Conversations over the past week have made me think even more about the future of local public service and leadership. These thoughts have become all the more acute as the health debate progresses, together with other questions raised in my previous posts.
Much of this thinking has revolved about the question of the public service ethos. Maybe it’s because I’m of a certain age and have had it dinned into me over a (smallish) number of decades, but I’m concerned that we’re in danger of forgetting some hard won lessons. I am extremely clear that the vast majority of my sector’s workers, far from being workshy spongers off unwitting communities, are acutely aware that they are there to add value as public servants who are responsive to local democratic leadership. This simple point seems to be lost in the debates around the comparative value of public and private sector contributions.
Developing this point further, I welcome the idea of pluralist provision which is responsive and where strategic decisions (and any associated taxation) occur at the right levels. The purpose of democracy is to ensure that the hard decisions are made on a balanced basis and that the common good is sought. So, to develop my earlier points on mutuals, just what would happen if, instead of a disparate framework of provision, a whole locality were to propose some form of social enterprise.
Taxpayers would also be the shareholders and the purpose of the organisation would be to provide and commission the services which the residents agreed on from a range of providers across the sectors. There could be considerable benefits to such an approach and the board chair and members would be able to lend a clear focus and participate nationally in the future of the place.
The benefits to local residents of such a model could be considerable, because with the right formulae they could be rewarded through community dividends for more recycling, less litter, helping with older people’s care, participating in youth activities and helping to prevent anti-social behaviour. As well as being part of local democracy, they could benefit directly, and financially from their service to local communities and perhaps value more highly the work done currently by public servants.
Of course, what I’m suggesting is very like a council. The proposal above foresees a way of balancing competing interests fairly, which is precisely why democracy exists. However at another level it’s also similar to much of the big society argument, but without the potential footholds that might be being grasped at by a range of single issue interest groups. What it is definitely not is an argument for the status quo, for to face the future we do indeed need to find a way of engaging people in deliberative democracy in order to underpin the electoral democracy which is the basis for our rights, freedoms and responsibilities.