A new settlement for public services, by Clare Tickell

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By Dame Clare Tickell

When the Commission on 2020 Public Services first met, before the credit crunch, one of our challenges was to wake people up to the looming crisis in public services.  Well, nobody is asleep any more.

When the Commission on 2020 Public Services first met, before the credit crunch, one of our challenges was to wake people up to the looming crisis in public services.  Well, nobody is asleep any more.

Post spending review, all of us involved in public services are wide awake to the scale of challenges we face.  The urgency of now is so fierce that one of the greatest risks is that we retreat into short-term damage control, backing away from early intervention, for example, rather than facing up to, or pressing on with truly radical redesign, and the changes in power and control that it involves.  We need to realise that we are facing not only a short-term contraction, but in parallel we are part of a new settlement, the terms of which we must help to set.

There has been a great deal of political debate about whether the coalition’s cuts are fair.  We need to keep asking this as we move from Whitehall’s distributional decisions, to considering how local government and its civic society partners make decisions within the new financial reality.  Both the centre and the local are responsible for fairness.  The best way to ensure that the needs of our most vulnerable citizens are taken into account is to bring them meaningfully into the process of designing and operating the services they themselves use.

There are already service hubs emerging where support services are delivered through flexible partnerships with citizens, shaped around their capacities as well as their needs.  The best Sure Start children’s centres are genuine examples of this, around which communities organise a whole range of services to meet a variety of needs, integrated around the requirements of children and the lives of family members.

Now is the time to shake our top-down habits.  Traditionally, it is the political centre that has decided what problems need to be solved, what resources will be assigned to them, and how to set them right.  The coalition has begun a significant shift of decision-making power away from Whitehall and towards town halls.

Though many think it needs to go further, it’s still the case that unprecedented new spaces for reform have been opened up.  These are where we can support bottom-up solutions – citizens identifying their own priorities and bringing many of their own resources to bear in addressing them.  The priorities and solutions will differ from place to place, community to community, so we will need to become more relaxed and positive about local variation.

The role of central government will not be to erase this variation, but to establish the overarching framework of rights and entitlements within which different sustainable solutions can be developed.

Dame Clare Tickell is chief executive of Action for Children and one of the commissioners of the Commission on 2020 Public Services

» Read it here: Public Finance

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