Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

October 13, 2010

Public services of the future – a give-get relationship

If nothing else, the crisis in our public finances allied to all the talk of Big Society has stoked up the debate around the future shape of public services.  Policy think tanks fight each other for air time as they float their latest big ideas and almost without exception these all point to a fundamentally new and different role for local people. The latest is a report calling for a new culture of ‘social productivity’ – one where we, as citizens, have to give as much as we get

The argument about the shape of public services in the future has been further fuelled with the release of a report from a leading  think tank that says people must provide their own services in future.

In a report that will be music to the ears of the coalition government, with its idea of a Big Society replacing many services now provided by the state, the 2020 Public Service Trust is calling for a “complete reconfiguring of public services around the needs and capabilities of citizens, based on the principle of social productivity”.

It argues that existing public services are increasingly unsustainable. The body has been running a series of investigations into the relationship between the state and the citizen, through its commission on 2020 public services and now wants to see “greater social responsibility and more intelligent collaboration between citizens and public services”.

The report says fundamental reform of public services is needed to address the impacting of an ageing society and rising inequality, which, it says, could add the equivalent of an extra 4%-6% of GDP onto public spending in the next 20 years.

It proposes three major shifts in public services policy:

• Local people should set up mutuals and cooperatives to run public services, including parks, leisure centres and libraries. The report says school curriculums should be “community-determined”.
• There should be a radical shift in power from central government to the most local level. “Where possible, citizens should commission services themselves using individual budgets and choice advisors. Neighbourhoods should control their own integrated services.”
• Public finances should be more open, transparent and understandable to citizens, with an “online statement of contributions and benefits … available to everyone”.

But the report does not provide unqualified support for the government’s Big Society ideas. It says public service reform will be unsustainable without up-front investment and will also require strategic, locality level commissioning and local accountability. Otherwise, it acknowledges, reforms in health, education and elsewhere could “unwittingly entrench existing service silos and undermine efforts to integrate and streamline public services”.

The report says there are a number of factors that will help change public services, with technology the foremost driver.

People’s ability to get far more information, far more quickly, about services, together with the ability to deliver more services online, is changing rapidly the relationship between the state and its citizens, argues the report. It also notes a “new understanding about place” and the paradox that increased global mobility has made more important the places where people choose to live and work.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, where the trust is based, said public services will in future be judged by whether they help people be more resourceful.

While the report chimes with the government’s ideas on increasing co-production of public services, many politicians remain sceptical that there will be enough volunteers to run local services.

A copy of the full report can be obtained from click here