We need to talk about public services

Public service reform is the big missing conversation in British politics. This has to change so we can build a new vision for public services that can underpin prosperity and inclusion

Henry KippinSomebody once remarked that the future is defined by the things that aren’t said. I am, as I write, heading back from the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.  The conference season is a time for big political visions and bold statements of intent.  But this year has been an odd affair so far.  Lots of hand-wringing about Brexit, politics trumping policy (no pun intended), and all the inevitability of a leadership election that seemed a foregone conclusion before it started.

Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats feel miles apart these days, but there are at least some common (if ragged) threads around issues like improving economic productivity, localisation, and the need to develop an agenda for the ‘places left behind’ exposed by the Brexit vote. There is, unfortunately, also a common gap.

All three major parties lack a bold narrative for the future of public services. Public service reform is the thing that isn’t being talked about.  I don’t mean individual agendas for specific services, but rather a language about what we mean by public services as a whole; what we want them to be; why; and on what basis.  The fact that we’re not developing answers to these questions, nor even having a conversation about them, exacerbates fragmentation and siloed working.  It means that we struggle to talk about public services or social policy in an aspirational way.  It binds us to a form of grand bartering about how we can spend as little GDP as possible on things that are supposed to be life enhancing.

We need to ask the big questions about public services because, frankly, none of the other parts of our society and economy that we need and value will happen without them. The best local leaders know this.  Sustainable growth is impossible without human capital supported by early years, education, welfare and skills services that nurture productive people.  Devolution is a busted flush without a driving role for the public sector in those parts of the country where it constitutes 50% of GDP spend.  And we have already tried and failed to magic up a Big Society in the mistaken notion that business, government and civil society can work in isolation from one another.

Having a vision for public services means questioning the basis on which they currently exist. It is absolutely vital that we do this because blanket resistance to change is just as damaging as the unthinking application of ideology-driven reform.  We should reject simplistic notions that offer ‘easy’ solutions.  For example, ending austerity would stop some damaging cuts to the public services that many people currently rely on.  But it is no solution to the problems of rising future demand and a mismatch of service provision with increasingly complex needs.  Our health and social care services are being stretched to breaking point.  But can anyone tell me to what question bringing the NHS back into 100% public ownership is the answer?  These are complex issues which need progressives to think carefully and with nuance.  They need local leadership at the fore, and central government to create the conditions.

We need to think about what works from the perspective of those seldom heard: the 17 year old who wants to find work and who needs a smartphone and a way of getting out of the house and to a job on time; the older woman who is looking for a warm place and a good conversation. Working with the grain of people’s lives is good, but impossible if we don’t try to understand them properly.   Only around 15% of people say they feel they have an influence on the services they receive, according to regular survey work done by Ipsos MORI for Collaborate.  If you wouldn’t start from here, what, then, should be our starting principles for a different approach?

Collaborate is developing some of these principles through practice: that is, building a vision for public services and place by asking how change really happens on the ground. No slipping back into big Treasury style policy lever thinking; no making excuses for managing decline even when the context is acute.  And most importantly of all, let’s not fall into the assumption that the future of public services will always be defined by those who are currently running the show.  There must be room for the dissidents, unusual suspects and what Helen Bevan calls the ‘boat-rockers’.  This is the opportunity presented by devolution, as previous work by SPERI has suggested.

Some building blocks of a big vision are already in place, the most fundamental of which is a belief in the inherently co-productive relationship between citizens, services and society. Our belief is that, when outcomes and value are the drivers, we quickly start broadening our scope beyond today’s institutions and systems.  If we start by focusing on what Amartya Sen called the ‘things we have reason to value’ then the artificial lines between economic growth, public service reform and civil society begin to blur.

What we want is not another commission or report, but a movement for change that finds meaning in the real things that people experience and rely on. It is about building a positive case for investing in public services that can underpin prosperity and inclusion in society.  Our current model cannot do this.  So who wants to join us in shaping an alternative?