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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

England’s Promised Land?

By Charlotte Alldritt

One of the most important points raised at this morning’s launch of 2020 Vision was the need to motivate citizens to engage with public services.  If we are to draw upon the broader, social resource that individuals and communities can bring to the table we need to paint a positive vision for public service transformation. As Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell (2020 Commissioner and Chair of the Parliamentary Health Committee) said, the prophets did not lead people out to the ‘wilderness’ but into the Promised Land.

 

2020 PST welcomes the public debate taking place on the need for public spending cuts.    However to inspire change in citizen attitudes and behaviours about the part they can play in achieving the outcomes we want from public services, we need to set out what our Promised Land looks like.  The public debate will eventually need to move from one of ‘fearful’ realisation of the ‘harsh realities’ of ‘tough choices’.  It will need to call upon language that speaks to a positive future, brought about by seizing the opportunities for change that the current ‘period of discontinuity’ (in fiscal, economic and political terms) presents.   Then we can encourage people to help create the service outcomes that we – as a society – want for ourselves and each other.

 

Timing is crucial though.  Last September only 24% of the public agreed that public services should be cut to address the level of national debt (Ipsos MORI/2020PST, 2009).  Seven months later, 54% agree (Ipsos MORI/Economist, 2010).  It is not uncontroversial to say that shift of political parties in framing the size of the problem and the available policy solutions has been critical in steering public attitudes.  The media also plays a part. 

 

And here, on the brink of an opportunity for reform into the Promised Land, we meet an age-old barrier; to paraphrase Alan Shearer after England’s 1-1 draw against the USA on Saturday – the British media is either in a state of abject despair or bursting elation.  Neither is particularly helpful when England puts in an ‘ok, but can do better’ performance. Similarly, the complexities of the UK’s fiscal challenges mean that a nuanced and genuinely ‘honest’ public debate is likely to be reduced to black and white headlines and soundbites.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 1:58 pm
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A recipe for transformation

By Lauren Cumming

1 cup new opportunities created by evolving technology, 1 cup long-term demand crisis driven by ageing population, ½ cup sense of urgency created by current fiscal crisis… This morning 2020 PST launched 2020 Vision: A far-sighted approach to transforming public services. The report draws on the work of the Commission to date which has developed a positive, long-term vision for the future of public services and analysed the shifts in culture, power and finance that need to take place to achieve that vision. 2020 Vision goes a step further by examining the implications of the Commission’s vision for setting the priorities for public action, redesigning services to create more public value and ensuring accountability. The report then discusses the barriers impeding transformation and steps that can be taken to increase the chances of success.

Working on this project has been very challenging. In many ways, it is not difficult to point to the shortcomings in our public services, or say things like, “Can’t they just ________ (provide good services everywhere, put that online, train people better)?” Even understanding the factors within the system that block change is relatively straightforward. But to find the right levers to unlock resistance to change – well, if it were easy someone would have done it before me. This report does not pretend to have all the answers – transforming public services is too complicated for one report to cover all the ground. I think the biggest contribution of 2020 Vision is to propose a framework for thinking about how to make change, by asking:

  • What is our vision for the future? Where are we trying to go?
  • What conditions need to be in place for that to happen?
  • What are the barriers to those conditions?
  • What are the actions that we could take, in the short, medium and long term, in society and at various levels of government, to remove those barriers and create the conditions needed for change?

As this morning’s discussion made clear, the time for transformation is now. A new coalition government and the fiscal crisis are creating the necessary momentum for major change. As respondent Stephen Dorrell argued, this is not just about deciding how much the public are willing to pay, this is about creating public services that meet the needs of citizens today. These are questions we should be asking ourselves even if we had all the money in the world to spend on public services. Now is the moment to take some risks, be innovative and transform public services so they can meet the challenges ahead.

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Four obstacles in the face of the final frontier

By Charlotte Alldritt

The sheer breadth and complexity of information and technology policy became all too clear at 2020PST’s roundtable yesterday morning.  Leading officials and activists met to discuss the next stage of open government and online self-services.  This brought us into the territory of – amongst other things – the Coalition’s ‘new politics’ of transparency and accountability; cost efficiencies and cuts; social and digital inequalities and the prospect for more personalised, responsive, citizen-focussed public services. 

 Many, many important points were raised, but four in particular stood out for me:

  •  Culture in government, Whitehall and public services - lack of awareness/understanding of the power of online ‘self services’ to deliver high quality for less is the primary barrier.  There is often a presumption that many public services can only be provided face-to-face and alternatives are ‘too cheap’ to deliver quality outcomes and too risky to implement.  Similar arguments apply with regards to open data.  Determined leadership is vital, but the business case for online service delivery and open government needs to be made.  Only then can we expect to see ingrained cultural attitudes and practices begin to change.
  • Provider capture and vested interests – often there are strong incentives acting against the diversion of citizens to lower cost channels.  While models of funding which ‘follow the user’ can help to support choice and competition in public service delivery (in theory generating cost savings and increased quality), they encourage default face-to-face interaction when alternative channels might be more appropriate and cost efficient.
  • Scale – the issue of scale often brings to mind the age-old debates of local vs central procurement of IT systems, software and shared services (for example) and delivery/administration (e.g. housing benefit).  But it also demands we consider the level at which we are trying to engage users and achieve certain outcomes.  For instance, are we trying to enable communities – whether for a locality or other common cause – to work together more effectively via social networking?  Or transform national public service institutions and systems?  Do we need to employ different tactics and strategy to achieve both of these aims? 
  • Public voice – how can the public voice demanding online access to information and services be rallied to push government and providers?  How do we ensure (and reassure the public) that it is as easy and secure to log on to public services as it is to access internet banking? 

Much is already happening in response to many of these four points.  The progress of data.gov.uk and the Coalition’s commitment to publishing  data online is a good start.  But the withdrawal of funding Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web science institute is a major blow.  More than ever – at a time of cuts and cost savings – technology should not be thought about as an expensive ‘bolt-on’ in the hope of making bad services slightly better.  Not least because in practice this (by lack of coherent integration and design) often makes matters worse.  Instead, it’s about using existing and emerging (typically low-cost) communication technologies to enable citizens to work with public services in a way which enables better outcomes at lower cost. 

But I’m at risk of sounding too tech-evangelical.  What is needed is to build the evidence base and let the argument speak largely (and loudly) for itself.

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