Over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about the Open Public Services White Paper and reading the various pieces of analysis from the local government press, Local Government Association and other commentators. The response has been pretty comprehensive about the specific proposals relating to what the white paper refers to as individual, neighbourhood, and community services. However there are some underlying questions and issues of principle which seem to have been missed.
The government’s proposals are based on modernising public service by increasing choice, decentralising to the lowest appropriate level, opening delivery up to a range of providers, ensuring fair access to services and making them more accountable to users and to taxpayers. These are all part of what the best in the public sector are already doing and a good basis for its future shape. There are helpful comments throughout the white paper relating to the strong member and staff public sector ethos.
However there are some implications for provision that are not addressed. For example, whilst there is discussion on minimum standards there needs to be a clear statement that it is accepted that the implication of choice is variability. Decentralisation and diversity will lead to variation in the precise nature of service delivery and between the priorities of different communities and areas. There are also underlying implications from competition: there will be winners and losers and some providers will not survive in the new framework. It would have been helpful if this had been made more explicit, together with some discussion as to how graceful rescue, transition or termination could be achieved in order to protect the public and its purse. This will enable the risk of any business failure to be mitigated and ensure that it does not become wider system failure.
The government’s wish to see fair access to services is absolutely right. Yet beyond discussion of open data, and targeting resources it is unclear about how the public would have better access information and analysis. There is a need to ensure that people and communities can exercise informed choice, and understand why and how to participate in deliberative and electoral democracy. There has long been a need for development nationally in this regard and if the aspiration is to have a more engaged society and smaller government then this needs to be addressed as a prerequisite.
There are clear roles for elected politicians in this framework, with the potential development of better arrangements at the neighbourhood level for representation. This is an important underpinning of the role of elected democracy in local matters. However this is one of two voices that emerge from the paper, the other speaks more critically: “…we do not hide from the fact that we are driven by an ideal of people power – a belief that people know better than politicians”, and “Gone is the assumption that a small collection of politicians and bureaucrats have a monopoly of knowledge…”. I actually agree with both arguments, but there is little in the white paper that is going to help point us all to a more resolved position, one which the best politicians and staff are already exemplifying, where they are truly engaged in and listening to the community and helping people make informed choices. The question that needs to be answered is how do we invest in representatives and people working in the sector to make this the norm and to build ever improving skills in them?
Turning to the question of the types of service under consideration the white paper considers three service categories: individual, neighbourhood and commissioned services. Each has a chapter devoted to it, has already been the subject of comment and will have much attention focused on it in the coming weeks. What interests me is in comparing these with the list I set out in a previous post, namely:
I think that more could have been done to make clear that the white paper is part of this wider context. Service commissioning and direct provision are clearly articulated, but there is patchy and sometimes conflicting consideration of the remainder. There are statements on planning and infrastructure within the paper, but these are contradictory and there is little about balancing the various infrastructure needs across neighbourhoods, wider communities and larger geographic areas. Much of the paper seems based on managing immediate present day service delivery, rather than thinking through the shared vision for the various scales of place. There are some hooks to hang consultation responses on relating to the opportunity for local authorities to be the people’s champion, empowered to shape the local area and to be financially independent, and perhaps it is arguable that it’s up to local government to come up with the model, however I would have liked to see a firmer statement of this and a willingness to firm up the constitutional change that is beginning in the Localism Bill with the general power of competence.
Seen in context alongside the Localism Bill, health and police changes, the Open Public Services White Paper sets out proposals that will result in a much more complex government landscape, one more akin to the complexities seen in the US with a range of overlapping, diverse functions performed by city, state, and ‘Special Districts’. This environment could have wide geographic variation and ensuring that the increasingly mobile public can engage with such complexity will be an important communication role for local government. Is there a way for Open Public Services also to become easy to access public services?
Here I would like to point to perhaps the most worrying gap of all: the lack of a real indication in the paper of the need for a good research and development base for public service as it seeks to accommodate necessary change, and the likely scale of the task. This is a significant capacity gap, made all the more complex by the fact that of necessity R&D will need to encompass and marshal the efforts not only of people and organisations from all three sectors, but also people in their communities. This concern needs much further thought and I hope will be covered by respondents to the consultation.
It may appear that I am taking a negative view to the proposals in this paper, but that assumption would be wrong. I think that the direction that is being taken is positive, but clearly much more thinking needs to be done. It may need several iterations and much more discussion within the sector and in public debate to ensure that the emerging framework is fit for purpose and delivers public service excellence.