People Power

Ed Miliband is due to give the Hugo Young Lecture next week. It comes at a time when the opposition is starting to show its hand on policy, but these sorts of occasions are often worth watching in any case. They present opportunities for politicians to paint their ideas on a broader canvas.

In 2009 David Cameron delivered the lecture and made his pitch on the big society (‘The recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.’) Nick Clegg took his turn the following year and sought to define the political battleground with Labour (‘For new progressives, the test is not the size of the state, it is the relationship between the state and the citizen.’) Both offered a real insight into the way the two men think.

Miliband is expected to focus on public service reform, a policy area he has been quiet on to date. Some of the early briefing suggests the speech will argue for the devolution of more funding and decision-making at a local level. The theory is that this will help avoid duplication of effort and resources. Longer-term budgets, meanwhile, would be designed to help agencies deal not just with the symptoms of problems but make early investments in preventative measures.

This is all worthwhile stuff – but the acid test of the speech will be whether proposed reforms simply rationalise services, or fundamentally change people’s relationship with them. To achieve the latter, the task is to put more power in the hands of service users themselves, not just shift power from one bureaucracy to another.

Miliband should extend some of the arguments he has been making about economic reform – in particular that the problem is not markets, but monopolies. Choice in public services is not everything, but it matters. When people are stuck with a service provider, the provider has little reason to listen to them. When the reverse is true, people have some power to make their voice heard.

If you think that is an established principle in public services, think again. The Work Programme is the best example of this problem. People are simply handed to a Work Programme ‘prime provider’, with contracts agreed centrally by the DWP. Service users are completely written out of the script.

The risk with simply devolving functions, such as welfare-to-work, to local authorities is that you swap one set of big, centralised contracts with another, slightly more local set of centralised contracts. The point should be to change the way the system actually works. Anyone referred to the Work Programme should be able to pick the provider that is right for them, so that services are far more accountable and responsive to their needs and aspirations.

Taking the idea of power seriously would also mean rethinking the way some services are structured to combine support and compliance in a way that puts service users on the back foot. Imagine walking into a GP’s surgery and knowing that the doctor could disqualify you from accessing to the NHS. It would change things fundamentally.

This is the relationship with welfare to work services, probation and social services. All combine compliance with support. Where possible, the functions should be split so that, for example, the job centre processes your claims and you then pick where to go for help with training/help with job search and so on. This would allow for a far more equal balance of power between providers of service users – people would know, unequivocally, that providers were accountable to them.

Finally, the way services are funded, not just the level of funding, is an important part of the puzzle. For example, if universities were obliged to provide even a small percentage of student loans to students – rather than students borrowing 100 per cent of their loan from the Treasury – this might have a considerable effect on the quality of careers advice in universities, or the extent to which courses were designed to help students find work after graduating. The same principle might be applied to FE with some careful thinking, again with the aim of making services more accountable directly to their users.

As Nick Pearce pointed out this week, public service reform has been a divisive subject in the Labour Party. The debate easily lapses into non-sequiturs like ‘people don’t want X, they just want a good service’. Miliband should base his programme on a clear principle: you only ever get a good service when the service is accountable to you.