The waves of change washing through the public sector have at their heart assumptions about community priorities and self-empowerment, with councils leading their areas with less money but greater flexibility to act, watched over by better-enabled community organisations and an ‘army of armchair auditors’. The Audit Commission is to go, Comprehensive Area Assessment has already gone, further parts of the regulatory framework are about to disappear. The statutory boundaries of activity are changing to encompass general powers of competence, put in place mechanisms which will allow communities and individuals to hold public services to account, and provide apparent transparency of information and data that was hitherto hidden. These are highly significant shifts in the national authorising environment.
What do I mean by the term ‘authorising environment’ and why is it a useful concept? The term as I am using it here was coined by Mark Moore in his influential 1995 book ‘Creating Public Value’. For Moore, Public Value is determined by concepts held at the institutional and individual level which are informed by assumptions about what constitutes value in the wider public arena. In a democracy, authorisation of what is to be considered as publicly valuable is determined by the political process. Political management, what Moore calls ‘management of the authorising environment’ is therefore key to securing Public Value. The ‘authorising environment’ consists of a range of functions which I have summarised as follows:
Routine accountability: Reporting through channels of accountability the activities of the enterprise or service, examples being standard audit, accounting, scrutiny and public reporting routes.
Authorisation of change and innovation: Brokering understanding and ownership of the need to change the ‘mix’ of Public Values produced by the organisation arising from differing concepts of Public Value. An example of this would be the change authorised by the public through the 2010 UK General Election.
Achieving inter-agency cooperation: Liaising on common ground for action or achieving indirect pressure for change through influence and identification of forces and pressures on partner organisations and their political frameworks. A good example right now would be what was ‘Total Place’ and is rapidly becoming ‘Community Based Budgeting’.
Mobilising stakeholders, citizens and customers: Making real their authority to act through a process of broader authorisation using what Moore called ‘decentralised co-production’. This is ‘Big Society’ expressed in 1995 policy terms.
Moore considers that management of the authorising environment and its functions is achieved by brokering a balance between political superiors and their desire for control, the requirements of external agencies, the media in its role in shaping the public context, the concerns and possible rigidity of interest groups and finally the courts and statutory frameworks in determining the extent to which an authority’s powers are ‘rationed’.
This brokering activity takes place against a background of changes in opinion and swings in public policy as balances of power change, together with the possible distorting impact (which may of course be positive) of interest groups. Public ideas and conventional wisdom must therefore either be contended with or utilised as part of the policy process. Policy development and determination takes place within this framework, occurring through formal decision making processes.
Management of the ‘authorising environment’ through awareness of the wider political context is therefore an inevitable requirement within and between public bodies if Public Value is to be secured. At its most basic, accountability must be maintained, at best public endorsement of activities and heightened trust and reputation should be secured. I therefore welcome the sector-driven performance management arrangements being developed by the Local Government Association and other public agencies to ensure transparency through comparability, contextualisation and challenge.
The current changes in the authorising environment can be seen as a swing from formal frameworks of audit and accountability by professionals acting ‘in the public interest’ towards informal engagement and transparency, which depend on an interested public. This is all very well, and possibly good, but who will be the armchair auditors? Is it just a useful alliteration? Isn’t the concept of a lone vigilante poring over figures and policies outside of a community context actually counter to the ‘Big Society’ intentions? Would it not be more healthy to have an accountability club? Who should be in it, and over time might it not look rather like a Council?
Whilst I am a little sceptical of some aspects of the journey thus far travelled, I am all for greater public understanding and ownership of the services and leadership exercised in communities. It is a good discussion and debate to be having and critical as the public sector contracts if communities are to prioritise the things they want to keep and potentially run. The question is how can this be developed in a way which sensibly uses the data that will be made available? How too do we reconcile the public and their priorities to available resources and the need for their willing contribution of time as well as money. How do we draw into the frame those areas of public interest that remain intractably unaccountable, such as the utilities and arguably health? Of course we have national regulators such as OFWAT, but so what? They are too distant from the communities in whose interests they act.
A new authorising environment is emerging. Will it be sufficient as both enabler and regulator of the future framework of public and community service and leadership? Last week’s report by the 2020 Public Services Trust is a positive step towards addressing these concerns. The three recommendations for shifts in culture, power and finance are positive and well thought through. With particular reference to this post, the ideas of place based social welfare accounts, strategic commissioning of a wider range of activities through democratically accountable bodies and annual public service financial reports to each citizen are good ones which should be followed through as a means to achieving a robust authorising environment for the future which better secures public value.