However, to this fairly familiar list of principles, I would like to add one more: Equitable. It seems to me that for all the work already undertaken in this area, the importance of these principles and all the progress made on the ground, our thinking about shifting power between services and service users, organisations and beneficiaries still has some way to go. 

Every time I’ve ever heard Collaborate’s founder, Lord Victor Adebowale, talk about public services, he’s talked about the moral imperative of addressing the ‘inverse care law’: the principle that the availability of good medical or social care tends to vary inversely with the need of the population served (6). The principle of universal access to publicly funded services remains a critical foundation of our social settlement, but it is fairly obvious that universal access alone does not create equitable outcomes. I think there is a lot of lingering fuzzy thinking about fairness when it comes to public services – for example the fears of postcode lotteries puts the focus on access rather than outcomes, and the “computer says no” use of thresholds which assumes procedural justice is the best path to fairness. 

The principle of equity on the other hand points us in a different direction. It helps us see that people need very different things from public services, and therefore that public services need to offer very different things, reach out in different ways, provide different sorts of help, collaborate in different ways – that greater equity in terms of experience and outcomes comes from greater flexibility and diversity of approach. It’s also about making different choices, redirecting resources to those who face the biggest disadvantage.

In some ways this principle is already well baked into public services, and in others it feels like a radical challenge to some long-held beliefs. The shift towards relational, strengths-based, adaptive approaches requires a much sharper understanding of structural inequality and power dynamics between public services and citizens than is usual today, not to mention change to public sector workforce and training approaches and recruitment, and the building of much greater cultural literacy and competency among the workforce. It is also about values, and our societal care and focus on people for whom public services have to work – those at the sharp end of the inverse care law. 

Perhaps the real shift in thinking from New Public Management to future public services then is one from efficiency to equity. I think we need to focus more on why equity should be at the heart of how we think about public services, and what the implications of this would be in practice. This is an area that requires much more attention and exploration in public service reform work going forward. 

Further horizons of public service reform

I hope this has been useful as a summary of what we already know – and don’t know – about public service reform today, and which areas of this emergent DNA need more work. In the next pieces, I want to explore the aspects of this reform agenda that are less well developed and understood, and where we should be putting our attention through the Demos taskforce and other work. I intend to explore:

1. How we bring this emerging future into being

The work that is giving us hope and direction exists in pockets, often perilously. The real work needed urgently is to establish how this unevenly distributed future can be nurtured and supported everywhere so it becomes how public services work. 

Although a coherent national public services agenda will be helpful, this is not about central command and control, however tempting this might be to a new government. Instead it’s about finding ways to enable and facilitate local leaders to bring reforms out of marginal pockets of innovation and into the mainstream. It requires changes to the role of central government, more devolution, new forms of accountability and regulation, support for learning across places and services, and investment in local leadership and capacity building. 

Tempting as it is to describe the above as a ‘new model’ for public services, this is to miss a crucial part of how new approaches have been created on the ground, in response to local contexts, through experimentation and learning. Arguably what matters more is method, not mode: DNA that can be expressed in different ways in different contexts. So I suggest we think about the future of public services as guided by this core set of principles that should guide local leaders in thinking about what matters, resisting the temptation to describe it as a prescriptive model they can adopt.

So: a top down, centrally-driven and mandated reform agenda might not cut it!

2. From public services to services to the public

We need to significantly widen our thinking about public services to encompass services we rely on as a society, delivered across all sectors, public, private and the thousands of voluntary, faith and social organisations that are at the heart of our communities. 
Understandably, so much of this work focuses on publicly-funded and people-focused services that sit within(or are commissioned by) the public sector – local government,  NHS, and so on – but we should think much harder and more radically about public goods – all the things that people need and rely on and which contribute to human flourishing. Many of these are in the private sector today, and the public sector is – unaffordably and unsustainably – picking up the pieces of private companies’ failures to prioritise and provide public value. Greater shared purpose and collaboration across sectors for public (and environmental) benefit is where the new frontier of public service reform is today.

3. What sort of society do we want to be part of?

Finally, underpinning all of this is the fundamental thing that no one ever talks about in debates about public service reform: values. 

By values I mean the intangible but critical beliefs about society, human relations and connections that we should be putting at the heart of a future political project. Care, connection, love, belonging, respect. If these things are what we want to feel in our lives, and what keep us healthy and happy, then all the above needs to be about how these values are embedded. Ultimately, the future of public services is really about the future of our society, and we should be clear that building post-neoliberal society, economics, government and public services are all part of the same project. 

I offer these blogs as provocations at a time of opportunity for fresh thinking and new attention on public services. Collaborate plans to organise a series of discussions next year about each of these themes, hopefully building our understanding of each, and ensuring these insights are contributing to the Demos work too. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, and look forward to these discussions.

Please do let me know your thoughts at [email protected].

Thanks for reading!

With thanks to Elle Dodd, Dawn Plimmer and Jeff Masters for their comments and input to this piece.

(1) See for example: Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help, Collaborate CIC and Toby Lowe’s work on Human Learning Systems, the work of the 2020 Public Services Commission 

(2)  New Local’s work on the Community Paradigm is a good history of different approaches to public services, and Toby Lowe and Annabel Davidson Knight offer a good critique of the limits of New Public Management in A Whole New World — Funding and Commissioning in Complexity

(3) Public Service for the Real World, published by Collaborate, CPI & other partners: https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/assets/documents/hls-real-world.pdf?__hstc=45853115.7db57e85893e336892cf8b8e3eed6e7d.1701706812456.1701706812456.1701959951800.2&__hssc=45853115.1.1701959951800&__hsfp=1553784269

(4) These principles build on the work of too many to mention here, but I would like to highlight the pioneering work of Wigan Council, with whom Collaborate are currently working, Mark Smith in Gateshead, Chris Naylor (previous CEO of Barking and Dagenham Council), the many leaders of Greater Manchester’s public service reform work, and Henry Kippin, now CEO of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, as well as the policy work of Collaborate, New Local, Demos, IPPR, Hilary Cottam and others.

(5)  Manifesto for a Collaborative Society, Collaborate CIC, 2020

(6)  This principle was proposed by Julian Tudor Hart, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse_care_law#:~:text=The%20inverse%20care%20law%20is,the%20history%20of%20The%20Lancet.