Expert group urges greater strategic clarity and stronger citizen engagement in public service reform - RSA

Expert group urges greater strategic clarity and stronger citizen engagement in public service reform

Press release

  • Public services

The Commission on 2020 Public Services publishes its first year assessment of the Coalition's progress on public services. The report is published as Parliament reconvenes following a conference season that failed to provide any fresh direction on public service reform.

The Commission finds a mixed picture of achievement. There have been strengths such as the scale of ambition on the big issues like long term care, clarity on deficit reduction and a power shift away from Whitehall to localism.

View The Commission on 2020 Public Services report 

But there have also been significant weaknesses on strategic coherence, practical support for early intervention and lack of citizen and community engagement in creating a new public service settlement.

Commenting on the report, Sir Andrew Foster, Commission chair, said:

"The challenges for public services are long term, complex and inter-related.  Our responses must be similarly long-term and co-ordinated.  They should build on the foundations of successful reform and learn the lessons from what hasn't worked.  There must be clarity about our shared social aims and a clearly understood approach to change.  The Coalition could learn from the Scottish example of stakeholder engagement and consensus building represented by the Christie Commission."

Ben Lucas, Principal Partner, 2020 PSH at the RSA said:

"Society faces big social and economic challenges, which go beyond even the grim current realities of austerity Britain.  We need an honest discussion about how we can maintain and improve public services in this new world.  Social productivity - in which citizens, communities, social institutions and the state have a shared responsibility for creating better social outcomes – needs to be at the heart of this."

Today's report analyses the Coalition's progress one year on from publication of the Commission's landmark analysis of public services. Today's main findings are:

Able to act:

  • Despite fears that coalition would bring instability or paralysis this has proved a robust Government.  

  • In contrast with a number of other Western governments beleaguered by market anxieties, the Coalition has space and time to act.

Serious about the big issues:

  • The Coalition has begun to take action on the ‘big ticket' expenditure items that are crucially important to a sustainable public services settlement, such as long term care, welfare and pension reform.  

  • It has been right to put these at the heart of its policy agenda, whatever views are taken on the adequacy of its particular policy prescriptions.

Localism and leadership:

  • Recent moves towards localism are welcome.  

  • But successful localism requires a robust framework which explains the benefits of change to citizens, sets out the responsibilities of citizens and localities, clarifies what is to be reserved to the centre, and establishes where localism is to be bounded by national standards.

Putting citizens at the centre:

  • Instead of putting social productivity at the heart of public services – so that citizens, communities, social institutions and the state can together create better social outcomes - the Coalition has too often appeared to be limited by consumerist models of public services.  These minimise our potential contribution, or make demands on us that are ultimately unrealistic: they expect us to behave as highly active consumers or volunteer activists.  

  • For example, in education, new institutions are emerging, powered by small numbers of highly active parents; but there is no concerted drive to put schools at the centre of community life, engaging all parents and carers in creating better education outcomes.

Intervening early and including the marginalised:

  • There have been important reviews into early years education, child poverty and early intervention, proposing moving the balance of public support decisively in favour of prevention.  A larger role for the not for profit sector in providing these services has been promised. 

  • But intent and implementation have been out of step.  Some of the voluntary sector services most active in these areas have experienced the deepest funding cuts to date. 

Strategic coherence:

  • Disavowal of a highly centralised, command and control approach to policy making is welcome, but the need for strategic coherence remains imperative. 

  • Across Whitehall, policies have been rushed into place that risk cutting against each other and undermining overarching aims. 

Missed opportunities?

  • The NHS is of enormous symbolic and practical significance in any narrative of public sector reform.  It is therefore unfortunate that an early opportunity to build a consensus around major challenges to its sustainability – such as the health and social care divide, and co-producing better outcomes for people with long term conditions – was lost. 

  • This has had adverse knock-on effects far beyond health.

View The Commission on 2020 Public Services report 


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