How can a new government support public service reform?

As set out in my first blog, the public service reform 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. The prospect of a new government is on the horizon. So what can it do to help?

One of the oddest features of the current work on Public Service Reform is how one-sided it is. Think tanks and similar organisations are all focused on the brilliant emergent work being led by places – Wigan, Gateshead, Barking and Dagenham, Camden and many others – asking what these efforts have in common so we can use it to inform work everywhere. Drawing on Collaborate’s work with all these places, I captured an overview of the core principles of this PSR work in my first blog.

However, while this local focus is important, it also needs to be balanced with attention on the changes needed at national level, for two reasons. Firstly, because, as also set out previously – these principles should not be seen as a model, but more as a method – a way of delivering public services that can be interpreted and manifested differently in different places and contexts. Although a coherent national public services agenda will be helpful, this is not about lifting and shifting the same solution everywhere, however tempting this might be. There’s a risk a new government seeks to extract them and enforce them in ways that undermines their very value. 

Which leads me to the second problem with most public service reform work currently: it’s so one way, focused disproportionately on learning from the frontrunners. Why is no one turning the telescope around and asking these places what they need from central government to make PSR easier, to go further, to be more ambitious?

So, ever the opportunist, I asked Wigan Council’s Senior Management Team of one of these places this question, and with thanks to them, and drawing on their feedback combined with some thoughts of our own, here’s a starter for 10.

Devolution 2.0

Deal by painstaking deal, progress has been made on devolution, and this should be celebrated in our highly centralised political economy. As Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said at Collaborate’s recent event exploring devolution lessons from Greater Manchester, “Mayors and Combined Authorities really add value in the ability to join the dots around people to make services work better, make things make sense on the ground. When you’re in a combined authority it’s about names not numbers”. There is now a cadre of impressive and high profile elected mayors across the country, and evidence – as in GM – that local partners can be trusted to deliver, and to innovate in response to local priorities. In many ways, the hard yards have been travelled – so let’s make the most of the opportunity now. 

There is still so much further to go to really loosen the strings of central control to both combined authorities and local authorities, giving greater flexibility over finance, policy making, economic development and public services and investment. And yet the direction of travel remains incremental. In a financially constrained environment in which so many social indicators are heading the wrong direction, a new government should build on the progress made to date with a clear and ambitious vision for devolution that enables local responsibility for tackling local priorities by those closest to the issues and offers the opportunity for economic growth.

Increasing stability and facilitating long term thinking with multi-year finance settlements for local government

More money isn’t on this list – even though it would make a huge difference – sadly the economic constraints are well baked into people’s thinking and expectations. However, there are ways central government could make managing money in local government easier, providing more stability and longer-term funding that would facilitate longer term thinking, investment and reform through the ability to manage budgets through multi-year settlements and cutting back on short term, output-driven grants. 

More radical collaboration between health and local government

The NHS reforms require local government and the NHS locally to work collaboratively and this direction of travel towards more local collaboration and population health management should continue. However, there are more radical opportunities to really tackle health priorities together than currently underway, and many structural and financial barriers that hinder deep partnership working and alignment. For one, NHS partners are still incentivised to look up more than out, required to respond to constant central direction. And at a practical financial level partners are not on a level playing field: while local government is legally required to balance its budget, the NHS is essentially bailed out when it doesn’t – and local government helps pick up the pieces. What difference could it make if both the NHS partners and local authorities were operating under the same financial incentives, freed up and incentivised to take action to manage budgets and address local population health priorities together?

Investment in prevention

The prevention paradox is a familiar conundrum, but if prevention is a core principle of good public services, then central government needs to make it easier for local government and other parts of the public sector to invest in prevention. Building on the above, this could include greater freedom to share or pool investment funds across organisations/sectors and greater flexibility over the use of local budgets.

Freedom to commission and procure in ways that create local impact

If public services are part of how public services support people to thrive, then investing public money in ways that can achieve wider benefits locally makes good sense. Relaxing commissioning and procurement requirements for both local government and the NHS to enable them to justify their spending decisions within the framework of the law but in ways that make sense to them, their community and their place, would generate much needed – flexibility, helping local partners drive additional local value from as much spending as possible and supporting community wealth building. Government could also change the messaging on procurement, incentivising and supporting approaches that achieve these aims (See this blog on what is possible now within the legal framework).

Reform of regulation

What are regulators really for? This is something worth thinking through more carefully and I’m not going to get into it deeply here, but let’s consider the impact of our current regulation regimes. The reported experience of senior leaders in public services (including the ones I spoke to recently) is that they drive behaviours towards numbers and measurable outputs (often of the wrong things). They create a climate of fear that can stifle innovation and change. They push towards standardisation rather than local innovation and optimise for control over learning. A new government should consider how regulation could help and not hinder public service reform efforts, orientating organisations towards learning and outcomes, between places as well as within them, and supporting innovation and reform.

Showing some love for public services

To these policy ideas I would add a more fundamental and cultural one, which is about working in these ways, and the core DNA of public services I outlined previously: relational, strengths-based and holistic, preventative, joined-up, adaptive and equitable. These principles apply to the relationship between central government and local public services too. They are about trusting people, building on what’s already strong, finding ways to collaborate and join up, getting ahead of demand, adapting in response to learning and focusing on equity – not all people and places need the same thing. I think a new government needs to show some love for public services and public servants again. Express their importance and value, the reasons why investment in public services is a positive investment in society, and why they and the people who work in them matter – seeking out and building on the strengths that exist in the public sector. This is both a question of practical action and moral and political leadership; what leaders say as well as what they do. I think it’s also about being clear about the values that should guide us, and a vision for a good society – more on that in a future blog in this series.

Sharing power: sound familiar?

So just as the DNA of future public services is, at its heart, about public services sharing power with people, so the route to bringing about this future involves central government rebalancing power with local public services.

If the public services we want will not be nurtured by top down, centrally-driven and prescribed reforms, then a new government needs to find ways to enable and facilitate local leaders to bring reforms out of marginal pockets of innovation and into the mainstream. This requires changes to the role of central government, more devolution and new flexibilities and freedoms, new forms of accountability and regulation, support for learning across places and services, and investment in local leadership and capacity building. 

It’s at least in part about central government not doing things. It’s about trusting and freeing people to get on with the job, supporting public services rather than micro-managing them with targets, indicators, ring-fences and inspectors, and devolving power and funding to where it’s most needed – closest to the problem – and the solution. 

However, this should not be confused with not doing anything. In fact, this requires huge boldness on the part of a new government. It requires changes to Whitehall culture, engagement with the media, the behaviour of politicians and some big decisions about how we run government and the state. But with so little room for manoeuvre financially, what is the alternative? It’s not easy, but it is simple. We start with people, and work back from there. And it’s the right thing to do to build public services fit for the challenges of the 21st century.