It’s been a busy week in UK politics: Prime Minister David Cameron defended top-up fees to the tune of 50,000 students rioting in central London; Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith revealed new sanctions for claimants of unemployment benefit and, ahead of the G20 meeting in South Korea, Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned of the threat to our economy if chronic global imbalances persist. Amidst all of this, the 2020 PST and RSA brought together scores of public, private and voluntary sector leaders at our Public Services Summit on Tuesday.
Sir Andrew Foster, Chair of the 2020 Commission, highlighted the timeliness of our focus: at this time of fiscal austerity, threats to our public services from cuts are at the top of the political agenda. The ‘phoney war’ on budgets is set to launch a real offensive. More than this (and despite genuine efforts from frontline professionals, managers and politicians) the ‘long tails’ of underperformance have left us falling short of what we want, expect and need from our public services. Public services need to be redesigned so that they are fit for lives we lead and the society we want to create in the 21st Century.
In his keynote speech to the 2020PST/RSA Summit, Rt Hon Francis Maude MP set out the Government’s three-pronged approach to transforming public service delivery:
- Channel shift – moving more public services online (e.g. building on the success of the online DVLA vehicle tax renewal, initially to transactional services such as Student Loans and some welfare benefits);
- Mutuals – enabling service professionals and users to take a real stake in their public service organisations, unlocking the energy and innovation of ‘entrepreneurial frontline’ staff (e.g. Central Surrey Health); and,
- Payment by results – paying providers (of any and every type) for the outcomes they achieve, not pre-funding them so they have limited incentives to aspire to more efficient and effective social outcomes (e.g. Single Work Programme and rehabilitation of offenders).
The 2020 Public Services Trust has examined each of these throughout the course of our research programme. Our Final Report, ‘From social security to social productivity’ calls for implementation of all three in some form.
But as always, the questions on my mind come back to accountability. Francis Maude referred to the other big announcement of this busy political week – that of our ‘revolution’ in transparency and the relationship between citizen and the state. But here the overwhelming consensus at the Summit, in Westminster, and beyond (for the need for change) starts to break down. Lord Andrew Adonis said that recent announcements did not represent a redrawing of the lines between citizen and the state; “For as long as the State pays for services, Government will be held to account. If the Government doesn’t set indicators/targets, the media will.” Matthew Taylor quoted some of the more obscure passages from one of the departmental business plans (published on Monday), designed to enable citizens to monitor and scrutinise Government more closely.
Number 10’s Transparency website is a welcomed start to what will be one of the most interesting and important questions for our democratic society: how do we – the public – engage with our Government and public services? It is a question that speaks to the availability of quality data; the provision and interpretation of information; mechanisms for citizen/user feedback and redress; public trust in politicians, and, the legitimacy and efficacy of our political system. These challenges of governance and society have been with us since time immemorial; as was the aim of 2020 PST and our Commission, they give a single busy week a longer term perspective.