An alternative approach to public services is needed

Joe Penny nefPublic services need a radical change in direction, and soon, argues Joe Penny, as he sets out three steps to making the necessary change.

The story of Sisyphus is well known. He was the Greek king who was condemned to Hades where he was tasked with rolling a large and heavy boulder up a hill, only for it to inevitably roll back to the beginning before he could ever finish. His punishment was the interminable, frustrating and seemingly pointless task.

Today this increasingly seems to be the fate of the public servant, tasked with making society more equal by meeting people’s needs through public service. Only, for them, the job is becoming harder. The gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ is widening apace; cuts to welfare and public spending simultaneously increase demand and reduce their capacity; and society is getting older, our needs more complex. As they toil, the hill gets steeper and the boulder heavier.

To avoid this Sisyphean nightmare we need a radical change of direction, and soon. We need an alternative approach to public services that takes into consideration: first, what we can do to transform public services for the better now and for future generations; and second, what we must do to change the context outside of public services – in the market and core economy – to ensure that inequalities of economic, social and human resources do not persist and are no longer reflected in and reproduced by public services. We need change within and beyond public services.

I think that there are three ways we can begin to bring about this necessary change:

1. Invest in prevention to make society more equal now and in the future
We must get better at preventing harm. At present we spend far too much time and money on trying to cope with social issues downstream – that is, once they have already become entrenched. Over time this has meant targeting resources on fewer and fewer people, excluding many others with lower order needs and making services progressively poorer for future generations. A preventive approach is needed across all public services. This calls for long-term planning, upstream investment and early action. It means taking a more progressively universal approach to public services, akin to what Michael Marmot terms ‘proportionate universalism

When designing public services to address social, economic or environmental issues we should always be thinking about prevention; are we just treating the immediate effects of harm or are we addressing the causes? How far upstream is it necessary and feasible to go? Of course we need to continue to address harm that has already happened and to address the consequences of this harm. However, over time the more we can move towards a preventive approach to public-service provision the more we will improve all people’s quality of life, and the more we will make better use of public money, reduce the need for costly state services and help to safeguard the future. In the long run preventive services are more equal services; they reach more people and help address structural inequalities.

2. Co-produce services to make services equal inside and out
If we are to address inequalities inside public services (in terms of access to and outcomes from public services) then we need to co-produce services wherever possible. Co-production means designing and delivering services through an equal partnership between service users and providers. At its heart it is a model of deliberative democracy applied to public services. This means that the people who use the service are equally involved in setting the priorities of the service and determining how the service operates, what it looks like and even how it is delivered.

Where it works well co-production improves equality inside public services. It also contributes to increased equality outside of public services too. Co-produced services enable people to access a greater range of support and opportunities within public services and beyond, in the core economy and the market. Co-produced services have also proved to be effective in generating better outcomes with people and thereby reducing inequalities over the long run. Finally, because they make better use of networks, resources and assets in the community, co-produced services are preventive and sustainable by nature. They prevent needs from escalating to acute and costly levels. This is good for current and future generations.

3. Address the root causes of inequality
As important as changes are within public services, and as transformative as prevention and co-production can be, we can only make real progress towards equality if we also reduce inequalities outside public services. Without structural reforms of the market and the core economy, the inequalities of economic, social and human resources we see between people and places will continue to be reflected in and reproduced by public services.

Of course, there is no single change that will bring about greater equality in the market and core economy. A wide range of integrated and structural economic and social reforms and transformations are needed. These include, but are by no means limited to: a re-evaluation of paid and unpaid work; a shift towards a shorter working week; improved working conditions; fairer wages, including ratios and living minimums; new forms of mutual and co-operative ownership; and a well-resourced system of social security.

Promoting change in these areas, some pre-distributive and others redistributive, will help make public services more equal. They will also, in time, reduce the need for many services – particularly at the acute end of the spectrum. This will naturally make our public services more sustainable in the longer term and better placed to promote equality for future generations.


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Simon Cooke
Simon Cooke
10 years ago

Truly delightful especially this bit:

These include, but are by no means limited to: a re-evaluation of paid and unpaid work; a shift towards a shorter working week; improved working conditions; fairer wages, including ratios and living minimums; new forms of mutual and co-operative ownership; and a well-resourced system of social security.

Every single one of these proposals – every single one – either increases public spending or reduces economic growth (or in the best cases both of these outcomes). I guess Joe Penny has a little money tree seedling?

Isn’t it about time this debate grew up a little and, rather than just rolling out the same progressive affirmation without evidence, actually asked a few challenging questions? We’ve done this tax the rich, redistribute, direct the economy, change the market line to death. There’s no evidence anywhere showing it works (whereas there’s plenty of evidence showing markets work) and, from the point of view of someone who wants my friends and neighbours to thrive, it offers no hope of an escape from dulling, stifling dependence of public services more akin to Midwich Cuckoos that benign lovers of equality.

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