Politics is the art of hard choices. But it is also the home of false dichotomies. When it comes to our approach to growth, some fundamentally unhelpful caricatures have taken root that need to be put aside. At their crudest, they pit public spending (and public services) against business and economic growth, with each - directly or by implication - antithetical to the other. Our public services are either social bulwarks to be preserved, now more than ever, as markets fail and communities struggle; or our sprawling public services are culpable for our spiralling debts and are continuing to crowd out genuine growth. Neither side acknowledge the need for change. Public services are to be protected, not reformed. Business needs to be freed to pursue the bottom line.
The problem is not so much that these positions about growth are widely shared or deeply adhered to. Even now, with nerves frayed by recession and painful public spending cuts, most political debate is considerably less either / or than its Manichean rhetoric might suggest. The problem is that the 'pro-growth' or 'pro-public service' caricatures have distracted from the fact that many of the key elements in the debate are actually in flux. Growth for GDP is being challenged by imperatives for sustainable growth; public services as dispensed through monolithic providers is being challenged by public service entrepreneurship and supply-side diversification; and business’ exclusive focus on the bottom line is being challenged by shared value approaches. Put all these changes together, and it becomes clear that the way forward will require new forms of joined up thinking at the top of government, and new forms of collaboration at every level. Public service reform and economic growth are two sides of the same coin, but they risk pulling in different directions without an operational framework and a shared agenda.
Today, the 2020 Public Services Hub launches a major new report - Business, Society and Public Services - that sets out what the key elements of that framework could consist of. It uses a social productivity approach to identify three preconditions for practical success. The first precondition is new shared spaces for policy making and business decisions. Government, local and central, has a strong role in convening these spaces, but its role may be to set the objectives and devolve the detail. The report looks at the Zero Carbon Hub, set up by the National House-Building Council with seed corn funding from DCLG, which has successfully taken responsibility for implementing the Government’s commitment to make new homes carbon neutral by 2016. The second precondition is new shared values. Again, government’s role is critical. Though it cannot and should not try and do everything, it can set clear goals and establish values, encouraging business and public services to think beyond delivery and create long-term shared goals. Public agencies can play a unique convening role – something we already see in the case of FE colleges. The third precondition is new shared resources. Business and public services alike need to look beyond their traditional resource bases if austerity is really to drive innovation, rather than retrenchment. For example, the report looks at how Sunderland City’s Council’s ‘virtual’ back office serves its own business needs, but also those of local businesses and start-ups.
It’s clear from the evidence brought together in this report that change is underway, and that over the long term we are likely to see the erosion of many of the oppositions within which we have constructed our approaches to public policy and business practice. The development of a new set of richer, rebalanced and mutually supportive relationships between public services, the private sector and society is a realistic ambition. But the report comes with a warning. Exciting examples of hybrid forms and shared responsibilities should not hide the fact that to date, this is change at the margins; and for most businesses and most public services, business as normal continues to hold sway. The challenge for political leadership is to resist the comforts of old oppositional caricatures, and do more than exhort collaborative aspirations. Really being in it together won’t be easy, but the potential gains are huge.