On Thursday October 20 the government collapsed – again. With Westminster’s focus on the exceptionally short term that day, it was a strange time to launch the Public Services 2030 Network and to discuss the need for long term reform of our public services.
Yet in an era of crisis – from war in Europe to environmental breakdown – this is the new reality of policy making. “This is not normal” is the new normal. Reformers must get on with the job.
That’s not to suggest things will be easy – far from it. But if those committed to a new era of public service reform band together, change might be possible. The Public Services 2030 Network will provide the home for that change, spanning public, private and charitable reformers.
Thanks to everyone that attended our launch event, and in particular to our superb panellists: Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council; Chris Naylor, Director at Inner Circle Consulting and former Chief Executive of Barking & Dagenham Council; and Josh MacAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and founder of Frontline.
The older order is dying
The Public Services 2030 Network is underpinned by the belief that our current model of delivering public services is broken and needs reform. Yes, underfunding has played a role in the crises we see across public services. But pumping more money into the current systems often won’t help.
This is because current public service models are fundamentally outdated. Some were designed, as Chris Naylor described, by our grandparents’ grandparents. Many of Beveridge’s assumptions no longer hold, from a growing economy to long-outdated views about the role of women and care provision. The top-down statism of the 1940s no longer works.
But nor does the market-focused approach which replaced it. New Public Management – the ideas underpinning the most recent wave of public service reform in the 90s and 00s – sought to apply the principles of neoliberalism to public services. And just as neoliberalism came crashing down in the financial crisis, this approach has come unstuck over the last decade.
A new world is out there… just not in Westminster (yet)
The need for a new social settlement has never been stronger and there are reasons to be cheerful. Pioneering councils from Wigan to Camden have been undertaking bold, radical experiments with public services in recent years.
This new approach is about public services building people’s resilience, rather than primarily responding to needs. That’s how you get upstream and unlock prevention. It’s about working in a relational way because people’s social connections are crucial to their resilience. And it’s about putting service design in the hands of the public, not policy makers.
Hearing Georgia speak, I was reminded of the vast gulf between central and local government on so much of this. Given Demos’ position as a Westminster think tank, we want to act as a bridge between those two worlds. But what else needs to happen to usher in a new era of public service reform?
1.A clear political story
There was strong agreement at the event that a new agenda for public service reform needs buy-in from national politicians. The good news is that there is cross-party interest here. With severe fiscal headwinds and low public appetite for more spending cuts, reform is one way for the new government to balance the books. Keir Starmer too spoke recently of the need for reform of our public services, picking up a theme of clearly increasing importance to him.
Yet so far neither of Westminster’s main political parties have really grasped this agenda. What is needed – and what is probably lacking today – is a clear, compelling national story for the need for reform and a new, cross-cutting vision for that reform. This is something Demos will be working on hard in coming months. The network is the home of that conversation.
2. A new bureaucratic mindset
Second, alongside equipping our politicians with political arguments, we need to equip officials in Whitehall with a new way of thinking. As Josh MacAlister put it, we need permanent secretaries and senior officials across Whitehall singing from the same hymn sheet.
I wonder if there are useful lessons here from the clearly effective work by Marianna Mazzucato and her Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. The extent to which Whitehall policy making is really ‘mission-oriented’ can be debated, but the speedy movement from a Demos pamphlet in 2011 to the bureaucratic mainstream has been impressive to observe.
3. Pragmatism as well as paradigm shift
We need a new paradigm for public services: that much is clear. But getting there may require pragmatic work within the boundaries of the current paradigm. Josh MacAlister, who in leading his review of children’s social care is extremely well placed to advise on the practicalities of reform, described the need to work with the tools of New Public Management to end New Public Management. For example, collating evidence that new, relational approaches work and deliver success in terms of, say, cashable savings.
This is a really thought-provoking contribution from someone well placed to advise on the practicalities of reform. I do have some worries about this though. First, success criteria under the current paradigm are often so tight, part of me is not fully convinced believers in a new paradigm will ever be able to marshal sufficient evidence to win them over. But more fundamentally, does continuing to play the NPM game in some quarters harm efforts to overcome it in other quarters? I don’t have the answers to this, but it certainly leaves quite a lot to think about.”
The Public Services 2030 Network will be hosting monthly, hybrid events to take the conversation forward. Please sign up to the network’s mailing list.
We are also seeking sponsors for the network. Please email me ([email protected]) if you’re interested in discussing this further.