Looking back over some previous posts, on the authorising environment, public value and social capital, and thinking about the focus for discussions on the public sector, I have realised that there is a gap. For there are really three aspects to public management. Firstly, those services which are offered to benefit particular individuals, increasingly through personalisation and co-production. Then there are services offered which directly benefit particular groups, which are increasingly been seen as needing a ‘Big Society’ or community development approach, and once again with an element of co-production by the group. However there is not a great deal happening to develop ideas about the common good.
This could be a problem, because there are difficult decisions that need to be brokered for the greater benefit of society. How do we begin to address this, in line with the emerging new frameworks, and what would co-production look like with regard to it, if indeed it is possible?
There has been some consideration of community planning, where local people get together to propose arrangements for the affordable housing they need or some other local development. However there has been little emphasis as yet on how ‘Big Society’ ideas could best be applied to the difficult decisions required in regulatory services, national planning for sustainability or other key decisions. This requires some thought about the wider social responsibility of communities might be, how it might be developed and who might lead it. For housing, a range of incentives has been proposed, but what happens if incentives are seen as inducements and/or a change, for example for a high speed rail link, is rejected at any price? The core purpose of democratic government as a whole, and of course of taxation, is to enable essential decision making such as this to take place in an environment which draws on the inputs of communities and their elected representatives. Is there a danger that this important function, which can sometimes be highly unpopular, is cast into the shadows by more attractive and apparently easier answers to the differing issues of personalisation and Big Society?
Personalisation of services is great and can save money, there are obvious benefits to good community engagement and co-production where people see benefits for ‘people like us’ but why should they decide to do something for people elsewhere who are not like them? A healthy society is like a three legged stool where individual, community and the national good are held in healthy tension and it is time that some further thinking was given to that balance.