This week the Commission on 2020 Public Services publishes its first year assessment of the coalition government’s record on public service reform. What really stands out has been the failure to engage citizens in establishing a new public service settlement. When we published our final research report a year ago, the challenges facing public services looked daunting – fiscal squeeze, an ageing society and disappointing social outcomes. But the situation has worsened. The economic outlook is now very grave. Yet none of the main political parties used the conference season to reflect seriously on what this will mean for public services and the social contract they embody.
There have been welcome initiatives. The government has been sure-footed in its desire to simplify welfare, and has rightly promoted open data and the more imaginative use of information and communications technology to improve accountability and enable the development of new forms of services. But a big opportunity was lost after the general election to establish a national conversation about how our public services can respond to rising demands and tightening finances, and at the same time achieve better social outcomes.
It’s instructive to see how, faced with similar pressures, the Scottish government has tried to create a new consensus. The Christie Commission, established in November 2010, engaged with stakeholders and citizens across Scotland to develop a shared vision of a new framework for public services. Its diagnosis was brutal and clear – Scottish public services cannot afford, socially or fiscally, to carry on as they are. The report called for a new framework based on four principles: community empowerment; service integration and collaboration; prevention, rather than “failure demand”; and greater efficiency. The test will, of course, be in how much Scottish politicians and public service leaders have the resolve to drive these changes through.
In England, we are lacking an overarching framework and the broader public consensus on which this would need to be based. What is missing is any coherent account of what the relationship between citizens, communities, social institutions and the state ought to be in low-growth, austerity Britain.
We persist in organising our vital public services as though the only things that matter are professional autonomy, economic incentives and consumer accountability. Lasting social value is co-created between users and deliverers, so the real challenge for the future should be how we can socialise our public services. In health, the focus on structural reorganisation has overshadowed the need to engage the public better in managing and improving their own wellbeing. This analysis is not an argument for a minimal state, rather it is about how an emphasis on social productivity can improve the relationships between services and people, and not only extend citizen capability but also tap into a wider pool of social resource.
Can politicians begin an open and honest dialogue with citizens about the need for a new social settlement?
• Ben Lucas, is principal partner, RSA 2020 Public Services at the Royal Society of Arts and a 2020 public services commissioner.