Every once in a while I get the chance to restate, and in so doing refine, a core element of my case for change in the world. So it was last night when the wonderful Tessy Britton (FRSA) and Laura Billings (FRSA) invited me to an ‘Ad-hoc enquiry’ dinner at the Hub in Westminster. I was a last minute stand-in and the group of twenty or so people sitting round the table eating soup and salad were highly impressive and accomplished, so it was quite a tough gig.
Today and tomorrow I will summarise what I said.
My initial pitch focussed on the social aspiration gap and the conundrum posed in seeking to close it:
* Growing demand and rising expectations combined with what is likely to be at least a decade of severe public sector resource constraint, mean we are on a default trend toward more and more unmet social need.
* Furthermore there are values which most people adhere to, for example, that children should have relatively equal life chances, young people should have jobs or useful education, whole localities should not be excluded from opportunity, which we are not in any way on track to deliver.
* On the whole, in relation to public service policy the Government and citizens want to achieve the same goals: better educated children, healthier lives, safer communities.
* Citizen behaviours are crucial to achieving these outcomes, indeed what we do as parents, patients, carers and neighbours is, arguably, a more important factor in outcomes than changes in Government policy or variations in the quality of services.
* Overall, internationally, the British are probably in the fair to good range when it comes to being responsible, resilient and altruistic, which is only what you would expect given our privileges as a nation. But there is huge scope for us to be better at looking after ourselves and each other.
* The conundrum (the question the Labour Government was mulling over when it commissioned work on ‘behaviour change’ and David Cameron was driving at with the notion of the ‘Big Society’) is how we persuade or enable people to align their expectations, attitude and actions with their aspirations so as to increase what the RSA has called the ‘social productivity’ of public policy interventions.
* There are some examples of the kind of change needed. Take refuse collection, where fast rising rates of household recycling are the consequence just as much of changes in the way citizens manage their rubbish as of changes in how councils deal with it. Similarly, at their best, personal budgets for social care take the desire of services users and carers for more autonomy and turn this into a resource enabling a reduction in bureaucracy and ensuring that money gets directed to meeting the needs and wishes of budget recipients. Yet still across most public services, and running through most public policy, is a model in which citizens are seen as demands, needs or problems rather than partners, stakeholders or assets.
* Is this because the model of public services as collaborations to achieve social outcomes between the state, civil society and individuals is simply unrealistic? Perhaps the underlying nature of British society – particularly inequality and limited social solidarity – makes a more socialised model of public provision impossible? Or perhaps we simply haven’t been willing to be sufficiently imaginative or ambitious?
After my pitch there was a fascinating conversation which shaped a conclusion in which we identified six elements necessary for the emergence of a different paradigm for the public sphere. I know it will be almost unbearable, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear what those elements are...