Open door policy

Government wants to open up public services to a wider range of providers. But will market forces drag them away from their broader role in nurturing successful places? Clare Goff reports

‘The goal must be nothing less than a thorough transformation of our public services. The prize is a sustainable, person-centred system, achieving outcomes for every citizen and every community.’ Thus begins the Scottish Government’s Commission on the Future of Public Services, published last month.

Over the next 100 pages it sets out its vision for reform of the country’s public services to meet the challenge of increased demand and the strains on public spend. Its vision is of a ‘radical, new collaborative culture’ that focuses resources on prevention and outcomes, that looks to the long term and that shifts the relationship between providers and users.

Its key aims are tackling inequalities, integrating services and working more closely with communities and individuals. The report is peppered with examples of how co-production and innovation are already changing the face of public services in the country.

Compare the Open Public Services white paper, produced by the UK government in early July. Launching it David Cameron said: ‘It’s about ending the old big government, top-down way of running public service and bringing in a Big Society approach… releasing the grip of state control and putting power in people’s hands. The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best – it’s gone. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.’

Its key objectives are to increase people’s choice over services throughout England, to push power over services to the local level and to open them up to a range of providers. Accountability will be ensured by, among other things, a strong focus on payment by results.

The white paper summarises plans that are already being put in place, from community budgets to outsourcing to mutuals. But, while its people-focused, local approach offers the opportunity to rebuild public services, it’s hard to find a coherent vision within its 58 pages and, while claiming not to be ideologically-driven, it offers a future for public services that many fear will leave them open them up to the full exposure of the market.

During a discussion on the threats and opportunities of the white paper at this year’s CLES summit Mark Bramah, assistant chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (Apse), reminded the audience of the promises made ahead of the opening up of the gas and electricity industries to a range of providers.

‘They said it would create more choice, diversity and lower bills. Now we’re dominated by six national giants who act as a cartel. There’s no competition, no strategic long-term view, and huge profits. These are the long-term consequences of pluralism and competition.’

Speakers mentioned the ‘Serco-isation’ of public service provision, already becoming a reality through the roll-out of the Work Programme which, despite its focus on plurality and Big Society, has handed the vast majority of its contracts to the private sector, including Serco.

Richard Caulfield, chief executive of Voluntary Sector North West, spoke of his fears that the voluntary sector is being used as a ‘trojan horse’ to break up services. For while the white paper says it favours no single provider, the mechanisms being put in place – such as payment by results – and a lack of capacity make it difficult for the voluntary sector to take a slice.

Kevin Jacquiss, a partner at Cobbetts law firm, questioned the white paper’s presumption that plurality is always a good thing and warned of the dangers of greater fragmentation. The Scottish vision for the future of public services uses the word ‘integration’ on almost every page and makes a strong commitment to reducing silo mentalities; in the English white paper there are nods towards integration of services but no real measures to ensure that an increase in the range of providers involved in public services does not lead to less joined-up thinking on key challenges such as child poverty.

‘We need to embrace the opportunities and examine the threats forensically. This agenda is about the reshaping of the social contract and it goes to the heart of what government is trying to do
and of what our places are going to be like.’

But the debate was dominated by talk of accountability, more specifically about the need to ensure social values are enshrined in the commissioning process as it is opened up more widely. ‘Social justice needs to bleed through into this agenda,’ said Neil McInroy, CLES chief executive. ‘We need to embrace the opportunities and examine the threats forensically. This agenda is about the reshaping of the social contract and it goes to the heart of what government is trying to do and of what our places are going to be like.’

So what should be in the government’s vision for public services and how could the reform of public service provision lead to more resilient communities?

Primarily by supporting diversification of provision that improves both delivery and social outcomes. Diversity of public services is not new. Some councils such as Leeds outsource around 60% of their services to a range of public and private contractors.

Indeed outsourcing is being replaced by insourcing in many councils as the problems involved in outsourcing large contracts to the private sector come to light.

But by far the best examples of outsourcing are those which are supported and nurtured by local councils, and which place social outcomes at the forefront.

In Lancaster, for example, a local cooperative, Furniture Matters, now runs the council’s bulky waste service. The council previously collected bulky goods for landfill; Furniture Matters recycles the items to sell cheaply to disadvantaged backgrounds and trains local people. The council works in partnership with the co-op and has helped support its growth and objectives.

Across Britain there are examples of co-produced services – in which users, communities and service providers collaborate on service provision. Perth and Kinross Council, for example, set up a health communities collaborative in 2005, a project for which it called on older people in the community to lead. The project has helped to empower and strengthen its local communities as well as improve health among the local population.

Plurality for plurality’s sake will not transform public services: rather it needs to be strategically steered by government, both locally and centrally.

With such examples of clear methods of how plurality of public service can lead to better delivery it’s curious that the words collaboration and co-production are absent from the government’s vision. Instead there is a sense of outsourcing as casting off, of government opening up markets and then disengaging.

There is already anecdotal evidence of public sector workers being pushed towards mutual models in an effort to save costs, but as Ed Mayo, chief executive  of Co-operatives UK, says, there are three key questions that need to be asked of public services considering going down the mutual path.

‘Firstly, do staff want it? Secondly, do users want it? Thirdly, is the capability there to make it a successful business?,’ he says. For plurality for plurality’s sake will not transform public services: rather it needs to be strategically steered by government, both locally and centrally.

Without guidance and limits on plurality and a pathway which has strong policy levers and that nurtures and partners new providers, a monopoly – be it voluntary or private sector – will dominate and transformation of our public services will ultimately fail.

The idea of public services that are in local control that this white paper looks forward to needs a strong hand and bold steerage. In some councils this is already taking place. At Knowsley Council on Merseyside an ‘outcomes based approach’ is being developed. The local authority is establishing key goals around where it wants the borough to be and will then commission services that fit in with that vision.

Plurality is at the heart of its approach: it expects there to be a role for all sectors and the aim is to nurture ‘a sense of sectors working together’. Part of its vision will involve building up the capacity of local social enterprises to deliver services where appropriate.

West Lindsey Council has embraced co-production and refers to itself as the ‘social enterprise council’ for its funding and nurturing of the sector. Council chief executive Manjeet Gill is leading organisational change within the council alongside empowerment of the local community and sees a change in the relationship between the two as crucial to the success of public service reform.‘I see it as us moving from being a player who solves people’s problems to being a coach and then a groundsman,’ she says.

There is no single approach that will lead to public service transformation. Rather, a range of approaches are emerging that set out a framework for change. But at the heart of any vision of open public services needs to be a strategic, nurturing public sector which guides and leads its local community through transformation and beyond.


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