies on citizens spontaneously choosing to step forward (or doing this because they feel let down) rather than exploring how the services people use day to day could be redesigned to put user and citizen engagement at their heart. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Big Society does not receive a single mention in the White Paper (apart from a reference to the Big Society Bank).
I can see how the White Paper aims to shift power from the centre to the citizen and the community. And it many areas – such as greater citizen access to information – the Government really is opening up services. But neither shifting power, nor even sharing information, in itself creates value. And – as today’s report today from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility vividly demonstrates – we face an ever growing gap between public expectations and what the state can provide using existing methods.
If the Big Society concept is to regain credibility or to have any chance of success it needs to involve a fundamental value re-engineering of public services, one which citizens themselves would help to design and implement. Maybe I am being too pessimistic but as far as I can see the White Paper shows no awareness of, let alone enthusiasm for, such an approach.