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August 24, 2016

Singing from the same hymn sheet

The top job in the civil service must offer up certain insights into the workings of government that are denied to the rest of us. We now have two former Permanent Secretaries -Sir John Elvidge and Sir Peter Housden – independently coming to the same conclusion and publishing their thoughts on how far the State has to shift if public services are ever going to be fit for purpose. Both reports are worth a read but it makes you wonder why they didn’t push for these changes when they could.  

Sir Peter Housden

Sir Peter Housden’s paper Rethinking Public Services is published by the Centre for Public Impact.

As the Labour leadership contenders debate the role of private providers in the NHS, and the new education secretary reflects on the forced march to academy status, people working in public services will again be wondering which planet they are on.

At a time when resources are so constrained and demand is rising, why does the state rely on crude forms of performance management, take a gladiatorial stance toward anyone dealing in evidence, and preside over systems exhausted by policy churn and structural change?

The reality is of course more complex. Practitioners on the ground have often used their autonomy to work with service users and communities to understand their needs and pool their resources. But the perceived reality remains of two tribes at war.

I came out of a career in government and public services certain that we could do better. Adrian Brown at the Centre for Public Impact was similarly puzzled at how stuck governments had become in their devotion to systems of improvement whose time had passed.

But what would the world look like if our approach to public services improvement began at the grassroots?

Think of a child learning to read, a care worker engaging with a house-bound couple, or a physician discussing treatment with a patient. This is co-production. The abiding purpose is to enable people to be in control of their own lives. Practitioner and citizen bring their knowledge, creativity and resilience to bear on the issue at hand.

In their hearts, ministers and officials knows this is where the solutions lie. They engage with this form of practice and are inspired by it. But there is cognitive dissonance at work as their intelligence is ground under the wheels of government and recycled into a narrative of a never-ending struggle against inertia in the self-serving public sector.

If we look outward from the co-creation of value, a new set of imperatives emerges. Government focuses its efforts on nurturing the fundamental relationship between the citizen and practitioner. The attrition of energy and morale in the workforce becomes a prime issue, rather than collateral damage accepted in the pursuit of structural change.

But the nature of the practical, empowering and collaborative leadership required at ground level is absolutely at odds with the iconoclasts that governments have preferred to honour. Performance management and accountability is constructed in partnership on a platform of common endeavour. New forms of political narrative and practice are adopted to replace the sword-in-hand model adopted by successive ministers (some of whom then complain about the scars on their back).

None of this requires a sacrifice of rigour or rowing back on commitments to social mobility or mealy-mouthed consensus. It is a hard-edged partnership for improvement, building on what really works. The knowledge and commitment is out there. The challenge for government is to grasp it.

Sir Peter Housden’s paper Rethinking Public Services is published by the Centre for Public Impact.

Sir John Elvidge’s paper The Enabling State is published by Carnegie UK