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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

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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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The disconnect between voters and politicians on public services…

By Ben Lucas

Today we are releasing headline findings from detailed focus group research which we commissioned Ipsos-MORI to carry out into attitudes to public service reform.  These are based on 13 discussion groups with a range of ethnicities and socio economic groups weighted towards regular service users in 5 English Towns and Cities: Ashford, Kent; Stockport; Oxford; Birmingham; and London.  The full report will be published in early May.

Public service reform is the flip side of the deficit and rising demand pressures.  On all these issues there is a reality gap, which politicians of all parties haven’t dared to address.  Those hoping that the election campaign would close this gap by introducing specific and realistic plans for cutting the deficit and for paying for and running public services have so far been disappointed.  So it’s unsurprising that our research reveals widespread scepticism about generalised and vague ideas for public service reform.

This matters because future demand pressures, particularly associated with the costs of an ageing society, could add 6% to the proportion of GDP which would have to be spent on public services and that’s before taking into account the £40bn black hole in public finances which will have to be filled over the next 4 years.  Public services will have to change in response to these pressures.  But politicians have denied the public the debate they deserve on this.

Because of the banking collapse and the expenses scandal, voters and politicians are caught in a cycle of fear and loathing.  But it needn’t be this way. It’s not that voters won’t support reform. Rather, reform requires clear leadership which engages the public in a proper discussion about the pros and cons of change.  Our research suggests the route it could take.  It explores the types of ideas which are most likely to be attractive and the conditions that the public want to see satisified. 

For changes to be popular with voters they need the following attributes:

  • Security and fairness – the main finding from our research is how deeply attached voters are to the values of security and fairness which they see as underpinning public services.  Politicians would undermine these at their peril. Any reform to public services will have to maintain their essential characteristics – providing a safety net and support, with processes and outcomes which are seen to be fair.
  • Local control – people are receptive to changes which would increase local control over public services.  This links with voters’ desire to be able to see and experience first hand changes in services so that they can properly evaluate these. The ideas discussed here here included:  greater local control over spending, neighbourhood budgets, local public service co-ops, and more local elected accountability.  However, voters want the reassurance of knowing that there are limits to localism, within a national framework of standards so that, as we have seen in Doncaster, central government can step in if necessary to protect citizen’s national rights.
  • Citizen control and voice – Individual budgets are a popular idea, especially where they give individuals more control over the money which is spent on them, eg for caring or for children with special education needs.  But there are fairness concerns, with people worrying that the confident middle classes might benefit, while those from lower social economic groups or marginalised groups might struggle to make this work for them
  • Citizen advisers to help navigate through the system – Another idea which was very warmly received was citizen advisers to help people get the best out of public services and to overcome the fairness problems which people worried about with choice and individual budgets.  Sometimes also called choice advisers, these advisers would be a single point within the system where citizens could get they help they need to get the best out of public services.  Advice would range from service rights to which citizens are entitled through to how to make the most effective choices with individual budgets.

For voters to be persuaded to back change the following approaches need to be taken:

  • Keep it practical and specific – Voters might initially be attracted to big ideas but they soon start to question their practicality.  What they are interested in is not so much vague principles but more practical, concrete examples of how change might work.  They want to see the evidence of how a particular idea has worked and what the pros and cons have been. 
  • Gradual, small scale and incremental – People want change which is organic, which goes with the grain and grows out of existing structures rather than root and branch change. That means identifying the changes which are already working and looking at what can be learnt from these.  And it means building from the bottom up with small scale changes which can be spread rather than grandiose new initiatives.
  • Start with newer, non-core services – People are more likely to support new ways of doing things for either new services or what they see as, non-core services.   So mutuals, volunteering and co-payment will work best if they start with services such as parks and leisure services.  Whilst the focus groups did not explore how public services might respond to some of the new behavioural challenges such as carbon reduction, and obesity, it would be reasonable to conclude that these may also be areas which are ripe for more innovation.

The public’s strong dislike of user charging is striking.  It appears that they see it through the same lens as tax rises and cuts; their question is ‘Why should we have to suffer any of this pain, when it was the bankers and politicians which created the problem?’

Interestingly, the idea of social insurance and partnership funding between the individual and the state for services such as long term care has very little resonance. When pushed participants saw some positives and were also interested in suggesting other elements which could be taken into account, such as social credits which reflected non-financial contribution. But what this shows is that the need to fund some long term challenges in new ways is not yet on the radar for most people – indicating yet again how politicians have failed to engage the public in a debate about the future of public services.

For the 2020 Public Services Commission, the significance of these findings lies in what they show about the need to develop concrete examples of change, to build on where successful innovation is already taking place and the need to have a model of transformation which is based on consent.  These findings will feed into the next stage of our work in which we will be moving from the general to the particular, by seeing how the principles we set out in our interim report could be applied to welfare reform, education, health and public safety.

You can read a summary of the findings here

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Friday, April 23, 2010

A vision for 2020 information and technology: Part 2 – Criminal Justice

By Charlotte Alldritt

The year is 2020.  Over the past decade, simple online technologies have transformed the way we access data and information, hold public services to account and engage with government.  Transparency is the watchword of the day.  The ultimate prize? Renewed political legitimacy and public services finally fit for purpose.  In the second installment in this series, I look at how technology and information can inform the public about the real risks of crime they face  in their local area, and allow active dialogue between citizens and their criminal justice service. 

David Johnson is an elderly resident in a large town in the South West.  David has lived here for many years, but he has recently found it more difficult to get out and about to nearby shops and community facilities for fear of being victim to anti-social behaviour.  Unfortunately, low-level crime is increasing in David’s part of town and he is spending more and more time confined to his home. 

Crime Mapping has been around for over a decade, but now data from a range of sources can be mashed up 

David’s family have persuaded him to relocate closer to them.  One of the first steps in the search for a new home is to look up comparative crime rates in the local area. By accessing the local authority webpage, the Johnson family is linked to a local crime mapping site.  This site integrates data on reported crime, appeals to witnesses (building on the pioneering work of Viscero), criminal sentences and A&E data (which captures injuries caused through (typically violent) crime – as shown in BBC’s ‘The Truth About Crime’ in 2009).  It also hosts a forum for residents on anti-social behaviour (ASB).  The web forum allows citizens to talk to each other and to their Neighbourhood Policing Team about how safe they feel in their local area, ideas for how to tackle low-level crime and what measures they feel are working to tackle ASB.  This local crime mapping website is linked to the national CrimeMapper service, and features similar easy-to-read graphs showing detailed crime rates over time at street level.  This kind of information is reassuring to David and his family, who are able to search for properties within a safe area close to the shops and community activity centres.

Active dialogue between residents and their Neighbourhood Policing team without breaching citizen anonymity

The Neighbourhood Policing Team is active in cross-checking local residents’ concerns with reported anti-social behaviour.  They are keen to build a complete picture of where local residents feel most at risk of crime, why and how they might improve the situation.  This commitment encourages citizens to report ASB online using the Report It system (accessible via the same, single local authority website).  This system can be accessed and updated by the Neighbourhood Policing team and local police force so that patterns of repeat ASB can be identified and steps taken to protect victims.

In developing these systems for better information and active dialogue between citizens and police service, concerns about anonymity were taken very seriously.  The online residents’ forum on ASB is allows users to choose whether or not to share their identity.  All data is protected as stipulated by the Data Protection Act.  In order to avoid false or inadequate reports, there is an online video guide on the website that describes what constitutes anti-social behaviour, what kind of evidence must be gathered and presented, and what information on witness protection available.

Citizens can hold their local police service to account better through a simple online comparative performance tool

Finally, the local authority portal links to a single, national police service comparison website.  This has a dashboard for relative performance of all police forces across the country and, by enabling users to post their feedback and engage in discussion with HMIC, it builds on the beta version, MyPolice launched in March 2010.  Technology and information are helping to inform citizens, strengthens their relationship with the criminal justice system and gives them a greater sense of ownership within their local communities.  Once again, technology and information serve to enhance transparency, accountability and the quality of our public services.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Three colours orange – but what about the issues?

By Ben Lucas

In the parallel universe of British politics everyone has now become a Cleggon – basking in the orange afterglow of the Leader’s debate.  Change has become the central question – the choice being about who can manage this best and who personifies it the most.

But the election has not yet resolved itself into a clear argument about alternative strategies for managing the big issues – the economy, the deficit and the future of our public services. Read the manifestos in detail, as I suspect few have done, and what emerges are large areas of agreement between the three main parties, especially about public services and how they need to change.  But each party puts a different gloss on this. 

For Labour the central issue is about the scale of future risk – economic, social, demographic and political.  The message is that only Labour has the experience and fair values to guide Britain through these difficult times.  From here it is only a short step to Gordon Brown’s dividing lines on what public service budgets Labour would protect.

The Conservatives focus not so much on future risk but the state we are in.  Their argument is that our public finances, economy and society are broken and that a fundamentally new approach to government is needed.  They set out their stall for the Big Society, in which families, communities, and the state will need to work together to build a stronger society – exemplified in their plans for national community service for 16 year olds.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves both as the change agents and the people who tell it as it is.  For them the elephant in the room is the deficit and they seek to make a virtue out of plain speaking on this – saying that efficiency savings will never be sufficient to tackle the deficit.  They identify the need for hard choices about which spending to cut and offer, as examples of this, Trident and the Child Trust Fund.

Of course each party has much more detailed proposals on public service reform.  Labour has proposed strengthening citizens rights to public services to create a bottom up entitlement driver for improvement, with new patient and citizen guarantees. The issue of long term care and Labour’s proposal to create a new National Care Service echo Brown’s message about future risk.  And Labour seeks to be our mutual friend with proposals for public service co-ops in housing, sure start and even primary care trusts.

The Conservatives have prioritised welfare reform, based on tougher conditionality and extending payment by results for welfare service providers.  They have also promoted their model for parent led schools and for public service employee mutuals.  And they have courted some controversy by sticking to their guns in advocating elected police commissioners. On health their policy has been ‘softly, softly’, as they continue with their strategy of seeking to neutralise what has been a traditional Labour positive.   

The Liberal Democrats make fairness and decentralisation their overarching themes for public services.  They promote an explicitly redistributive funding formula which targets funding at the poorest people, so that the money follows the poorest patients and pupils – education and health premiums.  They advocate strengthened local say through elected local health boards and police authorities and neighbourhood justice panels.  And, in addition to their well publicised plans to simplify the tax system, they also propose greater transparency and control over by giving people greater flexibility in accessing part of their pension before retirement.  What the Liberal Democrats do not do is set out a framework for public service reform.

But so far none of the three main parties has really managed to lodge with the public a clear sense of what their vision adds up to for public services.   The Big Society is in some ways the most audacious idea, but it has not yet resonated as it might because, apart from volunteering, it it’s not yet clear where the beef is.  Meanwhile Labour’s focus on future risk has had some effect, but at the same time seems clunky. And the Lib Dems have scored on the deficit yet their prescription is less comprehensive.

Each party appears to have more of a stance than a strategy.  Take localism.  All are agreed that significant decentralisation is needed. The policies are plentiful from elected mayors, to localised planning and housing. What is lacking is a coherent theory.  A genuine shift in power from the centre to localities would have to involve big change in Whitehall and Westminster – a re-imagined, smaller and more strategic centre whose role would be to enable and empower innovation and delivery at local level.  That could be a recipe for achieving big savings as Total Place identified. The simple test for real devolution is to follow the money – if control over funding and revenue stays at the centre then so will power..

So the challenge for the main parties as we enter the second half of the election campaign will be to crystallise their respective positions into harder propositions, which offer voters some real choices for the future.  This isn’t just necessary for winning it is critical for governing. Whoever wins the next election, and whatever formation emerges after May 6th., their job in tackling economic stagnation, rising demand pressures and growing debt levels will be made that much harder if they haven’t established a mandate for the tough decisions which will be necessary.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guest blog by Sir Andrew Foster Chair of the Commission on 2020 Public Services

By Ashish Prashar

“This evening the Commission on 2020 Public Services – of which I am Chair – launches its Interim Report: ‘Beyond Beveridge: principles for 2020 public services’.  The report is the culmination of a long period of discussion, deliberation and, ultimately, agreement.  We are a diverse commission, representing many political, professional and personal backgrounds.  That we have come together with a common voice is surely significant.

This interim agreement at a moment of crisis for public services is what makes the recommendations of our Commission worth considering.  All 20 Commissioners agree that narrow critiques inevitably find their way to narrow solutions.  So our critique is broad; and our vision for the future is positive and coherent.  Short-term solutions to the debt crisis dominate the press.  So our report looks to the longer term – arguing that short-term decision making must be underpinned by deliberate and strategic principle.

Ultimately, the Commission is about finding a way to develop public services that do better by the people who most rely on them.  We believe in public services as things we all benefit from.  But outcomes are failing some citizens.  The structural basis of our system – designed by William Beveridge in his 1942 report – is no longer adequate for the new world we live in.

Today’s report sets out the Commission’s interim findings.  We lay out a positive vision for public services, and some building blocks to get us there.  Our own next steps involve grounding these principles in the real lives of citizens and those who work in public services.  We will present our final recommendations in summer this year.”

Together with its interim report, the 2020 Public Services Trust is publishing an essay by Professor Howard Glennerster entitled Financing the United Kingdom’s Welfare States and a report prepared by Ipsos MORI called What do people want, need and expect from public services. Professor Glennerster’s essay reveals the extent of the hole in our public finances and advocates partnership approaches between the state and citizens to fund public services. The report by Ipsos MORI uses the most up to date quantitative and qualitative research to explore the public’s priorities and anxieties and suggests how the relationship between citizens and their services might change in the future. These papers have enriched the Commission’s understanding of the context in which it operates – from the perspective of citizens, and with the country’s delicate fiscal situation in mind.

Two major new reports follow these publications.  Online or In-Line: The Future of Information Technology in the Public Services is a report exploring both the opportunities technology can create for public service reform as well as the associated risks, coming out this Friday. On March 23rd, check our website for Delivering a Localist Future: a route-map for change which assesses the practical barriers to achieving the frequently debated, often promised and never delivered localism, and suggests ways to overcome those challenges.

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