What impact will austerity have on the emergence of new public service roles?

Last week the IPPR report Many to Many: How the Relational State will Transform Public Services was published arguing that future public services will rely on deep relationships at the frontline.  I am sympathetic to many of the arguments developed in this report and would agree that many of the current aspirations for public services will be difficult to achieve without public servants operating beyond their current silos and truly engaging with a range of different communities.  However, as Catherine Needham noted in her blog, this report is a little quiet in terms of some of the detail about what will be required to make this happen and it does not address issues of chronic underfunding in public services. 

The UK is in the midst of severe financial restraint as we all no doubt acutely aware and in Australia we are also starting to hear discussions about impending austerity measures.  Although Australia has fared better than the UK in the global economic crisis, the slowdown of China’s economy has significant implications as does the end of car manufacturing and the associated shift of employment into other industries.  National government has already made a number of cuts to government services and the report of the National Commission of Audit and a proposed overhaul of welfare services look set to bring more changes to Australian public services. 

This has led us to thinking about the impact that austerity might have on the emergence of new roles.  In both the UK and Australia it has been argued by national government and others that we need a fundamental transformation of the welfare system which will inevitably require public servants to fulfil different sorts of roles – but how easy is this in a period of fiscal restraint?

In the UK we have already seen many places experience massive restructuring of public services and such a process inevitably leads to individuals feeling protectionist over their particular component.  Many parts of the literature are rather negative about public servants portraying them as life-long bureaucrats who are self-interested and self-protectionist.  But the reality is that cuts to budgets often leads to less money for training and development and may serve to deskill professionals.  Public servants may be resistant to taking on more generic and relational roles as they fear that the future is a race-to-the-bottom flexible labour market. Some of the wariness about personalisation in UK social care, for example, has come from a suspicion that it is an attempt to ‘deprofessionalise’ social work.

Esther Boserup famously said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and it may be that a context of austerity focuses public services and leads to a range of new roles flourishing.  However, it is difficult to see this in a context where action is the imperative and there is little space for critical and reflective thinking.  If national governments in the UK and Australia really want public servants to play different roles and develop new forms of skills, then they will need to think carefully about how they support this.  Else it is likely we will get more of the same with the salami slicing of budgets and individuals feeling protective over their particular patch. 

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