Which City?

Monday, 11 July 2011

What does the Public really want from Public Services?

Today, the government finally publishes its public services White Paper
The vision for reform is underpinned by five principles, which promote a set of values appearing to occupy the middle ground

Choice – Wherever possible we will increase choice.
Decentralisation – Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.
Diversity – Public services should be open to a range of providers.
Fairness – We will ensure fair access to public services
Accountability – Public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers. 

Of course. This is what we want. Or is it?

There is no shirking the reality of life for many people who make use of public services in Britain
today, and the White Paper makes reference to widespread inequalities in  education,        health and poverty. Addressing poverty and inequalities better is an avowed aim of the document.
Empowering people, putting them more in control is a central tenet across the centre ground of politics.
But what are the challenges for this vision of individual freedom to choose, collective opportunity to run our own services and real power to demand quality and value?
Well, first of all there is bound to be a certain scepticism in the air about the extent to which the private sector can be entrusted with our public services. As investors in Southern Cross walk away from an increasingly unprofitable sector, the White Paper suggests that health care should not be an area where 'profit' is be made. So how does the private sector engage in delivery of public services without the opportunity to make a profit? Which bank will lend to a private company without the prospect of profit?
We can't have our cake and eat it.
In social care local authorities have looked to drive down costs, to cope with increasing demand and reducing budgets. Squeezing profits will put people out of business. If care is not affordable in the public sector why do we think it will be in the private sector? Because it is more efficient, or because pay levels and quality will be driven down?

Social enterprises, management and staff mutuals are held out as the middle way - a route to get public services out of political control and into the market, but with a human face. If these enterprises are to succeed, they have to be able to charge for quality, they have to have the resources to pay good staff. There are risks either way - they may not be able to compete with private providers who can drive costs down, or they cost as much as public services ever did.
I don't believe there is a holy grail or we would have found it.
Public services do not exist in neutral territory, they live in a political context. The White Paper talks about choice, but you have to deserve the service, you will have to need it , to qualify. It isn't the same choice as picking the make and model of your new car, nor should it be, but let's not overegg the amount of control we do have. For most people it isn't a choice to cross the country to have health treatment that is better and cheaper - the need to be supported by family and existing services is a massive drive to stay local. Choice is about always having a positive service, even if there is only one choice.
The poor are most in need of support from public services. The better off often find it easier to navigate the system and make better use of what's available in relative terms. This is why fair access is so important, and why we shouldn't have to rely on service users alone to hold services to account - this is the duty of our elected representatives  at local and national level.
It's a complex picture, and one in which people across public services - whether delivering services directly or commissioning them from others are in a state of change. At The Open Channel we are supporting colleagues at the eye of this storm of change, people who are changing themselves and adapting to working not only in new ways but in completely new contexts. Our approach is to build on the strengths in people and organisations and to use those strengths to respond to the future, using techniques like Appreciative Inquiry and  Action Learning
Our experience extends to every corner of public service delivery and includes experience in private, voluntary and community sector settings. We have deep and current networks in housing, health, social care, higher education, fire services, criminal justice, children's services to name just some of our areas of expertise. 
The White Paper is a while coming, and it will give us plenty to do for some time to come. If you want to talk to us about your challenges, just get in touch

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