There has been a welcome shift in the debate on public services. We have seen all main political parties commit to a significant devolution of power and money to England’s cities, with Greater Manchester taking the lead. This is in part a response to the new deal for Scotland and a desire to strength the regional economies outside London. It also reflects a recognition that we simply cannot go through another spending review like the last, salami slicing departmental budgets. There is now an acceptance that local areas will be able to make scarce resources go further if budgets are devolved down and pooled together, reducing overlap and duplication. Devolving powers to local towns and cities should also enable more holistic and preventative approaches to the complex problems public services face.
However, while decentralisation is a necessary condition for public service improvement, it is not a sufficient one. The bureaucratic silos of Whitehall cannot simply be replaced by the bureaucratic silos of town halls in Manchester, Newcastle or Leeds. With their new budgets, local authorities – or combinations of local authorities at a city regional scale – need to think and act differently.
The first step is to break out of the mentality of ‘service delivery’. While in some transactional areas like paying for parking permits or rubbish collection the public simply want a service delivered to them, in more complex areas we need a different approach. Take ‘welfare to work’ services like the Work Programme, for example. We know that this programme has an abysmal record at getting people off sickness benefits and into work. This is because in cases of complex need, where a person may suffer from, for example, depression, a lack of self confidence, low skill levels and substance dependency, what that person needs is not an employment programme, but supportive relationships to enable them to overcome the multiple problems they face. Some of that can be brokered by services, but much of it will come from the community as well.
In these complex cases the first question we should ask is not ‘how can we get you into work?’, but ‘what can we do to help you lead the kind of life you want to lead?’. Starting from there, we can then design services and foster relationships to support people on that journey.
To facilitate that we need to free up the frontline. If we have reduced central government dictat but local providers continue to manage services in a hierarchical manner, then frontline workers will be unable to broker the kind of creative solutions required. Management mindsets and cultures need to change, and, crucially managers need to surrender power to the frontline. There is a major trust question here of course, and frontline workers need to be accountable. But the way to do that is not to drown them in targets and compliance – it would be far better to ask the people they are working with whether they have made a difference. We should also give the people who use services greater power, as with Tenant Management Organisations where social housing tenants become the boss.
But services are not only constructed around Whitehall departmental silos, they are also constructed around areas of professional expertise and practice. Professions have structured systems of learning, research and licensing. They have long histories and strong identities, with deeply embedded understandings of what ‘the work’ is. As society has changed the kind of work that is required has changed too, but arguably professional practice and roles have not caught up. So, we have an epidemic of mental illness, but the predominant response is still a medical one, despite everything we know about the social as well as biological determinants of mental illness.
As the ‘Twenty First Century Public Servant’ work has shown we will need new professional roles and disciplines to meet changing and more complex needs. There are already signs of change, with the development of ‘local area coordinators’ in social care, ex offender mentors in probation and family case workers through the Troubled Families Programme for example. This should be the start of a new wave of frontline professional roles with an emphasis on cross cutting skills such as empathy, communication, negotiation and creativity. We need fewer bureaucrats, with a paternalistic mindset and who bring the whole weight of their organisation into their interactions with people, and more community organisers whose role is to think creatively about how to help people help themselves.
It is not just changing demand that will require a changing shape to the public service workforce. There is also technological change, with software, digital devices and even artificial intelligence meaning that many public service roles could be automated. While there are debates as to how far this new wave of automation could go, it does open up the possibility of ‘de-layering’ and reduced head counts in more routine and transactional areas, enabling resource to be invested in those areas, such as the caring services, which are inevitably more labour intensive.
Decentralization does not mean the ‘wild west’, with no planning or infrastructure. Systems for collaboration are vital. This is to ensure that professionals can learn from each other, through peer to peer processes, but also through systems of innovation, evaluation and triage whereby evidence in one area is collected, assessed and then passed around the system. This requires national government to play a role in ensuring that there are ‘collaborative spines’ so that good ideas and practices can spread.
Finally, we cannot think about public services in isolation. The spread of ‘systems thinking’ in public services, that seeks to take a holistic view and emphasises service redesign over policy implementation, begs the question of what the system is. Where are its boundaries, what is in and out? In a more decentralised system there is an opportunity to design systems around people and places, rather than centralised delivery silos. Nonetheless public service systems are just one part of a wider ecology. US sociologist Andrew Abbott’s work on ‘linked ecologies’ is helpful here: public services are ecological systems in themselves, but they are linked to others – most importantly community life and politics. One of the weaknesses of some work on systems thinking is that it tends to assume an absence of politics, for example, believing that services can only really do what we want if the politicians get out of the way and leave professionals to work things out creatively with citizens.
The interface between service design and policy is one fraught with difficulty – and it is clear that many of the things politicians are incentivised to do (the daily one off initiatives, the frequent top down structural reforms) get in the way of creating healthy public service systems. But to pretend that the interface either doesn’t or shouldn’t exist is wrong-headed. We live in a democracy, where 40 per cent of GDP is spent collectively: it is right that we debate and decide how in general terms that money is to be spent. This means we need to think not about how to get rid of politics and politicians, but how we can develop new forms of political leadership that lend themselves to a world of decentralised decision-making, autonomous organisations and varied practice. How to achieve that is one of the most pressing tasks, both for the future of public services, but also for the legitimacy of democratic politics.
Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR