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Equality Exchange: Can public services help create more inclusive societies?

corpIn the midst of rapid societal changes, equality is often going in the wrong direction. Can new approaches to public services close the gap? A series of articles from leading thinkers in the UK provide ideas and inspiration.

The British Council is very pleased to publish short essays from the UK in conjunction with New Start. This collection of essays is part of a recently established British Council project called Equality Exchange: a forum for ideas, inspiration and skills that relate to how public services can contribute to fairer, more inclusive, more equal societies in the Nordics and in the UK.

Equality Exchange has been established in response to forces that are changing our societies in a myriad of ways, but often in the wrong direction when it comes to equality and equity. Evidence shows that public services are failing on a large scale when it comes to closing the gap between socio-economic groups and in addressing the resulting tensions. At the same time local innovations, often involving co-production of services by communities, government and business, are resulting in exciting alternatives to more traditional services.

The Nordic countries are often found at the top of the ranking tables that compare national levels of equality in society. Yet even in the Nordics the gaps are widening and demands for new responses to city developments are reaching a critical level. In the meanwhile the UK has to deal with how to provide services to widely varying sections of society in times of deep financial austerity. Each country has its tales of success and of failure – and there is huge potential in sharing these.

Equality Exchange started in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the UK in April 2013, but builds upon years of collaboration of a more bilateral kind on topics of direct relevance to this new forum. The work has involved advising partners on how to mainstream equal opportunities into their organisations and activities. For example The Diversity Debate in Oslo in 2011 included a session on Access and Equity in Public Services for All, and follow up workshops and exchange visits have built close relationships between policy makers and practitioners in the UK and Norway. Similarly in 2012-13, the British Council in Finland has lead an exchange project examining the issue of equal access to the cultural services and published a guidebook.

The reason for collecting these essays from experts and thought-leaders on the topic of equality in public services was threefold: to build a solid base of understanding in the field, to provide a common point of reference for project partners and to highlight just some of the innovative and successful case studies already underway.

The authors have in various ways illuminated what we mean by equality and public services respectively and how they relate not only to each other but to external factors beyond the realm of traditional services. They all start from a common understanding that universal provision of public services delivered by government is unsustainable and unsuccessful when it comes to equality. The time has therefore come for fundamental changes and with that comes opportunities to be more user-orientated and more effective regarding closing gaps between the haves and have-nots.

The five essays have all been written from a UK perspective but they also encompass how these views are of relevance to the Nordic countries.

The topics vary from the potential for using procurement to benefit communities in the form of apprenticeships and jobs, to the advantages and pitfalls of increasing individual choice of services. Co-production and involving local communities at the heart of decision-making are recurring themes, as is the need to prevent inequality through early intervention as opposed to dealing with the problems it inevitably brings.

Over the next week the five think pieces will be published on New Start, starting with Neil McInroy on fairness through progessive public sector spending.

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