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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Local Identity – the photographic evidence?

By Henry Kippin

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Last night I was speaking at the mining institute in Newcastle at a roundtable discussing themes from LOCAL – a book my Dad and I published recently.  The book is a mix of photography (based on an artist-in-residence period at Cumbria County Council), and text (an essay on local politics & identity), and the roundtable reflected a mix of interests in the photographic process, the politics of creating a piece of work like this, and its relevance to the current national and local political context.

Lots of discussion centred on the potential impact of spending cuts on the North East – impacts that no-one can really prejudge, but that most people felt would be socially damaging.  Those asking “where is the growth strategy to get places like Sunderland out of the other side?” are asking the right question.  This is where concepts like the big society and the 2020 Commission’s idea of social productivity must have practical impact.  And it is precisely because the public sector is such a shaper of economic trajectory (the University in Sunderland, for example) that social productivity – which suggests a more active role for the state – is more likely to help people think through what happens next.

Back around the table, one participant commented on the ‘pace’ of the photographic content of the book – “feels almost rhythmic, like its own council logic of movement but inertia, meetings, decisions, problems, meetings, solutions, meetings…et cetera.”  What he was getting at was that the pictures carry a sense of the banal, a sense that nothing changes in the machine of (local) government.  Our book was created in 2009, before the current politics took shape.  But I wonder if this is true now. Bradford council was reported to have sent every employee a letter warning that ‘their jobs are at risk of reduncancy’.  This is hardly everyday – and we should be worried if it is the start of a new politics that considers jobs and people as collateral damage as budgets are quickly balanced.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 4:36 pm
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Public Service Reform – Geordie Style

By Henry Kippin

Ive just read an intriguing new book from Compass that arrived in our office last week – called Public Service Reform…but not as we know it! (not my exclamation mark…). The publication is a timely reminder of the public sector’s capacity to drive internal reform and cost savings – based on a case study of Newcastle Council’s ICT infrastructure over the last nine years. Apologies for the long blog, but I’m a Geordie…

The study shows how, under the pressure of open competition, council employees recognised existing problems, reorganised and successfully prepared their own bid for maintaining and developing Newcastle’s ICT infrastructure.

According to author Hillary Wainwright, their success shows the folly of assuming that ‘in-house services could never be transformed to match the savings offered by the private sector’. To the contrary, she argues that ‘contrary to New Labour’s criticism of and lack of confidence in local government – public sector managers and staff can drive and lead change, generating innovative ideas and successfully implementing them’.

This is no doubt an argument worth listening to – especially at a time when government must open their ears to all possible strategies for squeezing better value from public spending. And the approach taken by the author: personal portraits, lyrical style – makes it an easy read.

A few positive elements I took away:

1. The case study shows that truly engaging public sector workers in the processes of reform that impact upon them can be productive. Public sector professionals are frequently cast as part of the problem – but they can also facilitate and be part of effective solutions.

2. Choice and competition are not exclusive to (nor do they inevitably require) private sector solutions. If our starting points are providing a better service for citizens and the delivery of ‘best value’, we should be open to whatever solutions are optimal – private or public.

3. Strengthening local accountability is a key driver of effective reform. A recent discussion between Phil Collins and John Cruddas debates this.

4. In a broad sense – a well-managed public sector player in the market can push up quality, through raising the bar for private participants. This can facilitate a well-functioning market; and also exposes public sector providers to valuable information on the wants and needs of service users.

However,

5. The role of agency is key. The bid was pushed along by a strong union (UNISON) presence with a reform-minded leadership, in tandem with engaged and articulate management at the Newcastle Civic Centre. Where this is lacking, the experience will be harder to replicate.

6. The bid emerged from a vigorous anti-privatisation campaign, as well industrial action by IT staff. This provided a strong sense of motivation and – crucially – mobilisation. The question is – would such mobilisation be evident without such a political drive?

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