‘Going public’ works in delivering our public services
Open the first page of Labour’s 1997 election manifesto and you will read the sentence ‘What counts is what works’. This statement served as a lodestar for Tony Blair’s public service reform agenda and set the direction for the 13 years of statecraft that followed.
Since 2010 there has been a reckoning with this view. Increasing top-down control and the greater use of quasi-markets have run out of steam. It is clear that the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of public service matters as much as what is delivered. But those calling for an alternative to the New Labour playbook have been better at saying what they are against than what they want in its place.
A new Fabian Society report argues that this positive case should rest on the ‘public character’ of services – the purpose, ethos and set of values that set services funded and organised by government apart from the market.
While this does not necessarily mean public ownership, many government-provided services currently fall short of the public character test, this approach provides a useful framework for identifying the model of service provision that best fits the criteria of accountability, collectivism, democracy and equality that form the essential components of ‘public character’. It means that all service providers need to act in the spirit of stakeholder participation and democratic accountability as a core part of their practice. Using this as our starting point means that we have a clear rationale for why public services should be provided by publicly-owned institutions and, where appropriate, other organisations that display forms of communal ownership, as opposed to private sector contractors whose governance arrangements and profit motive make it more difficult to live up to the ‘public character’. The challenge is to ensure that this public character or public interest test is used to inform political choices on the future of public services and subsequent commissioning and procurement practice.
Over the next 15 years all public services should aim to ‘go public’ on three fronts: first, services need to embody the qualities of strong institutions; secondly, trust and empowerment need to filter all the way down from central government to service users; and third, services need to develop an ongoing focus on performance and value.
To maximise public character services need the qualities of strong institutions which have the endurance and autonomy to encourage ongoing reflection on their fundamental purpose, continuous innovation and collaboration. This identity will develop over many years, but the next government should kick-start the process by supporting each service to develop a constitution (perhaps along the lines of the NHS constitution) embodying its public purpose, values and key promises to citizens.
The second tenet for services ‘going public’ is maximising trust and empowerment. This means thinking about how the internal and external relationships of public service institutions can succeed in pushing power downwards to the tier below and outwards to citizens and stakeholders.
Trust and empowerment matters because New Labour and the Coalition have failed to strike the correct balance of stakeholder power in service delivery. Neither mandating what services can do from the centre nor ‘letting go’ entirely of system stewardship will lead to high performing public services. Similarly, the principle of ‘people power’ should feature much more prominently in the future because the free play of user voice and professional autonomy is the engine of innovation in self-improving institutions.
As a start, the next government should support proposals for public sector employees to found professional institutions, such as the proposed Royal College of Teaching in education. It should give thought to audit, regulation and service improvement arrangements can be redesigned to focuses on the perspectives, experiences and contributions of citizens and employees.
Finally, a future cycle of reform needs to demand the best possible performance in services for the lowest reasonable level of resources. A continuous focus on performance and value is not the same as accepting the coalition’s plans for service spending Nor does it imply a race to the bottom in terms of service entitlements or employee terms and conditions. High performance will differ between services, according to their particular history and purpose. At the level of delivery it should include employees working with service users to create incremental innovation; while at the level of sub-national tiers the radical redesign of local service systems should drive performance.
The next government should establish an Office for Public Performance tasked with driving value for money improvements and collecting evidence on performance in partnership with sector-specific inspectorates, improvement agencies and independent ‘what works’ centres. The body should combine features of the old Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and Audit Commission.
After New Labour and the Coalition it is time for a re-appraisal of the way we deliver public services. If what matters is what works, what works today is ‘public’.