Personalisation could be this government’s equivalent of privatisation – a big idea that unleashes a wave of demand and transforms the public sector, according to a new Demos pamphlet called Personalisation through Participation.
Charles Leadbeater, an adviser to government on public service innovation, argues that offering personalised education and health services will increase people’s expectations and create a new, demand-led pressure for reform. The Prime Minister has already promised personalised public services in a series of recent speeches.
Leadbeater thinks that if government is serious about personalisation, public sector bodies should regard this promise as a profound challenge to the way they currently operate. Until now, the government’s promise of choice in public service has tended to focus on offering people a choice of school or hospital, but it has less to say about choice of services on offer, or the way they are provided.
The Demos report, which has a foreword by schools standards minister David Miliband, shows how personalisation goes way beyond the current debate about consumer choice in public services. With truly personalised services, users would not simply have a choice between service providers but would be involved in the design and delivery of the services themselves.
“Once you start promising personalised services people will get an appetite for it and the genie will be out of the bottle,” says Leadbeater. “Rather than containing this demand within existing services, the aim should be to shake up these models of public sector organisation and find new adaptive solutions.
“The question is how far the government actually wants to go with personalisation. Is it an attempt to woo middle class consumers to keep them loyal to public services by giving them more choice? Or is it an idea that could eventually leading to more radical solutions which combine better public services with more capacity for self-organising solutions in society?”
The Demos report argues that personalisation should be seen as an ‘organising logic’ for transforming the public sector. Leadbeater makes it clear that the personalisation would mean linking funding to the individual choices of users.
“Personalisation has the potential to reorganise the way we deliver public services,” says Leadbeater. “But to unlock that potential the idea needs to be taken much further than current government thinking seems to allow. At the moment personalisation seems to mean providing better access and some limited say for users over how existing services are provided in largely traditional ways.
The personalisation approach would have a big impact on public sector bodies and frontline staff. Proving personalised services, particularly for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, would be very labour-intensive. Frontline staff would have to act as advisers to help users choose their own personalised services.
Schools and hospitals would become access points for a range of services, but they would not necessarily deliver all of them directly. In the case of schools, pupils would have access to a much wider range of opportunities offered by other schools or other education providers.
“The more that services become personalised, the more that public resources will have to be skewed towards the least well off to equalise opportunities,” says Leadbeater. “Informed consumers are already well prepared to take advantage of choice. The least well-educated, informed and ambitious will need additional help to exploit the opportunities personalisation makes available to them.”
Notes to editors
- Personalisation through Participation is published by Demos on Thursday 15 April 2004. Copies can be downloaded free or ordered in book form from Central Books on 020 8989 5488.
- The report forms part of a continuing Demos project on personalisation in education with the Department for Education and Skills. DfES and Demos are jointly hosting a major conference on personalisation in education on 17-18 May in London.
- Charles Leadbeater is a writer and consultant, who has acted as an advisor to government departments and the prime minister’s strategy unit. He is currently working on a book on mass innovation.
- Demos is an independent think tank. This publication is part of a research programme on public sector reform called The Adaptive State.